Get To Know Maddie Kerr of mercury [Interview]

Kieran Kohorst

Along with an extended list of others, one of the consequences of the parasocial age we find ourselves in is the illusion of knowing. We can fool ourselves into thinking we know someone’s heart because we know their voice and the words it composes; we are gullible enough to believe the virtual realities we inhabit extend beyond our screens. This is especially true of us music listeners, projecting what we hear in song onto the vessel from which the lyrics arrive. Because we are fans of a band, we tell ourselves, we are familiar with every essence of their being. Because we can relate, we can understand. And while music is meant for connection, sometimes we can take this connection a bridge too far.

Knowing this, or at least being aware of such a phenomenon, did little to save me from the surprise waiting for me in my Zoom room. In welcoming Maddie Kerr, architect of mercury, into the virtual space, a stark difference was established between the artist whose music I had spent weeks studying and the shining face in front of me on my computer screen. The introduction to her newest project, Together We Are One, You and I, is a brash, if not harsh, thunder of guitars; today, I am greeted with Kerr’s cheek-wide smile and rampant waving, giggling as we exchange pleasantries. Her hair drapes over her face like a waterfall while flowing behind her head like an avalanche, and leisurely bounces across her frame throughout our discussion. 

To hear Kerr’s voice in this context, eager and lilting, offered a clear divergence between the artist we hear as mercury and Maddie Kerr herself - a healthy delineation for certain. While she is able to sit in radiance on this midday call and talk excitedly about her work, the experience of Together We Are One, You and I casts her expressions in a different light. “Yeah, it definitely is dark,” Kerr admits of her music, before adding that it is “without intent…It's just kind of what happens to be at the moment that I needed to get out, which happened to be very, very dark.” What is most striking about the darkness of this release is the depths Kerr submerges fans in: the 3-song EP is released alongside a short film, directed by Harrison Shook, that brings listeners to the deep end. A project of pure ambition, Kerr hits the mark in every regard. And while the short film’s music and characters and acting and narrative and tone may cast a harrowing shadow, that isn’t necessarily how Kerr sees it. “I think…tender,” she decides when asked of her own relationship to her music. “That's such a good word. Like, close. It's very close to my heart. When I sit down and think about my music and the stuff that I want to make, I don't necessarily want it to be, like, dark music, or whatever. And it's not that I don't want it to be that, because I think it's so fun and I enjoy making it sound like that. But I think it is just what's in my heart at the moment. And I want it to be emotional, whether that's a cathartic emotion that's this huge emotional dark release, or if that's cathartic in a way where it's like, ‘oh, this is a sweet feeling that I want to convey.’”

The origin of the epic short film can be traced back to two distinct ideas Kerr had while writing the first track of the EP, “Born In Early May”: “I was like, ‘I want to levitate people, and I want my friend to be in it.’” From there, Kerr and Shook set out to surprise themselves. “We sat down and just dreamt so big, like the biggest we possibly could,” she says of the early process. “We just wanted to build a world around those things and what was being said in the songs and figure out how to say something that's not already there, but also enhance what is already there in a way.” Already a visual writer, Kerr began to map out scenes and imagery with her director, the two taking turns shocking one another with what was possible for the film. “It was so fun to dream it up together. It was just a lot of dreaming really, really, really big and being like, ‘what is the craziest thing that we could possibly do?’” 

While there is joy pouring out of Kerr as she details the behind-the-scenes of the project, there is little glee to be expressly found in the short film’s playing. This isn’t to say it is not exhilarating: as mercury, Kerr interacts with the themes of grief, pain, and loss with a raw tenacity that shines through in both the songs and visuals of TWAO,YAI. After delivering stark lyrics to begin “Born In Early May,” she bellows across the track’s vicious guitars and drums; the tenderness Kerr previously cited in her music is evidenced on “Special,” cutting deep in all facets of the song; “Crick” builds in intensity, settled at a rumble before unleashing grunge to close. In the film, we follow the journeys of markedly different but interconnected characters through their suffering in pursuit of salvation, in whatever form that may take. Through speaking with her post-exposure to the EP and short film, it is clear that Kerr carries her grief deeply but not heavily - she flashes far too many full-teeth smiles and offers too many descriptive hand gestures in our conversation to suggest she is consumed by the same forces that dominate her music. 

