As he was losing his girlfriend of 10 years to cancer in 2017, Phil Madeira wrote many songs inspired by his grief and anger. But you won’t be hearing those on his next album, Open Heart, whose opening track “Requiem For a Dream” is premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Jan. 8).
The Rhode Island singer/songwriter — a member of Emmylou Harris‘ Red Dirt Boy band — tells Billboard he intends the really hard songs he wrote in that season of grieving and anger to be out on the follow-up to Open Heart. The album’s 10 tracks, however, were born during a subsequent, short-term relationship.
“I wound up falling in love, or falling in like, with someone who was also going through a heavy loss,” Madeira explains. “I think we just needed each other for a season. And I wound up writing these songs, and that’s what became Open Heart.
“Some of these songs were written in that grief stage, or that denial stage of grief. It traces that trajectory of, ‘Wow, there could be something to this’ to ‘This is not what I thought it could be, but I’m grateful for it.’ And it felt more important and honest to put these [songs] out now and let the others wait for a minute. I thought, ‘Man, I better put out something nice.'”
Musically, Open Heart finds a middle ground between Madeira’s 2017 release Providence, which incorporated jazz flavors into his usual Americana approach, and last year’s Crickets, which he calls “a jazz record that was accidental.” Open Heart is also jazzy, leaning to New Orleans, and soulful throughout.
“I identify with the South — with New Orleans, certainly with Nashville, the blues, that whole bit,” Madeira says. Open Heart also finds him going “full circle back to piano” as the album’s prominent instrument after leaning on guitar in his other work. “Right now any guitar playing stuff I’ll be doing is with Red Dirt Boy,” Madeira says. “We have our little project going, and that’s where I get to do a little guitar thing.”
“Requiem For a Dream” also breaks a pattern for Madeira. “I have a certain pattern that I am very loyal to when I put a record out,” he explains, “and I always pick either the most upbeat tempo or maybe the second most upbeat tempo and start it that way. On this one it’s a shuffle. It’s slightly lazy. It reminds me of ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).’ It’s such a nice announcement; It’s like, ‘Hey, this is gonna be a deeper ride,’ and the music is sweet and there’s even a smile on the face of that melody before it dives into [grief]. I’m reflecting on someone else’s sorrow and trying to rescue someone else, where really I need to be rescued myself.”
Open Heart is due out Feb. 14, and Madeira will celebrate with a release show the following night in Nashville and has a few more dates already lined up for the new year. He’ll also be preparing the other album for eventual release and promises that will be an even deeper dive into what he went through with his partner’s death. Additionally, he’s in the process of writing a book about the experience of losing his girlfriend.
“It was one of those situations where the choices she made on her departure were very exclusive and there was not a lot of room for closure with people who may have needed some closure with her, so these [songs] were it for me,” Madeira says. “Musically it’s the most fun I’ve ever had. Lyrically it’s the darkest thing I’ve ever done, but the playing is a blast. This one goes even more jazz, like Horace Silver with vocalist. I’m hoping Open Heart will keep me in the Americana fold, which is really my home, and when I put out this next one maybe people will think it’s the quirky cousin.”
Listen to “Requiem For a Dream” below.