Welcome to Songwriting School, where we talk to local songwriters about how they wrote one specific song.
Madison Hughes has been singing and playing guitar for most of her life, but her star-studded path into songwriting has been anything but ordinary. The Ponte Vedra native competed on NBC’s The Voice last year, which launched her right into a Nashville music career. Madison works on many of her songs with songwriters up in the Music City today, but the song I spoke with her about, called “You or the Whiskey,” had its origins right in her heart.
The following interview has been condensed and edited.
When you auditioned for The Voice, you had Gwen Stefani and Camila Cabello and Blake Shelton all vying to work with you, and you chose Team Blake. I’m curious, in choosing to work with Blake Shelton, did you feel like you were choosing a future as a country artist?
I did, because in the past I had made music in R&B and pop music, and I was kind of choosing when I had to audition for the show. I want to move forward in the country and the rock genre. And so I figured Blake was the perfect person for that. He also lives in Nashville, where I spend half of my time.
When you were on The Voice, you said that you got your start in songwriting by writing new lyrics to songs by other artists. Nowadays, you’re in Nashville, like you said, writing a lot of songs with songwriting partners who are career lyricists. What have you learned from working with these types of professionals?
First of all, I find all these people myself. I’ll research songs I like. For example, Chris Stapleton’s Broken Halos: I got to co-write songs with [Stapleton’s co-writer Mike Henderson] and some other different people. But I’ll go in sometimes with one idea of a melody, and I’ll play my idea. And it’s very unfinished at times. And then that’s when they can be like, “Okay, let’s think of our song title first.” That’s the very Nashville thing. They’ll ask, “So what was your list of titles?” I’m like, “Oh, I don’t have any. What?”
That’s so interesting to me. I have a background in prose writing, and if you’re starting to write a book or a short story or an essay, they’re always like, “Write the title last.” So I find it really interesting that it’s the reverse with Nashville country songwriting.
Yeah, I guess it is a Nashville country specific. I’m not sure how the other genres do it, but I definitely know they’re all about the song title not so much as like, “Oh, is this going to be commercial?” It’s more: is your melody memorable? And if it’s not, let’s change the chords here to make it more impactful too.
Sometimes I’ll come in with a pre-existing chord progression, and they’ll be like, “Let’s change it from C to A minor.” And then it helps the song a lot more. Those are the things I had no idea that a song could be improved if you just bring in a draft. I always thought it was just stuck the way it was, but similar with writing essays and whatnot, you can edit it and make it better. So it’s definitely a whole other skill than just singing.
When you write songs on your own today, do you take a lot of passes at them now?
I used to take so long. It took me up until after The Voice to start writing originals for real. Starting a song from scratch, it’s almost always from a personal experience versus, “Oh, let’s come up with a commercial-sounding song title and let me sing it.” I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet where I can think of a brilliant song title and make a masterpiece that way.
The song we’re talking about today is called “You or the Whiskey.” Is this a song you wrote on your own, or did you work with a partner on this one?
I wrote this one pretty much 90% myself, and I brought in my songwriting partner to help edit and change a few words and then add a bridge to the song. So other than that, it was pretty much done.
How did the process of writing this song kick off for you?
I wrote this the summer of last year. I was at my desk and I had Logic Pro X pulled up. It’s a music recording software. I had my electric guitar plugged in, and I just had this four chord progression on loop. I would play the chords over and over. And this line just came to me: “Was it you or the whiskey I met?” That was the first thing that came to me, because I had an experience with a certain person that struck a chord, made me want to say that line.
What made you decide to write it on electric guitar as opposed to acoustic? That’s really interesting.
Yeah, well, sometimes if I bring in an electric, it is more inspiring for some reason. Or it can be moodier sometimes for me personally.
When you write, do you use effects on your electric?
I just put a bunch of reverb on vocals and guitar and put some EQ and that’s mainly it. Also, the electric guitar plugs in so I can hear it better than the acoustic.
What are some country music traditions you wanted to pull from when working on this song?
So it’s funny: I never grew up listening to proper country music. It was always like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Band, that type of Americana rock. But I was listening to this artist named Randall King, who’s a very honky-tonk Nashville and Texas country artist, and he had this song called You in a Honky Tonk. And I was like, “What are the chords for that song? Because it’s so emotional every time I hear it.” And so I used some of that chord pattern and was trying to come up with a new melody over those chords. It had sort of that dance floor type of vibe in this song that you will hear.
Tell us the story behind the lyrics of “You or the Whiskey.”
The story behind the lyrics came from a very honest perspective. I had this certain love interest that was very hopeful, but I would very much listen to the words he would say. And there was no, you know, action on that. So I was just like, “Oh, are you into me or not? I’m so confused.” And every time I would see him out, I didn’t know he would be drinking. So it made it even more true: was it you or the whiskey I met? You’re a sweet talking, smooth talker. But then you act like I don’t exist.
This song has connected with so many people. Your vulnerability has really paid off in these lyrics, because the song has over 100,000 plays on Spotify. It’s clearly touched a lot of listeners. What is it about this song that you think is resonating with so many people?
I posted it on TikTok right before it came out, and that’s when it, quote, went viral on that platform. And because I wrote at the top of the video “comment if you think this is relatable,” so many people, guys and girls, were both like, “Wow, I’ve been through that same deal. It was definitely the whiskey.” Everyone can relate to being in a bar or just any kind of setting socially where guys will just like be smooth-talking to a girl, I’ll fall for it so easily because I can be naive, and later, I’ll think, “Oh, he doesn’t care. Cool.” It was just like the alcohol influenced, and that’s why it was disappointing. And so it’s very upsetting, because so many people want to seriously find love and date.
That’s such a relatable story, I think, for so many people. I’m so glad you told it through this song. Did you notice an evolution with the song when you went to record it? Like, did certain parts of it change or sound different than you expected in the studio?
I was reluctant to record it. I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s good enough.” Sometimes I will have that self doubt. I’d never been in a proper recording studio up until this song. It was all self-produced at home, and my songwriting partner was like, “No, we should use this guy at 1979 Studios in Nashville and have him produce your first song. This is a perfect time. The Voice just ended. Your fans want to hear an original song.” I was like, “Okay, we’ll see how it goes.” And so the producer there, thankfully, brings in the bass player and the drummer and the guitars and kind of directs everyone. I don’t know how to build out a full band sound like on my own. I only know how to play it on guitar, and then hopefully the producer we hire can bring it to life and bring it to its full potential. So I had no idea what it would sound like.
So you went in with a pretty open mind as to how the finished product would sound.
Yeah. At the time I wasn’t like, “I need violin,” or “I need mandolin on this track,” because I knew nothing about recording seriously in Nashville at that point, right? We recorded it all in one day.
Wow. Is that how it typically goes?
Apparently not. You’re supposed to probably spend more time if you can afford to have more studio days. But we were determined to just knock out two songs in one day, get them fully done. So we got vocals done. Two songs that day—yeah, definitely unheard of. And it’s cool that it didn’t have to be some overproduced song to be successful, too, on Spotify and and everything.
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s the rawness of the vocals that really makes people leap out and connect to the song.
Madison Hughes is hard at work on a 10-track debut album. We’ll get to hear a single from it this fall.