Though the vindication Kerr displays on Together We Are One, You and I may give the impression of an artist reinvigorated, the music found on her newest EP is not far removed from past mercury releases. The band’s debut single “I Don’t Know You Like I Used To” arrived in 2022, and the 3 singles that have followed in that span have built to the sound we hear on “Born In Early May,” “Special,” and “Crick.” That is to say, everything has been turned up a notch on this project. “I've definitely come more into myself, figuring out what I want to say and how I want to say it and how I want to play it,” Kerr says of this development, which she describes as more of a natural progression than a key shift in her approach. “Honestly, I feel like with everything that I was going through internally, it was just the next step. It's what came out in the moment and what served my emotions and what I needed to do to process everything.” Processing emotions is one obstacle, but getting them to sound just as they feel is its own challenge. “I feel like in the songwriting, my process has developed so much, and it's been fun. It's become more like a puzzle where I'm like, ‘ooh, I can do this verse this time and this verse another time.’ I'm lucky enough to have gotten to play with so many different, amazing people and have had so many people be a part of the project and so that's helped it evolve. Getting to bring so many different ears and musicians on it.” If a shift has occurred in Kerr’s music, it has more to do with who is centered in a song. “I've done a lot of growing up and learning and even just the content of the songs has kind of shifted from about someone to about me…That's my favorite way to write, too: about my emotions and not necessarily about them regarding somebody else, because it just helps me process what's going on a little better.”

In trying to piece together the newly-designed puzzle of this project, there was a familiar and significant silhouette welcomed into the mix. Producer Alex Farrar (Wednesday, Snail Mail, Indigo de Souza) was brought on to produce all three tracks of the EP, with Kerr traveling to Asheville, NC to record with one of her most treasured influences. “I adore everything that he's made, and he's inspired by so many of the same things that inspire me, artists-wise and stuff. It just felt so seamless to bring it all to life in a way that I felt really represented me and what I wanted to say and it felt so good to be able to do that,” gushes Kerr. After having the “perfect” experience of working with Farrar, Kerr now has a standard to chase in all she does moving forward. Putting it simply: “Anything that I don't make with him, I'm trying to get to sound like something he would make.” The most complimentary adjectives flow out of Kerr when discussing this experience: “so easy,” “such a good time,” “fluid.” “Ugh,” she says, with sweet nostalgic disgust, “it was just so much fun!” Some of Kerr’s joy may have been born out of relief, as she was suffering from a bit of an emotional block that precluded her from writing songs. It wasn’t until she finished “Born In Early May” - in a 30 minute session, nonetheless - that she felt a weight lifted off her shoulders. She had discovered what it was she was trying to say, and the flood gates were opened: “Special” was written the night before recording in Asheville, “Crick” came together just before she left, and there were a few other tracks created during that time as well. Ultimately, the three that form Together We Are One, You and I were the ones Kerr felt the best about. “Every once in a while, there's a song that you sit down and you can work on it for a long time, and sometimes it just all comes out at once,” Kerr details. “And then usually that's when I'm like, ‘OK, that feels good. That's it. I want to record that.’”

