It’s hard to upstage JAY-Z — especially when he’s talking infidelity, heartfelt moments with daughter Blue Ivy and the touching story of his mother coming out. But there Madison Ryann Ward was during the most recent episode of David Letterman’s Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, sucking up all the oxygen in producer Rick Rubin’s studio, mesmerizing Letterman and blasting into our consciousness out of nowhere with her tornado-of-soul vocals.
Nobody saw that coming, not even the 6-foot-tall, 23-year-old former college volleyball star who just a few years ago thought her future would be about sets and spikes on the professional volleyball circuit, not sets in rock clubs. “Rick had asked me not that long after I signed [to American] if I’d be interested in doing a sneak preview of what I was working on, and I said, ‘Sure, of course,'” Ward tells Billboard, adding that she thought Letterman was just going to come in and watch her work on “Mirror,” the smoldering soul pop ballad and first song from her upcoming debut.
“I didn’t know David Letterman was going to be interviewing me until he walked in and it was happening! I had never been interviewed by someone of that caliber in all my years of playing sports.” That once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a first impression on such a huge stage is just the latest in a string of happy accidents that have propelled Ward from her days belting out Aretha Franklin covers in her college cafeteria to working with Rubin on her upcoming major-label debut.
Her unlikely path from Lawton, Oklahoma (population: 96,000), to being Rubin’s latest protégé began when Ward was a baby and her mother — who sang in their church choir — put a piano next to Madison’s crib, playing gospel hymns to wake her up and lull her to sleep. After her parents split when she was 8, Ward got a summer job as a teen at her father’s blues-themed BBQ Joint, Chit’s House of Cool, where she began to develop her appreciation for R&B, rock and blues while busing tables. But her journey to singing actually got started a few years earlier, which she didn’t realize until recently. “I remember my dad playing golf at the country club, and when they came in from a round I’d be hanging out at the pool as a kid and he’d put me up on a stool and ask me to sing the national anthem for the guys,” she says.
Ward has a vague memory from that time of looking up and seeing some of her dad’s golf buddies crying at her rendition. She glanced at her father, worried she’d done something wrong, only to get a thumbs-up and her first sense that her voice was something that could move people. Music wasn’t the thing that was pulling her, though. A naturally gifted athlete, she played golf, basketball and volleyball as a kid, driven by her desire to be a great athlete and to beat her older brother anytime she could.
And then, during her fifth year of eligibility at the University of Oklahoma, the combination of an injury and the itch to write poetry and spoken word that Ward had pursued on the side for years was scratched in a cosmic way that’s almost too good to be true. “These freshman athletes I’d been working out with came into the cafeteria one day and were like, ‘Hey, are you the volleyball player who sings?’ And they asked me to sing something, so I sang 10 seconds of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools,’ and they came back the next day and told me I had to get on Twitter because it had gone viral overnight,” Ward says.
Shortly after, she began posting her Ward Wednesdays series of covers, including such soul classics as Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” while trying to finish her athletic career strong and pursuing a major in professional writing and business entrepreneurship. After wrapping college, Ward decided to move to Nashville in early 2017 to try her hand at songwriting and almost didn’t make it when a truck totaled the car she and her dad were in. The first night she settled into town, Zac Brown Brand guitarist/banjo player John Hopkins reached out on Instagram and told Ward that the group had been trying to get ahold of her for two weeks.
“He said, ‘We have this [recording] console right here waiting for you and we’ve been trying to get you to Nashville,'” she says of the unlikely, immediate stroke of luck. Fresh from having her tonsils removed, Ward could hardly talk, to say nothing of singing, but she met with the group, and a few weeks later, she cut backing vocals for “Trying to Drive” from Brown’s Welcome Home album and spent the next few months opening up for the group. Though she was used to being in the spotlight thanks to her years of being a captain on the volleyball team, being the sole focus onstage was a new experience for Ward, who cranked out 30-minute sets every night: a mix of her soulful originals and well-placed, crowd-pleasing covers of Bonnie Raitt.
“It’s wild. I’m still in the middle of translating how that works, because in sports, if you miss a play, there’s always the next one or the next game and you can make it up, but in music everyone is paying attention to every single detail,” says Ward, who can even make a ballad from The Sound of Music feel like a soul classic. “It’s a similar energy and adrenaline, but when you’re performing, you’re aware that every eye is on you.” While bouncing between Nashville, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York last year working on honing her songwriting skills, one of Ward’s managers sent a note to Rubin about her and a meeting was set up.
“We went to his house and I played him some of my demos and he said, ‘I totally understand it and I want to be part of it,'” she says, still seeming a bit blown back by how quickly things fell together. Which brings us back to Rubin’s Shangri-La studio and the Letterman show: Ward went to the studio the night before the taping to narrow down the list of songs they were going to record for the series and the plan was for her to lay down her “Mirror” vocals to a track of the song’s demo.
In yet another hard-to-believe story, Ward says the melody to “Mirror” came to her while she was watching her friend and Roots keyboard player James Poyser playing during a taping of The Tonight Show last year, rushing down to the Guitar Center in Times Square right after to find a keyboard and recording the vocals on a voice note on her phone that night.
At the time of the Netflix show taping, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real — the band made up of two of Willie Nelson‘s sons, who are currently Neil Young’s backup group — were working on their new album and, in another kismet moment, some magic sparked on the spot. “I went in and met Lukas and Micah and the whole crew and they liked the song — which they got a demo of the night before — and Rick was like, ‘If you like that more, we might rock with that,'” she says of the last-minute decision to record the song with the band as Letterman looked on. On top of that, Promise of the Real were getting ready to record the ballad “Let Go of Your Plans” for their upcoming album that same night, and when Lukas Nelson overheard Ward singing harmony vocals off to the side by herself, well, you can see what happened next in the show.
— Soulfulish Girl—- (@quianaspace) April 13, 2018
“He asked me, ‘Do you want to sing on the record?'” she says. “And we got in there and set it up, and it turned into a duet. It really wasn’t planned, and we got a kick out of it more than anyone.” Not anyone, though. You can see in the episode that Letterman is blown away by Ward’s dulcet vocals and the mesmerizing way her voice mixes with Nelson’s on a song that was arranged less than 24 hours earlier and run down just a few times before it was filmed for the show. “Wow,” the veteran talk show host says after watching the “Mirror” performance.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, but it’s been nice to hear the feedback from people seeing the show and redirecting to my page. … There’s just so many emotions, everything happening at once,” Ward says of the sudden global exposure from the Netflix cameo. “I didn’t know what to expect, and when Rick asked me to do the Letterman show it was such an honor and it seemed to catch some fire, and to be living in it right now is really fun.”
Ward is busy working on her debut now, with Rubin executive producing for American Recordings/Republic Records, with no release date set yet. Asked what it might sound like, Ward isn’t sure yet. “I just sing,” she says, nodding to her love of hip-hop, blues, R&B and soul icons from B.B. King and Whitney Houston to Al Green, Bessie Smith and Raitt. “If you can feel it, that’s what I love.”