With Farrar in the fold, Kerr sounds emboldened across these three tracks. She is fearless in her performance, letting loose blood-curdling screams after delivering stone-cold verses on “Born In Early May.” The track plays as a descent into madness, only for the following “Special” to give in to the sensitive instincts of Kerr’s songwriting. “Stick” is a noisy documentation of the emotional block Kerr described as ailing her prior to writing these songs: “I wish I had the words to say / To say what I was feeling when I felt it,” she strains on the chorus. The concentrated but broad-spanning sound on Together We Are One, You and I can be attributed to Kerr’s eclectic and evolutionary music tastes, which she inherited from her parents. Growing up on bands like Coldplay, U2, and Kings of Leon, her taste developed along with technology: when all she had was an iPod Nano, she was saddled with her parents’ collection of Meatloaf and Nickelback tracks. Once introduced to the iPod Touch and YouTube, Kerr quickly branched out in search of all the noise she could find. “I have always been moved by the big wall of sound and guitars,” she tells me. “I love guitar music, like the War on Drugs. There's just so many,” she says, just before rattling off the names of her more recent obsessions. “A couple years ago, I deep dove headfirst into Radiohead discography and it just changed my life. I love them so much. Deftones even - I dove into that and was like, ‘I can't go back.’ There are so many bands like that where it was just a taunting discography. There's just so much of it and you're like, ‘I know this is obviously a very influential mark in time and music, and I'm going to hold out on diving into it.’ And then when I did, I was like, ‘ohh, there's no going back. Like I'm obsessed. I love this stuff.’ Like crazy...Sonic Youth! I love Sonic Youth. That's like a big one for me too. Yeah, all kinds of just big guitar, noisy, wall of sound, abstract lyrics. Love it. That's just what I love so much.” Kerr delivers this monologue while writhing in pleasure, squirming with sincere adoration for this music. Her connection to the art clearly transcends the superficial, as she feels she must express her emotions physically as well as verbally. And if this instance wasn’t enough of an example, it becomes obvious in how TWAO,YAI has manifested itself - the only way to properly express the project’s content was to offer two mediums, in the music and the film. Kerr has little restraint in her self-expression, and it serves her personality and artistry well. 

Throughout our conversation, Kerr has been persistent in how much fun Together We Are One, You and I was to create. Now, the real fun begins: on the same day of the EP’s release, mercury is set to join Dreamer Boy on tour, giving the songs from this project a whole new dimension. “Playing live is my favorite thing,” she says, her hands clasped together and rising just under her chin in a display of pure delight. “That's what makes it all's the little bow on top. I do everything else so that I can play with my friends and also as a way to meet new people and connect with them on something that I just love so much, which is music. I have always loved going to shows and watching the people who have made some of my favorite songs live because I feel like we're just on the same page when I'm there and I get to feel connected with somebody I would have never ever, ever met in another setting, and understand them in a way that feels so intimate, but we don't even know each other. And I think it's such a beautiful, powerful thing to be in a room with all these people that feel the same, enough to be there at the same time. Playing live is my favorite thing in the world. I just love playing music.” 

After about 20 minutes of discussing grief with a smile on her face and waxing poetic about darkness in an enlightened tone, Kerr’s final task has few strings attached. All I ask is that she considers the hypothetical of being able to score a movie from the past with her own music, just as she accomplished with the short film for Together We Are One, You and I. Before I have the chance to fully lay out the question, Kerr’s mouth is agape in anticipation, her head throttled back with a gasp at the possibilities before her. Given the cinematic qualities of her own short film, it’s little surprise that she is a TV and movie obsessive. “Wow, so the first thing that comes in my head: there was this show on Netflix called The OA. It got canceled, but I loved it so, so, so much…Actually, there was a scene in it that kind of inspired the hand movements in ‘Special’ a little bit. I love that show so much.” Very quickly, Kerr’s response takes the form of the answer she gave about the bands and music she has loved throughout her life: seemingly endless, and delivered with unfiltered amusement. “I love superhero movies. I love Marvel movies. Like Iron Man. Freaking Dune 2, the 2nd Dune movie…Ohh my gosh. The 100 is one of my favorite shows also, it's on CW; it's like an apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic sci-fi show. I would love for my music to be in that show.” Apocalyptic, mind-bending, supernatural, dramatic, action-packed - Kerr’s list of cinematic dream-settings all contain apt descriptors for her own music. And don’t forget fun on that list, either. Good, twisted fun. 

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