A few months back, Maddie Ross, the unsigned, up-and-coming 25-year old artist who aptly describes her sound as “grungy pop,” got a random DM from veteran alt-rocker KT Tunstall, asking her if she wanted to go on tour together.
“She was like, ‘Do you want me to loop me in with your management or do you want me to deal direct?’” Ross remembers. “I was like, ‘Ummm… deal direct?’ Because I don’t have anyone on my team besides [collaborator and bandmate] Madison [Sheckel].
Starting Oct. 16, Ross and Sheckel will be the opening act for Tunstall’s 22-date North American fall trek. It’ll be her first-ever tour and the first time she ever performs outside of her native California. Since we first covered her early last year, Ross’ sound — think a more pop Charly Bliss or a more rock Youngblood-era 5SOS — has felt big stage ready, far beyond the songs’ Spotify spin counts.
Today (Oct. 12) marks the release of her latest EP, Touch Hands, Touch Bodies. The self-released project (via her and Sheckel’s Sentimental Records) features a pair of brand new songs alongside the three strongest tracks she’s released so far. In sequence, the songs tell Ross’ story of falling in love during college, coming out to her friends and family, and the self-actualization that followed. “It’s a cute love story,” she says. “It happens to be between two girls.”
Billboard caught up with Ross to talk about the the upcoming tour, what it’s like to create music alongside her partner of several years, and how the garage band scene from Freaky Friday is influencing her forthcoming debut full-length.
How’s life been leading up to the tour and EP release?
I had a pretty big year, just health-wise. This time last year I went to the gynecologist for a normal check-up and they were like, “oh my god, we need to do a biopsy right away.” They thought maybe I had cancer or something like that. It was really scary. Then I ended up getting diagnosed with this autoimmune disorder. Really luckily there’s a specialist at Stanford, she’s is one of the leading doctors in the world on this specific disease. It’s an hour away from my parents’ house. I started getting treated at Stanford and it’s been a crazy experience. It was scary and upsetting but also made me so grateful to have access to this awesome medical care, to have such a supportive family.
I had surgery four weeks ago. Then I’ve just been getting ready for tour. I wasn’t allowed to walk for two weeks after my surgery. I’ve only been on my feet for about two weeks.
I can only imagine what that must have been like, coming right before such big events in your career.
The tour kind of popped up out of nowhere, a couple weeks before I went into surgery. It was really lucky because it gave me something to look forward to. Like, oh I won’t be sitting around for the rest of the year! It was a big year, learning-wise. It was just a big wake up call in a lot of ways and I realized that I need to listen to my body more and I need to speak up if I feel something’s wrong… I think for a lot of women, and queer health, there’s so much that doesn’t get addressed. Especially in the trans community, a lot of health issues get swept under the rug. The surgery went really well, I’m on the mend, and I’m about go on the biggest tour I’ve ever been on.
How did KT Tunstall find you and ask you to go on tour with her?
She saw a tweet of mine and ended up clicking on my profile. She listened to my music and liked it and just DM’d me: “Hey, do you wanna come on tour?”
I was so shocked. “I absolutely would, thank you so much, here’s my email.” And maybe three minutes later I got an email from her. She just did all the communicating for the first week of it without looping me in with management, booking agents or anything. She was like yeah, “I looked over the routing, you should be able to do this in a car.” She was so hands on, like, “Do you want me to loop me in with your management or do you want me to deal direct?” I was like, “Ummm… deal direct?” [Laughs]. Because I obviously don’t have anyone on my team besides Madison.
The new EP features two songs no one’s heard before: “Physical” and “Give Into Me.” I’m interested to hear their stories.
“Physical” began as a voice memo on my phone that I’d had for almost a year. When my friend Shab from Blushh wanted to do a split at the end of last year, we thought “Physical” would be this lo-fi, quick and easy thing. I came up with the first verse and then Madison had been working on a track for [another EP song] “Hometown,” she showed it to me and I really liked it. So I ended up writing “Hometown” instead. We wound up making a video for it and I wanted to give it another chance to shine on this EP.
But Madison kept telling me to go back to “Physical”: “Just flesh it out a little more and then I can make a track and we can finish writing it.” So I wrote the second verse and choruses and she was like, “This is sick.” I wasn’t stoked on that song until the final recording… Now I love it.
I wrote “Give Into Me”… most of it in one sitting. You hear a lot of artists talk like, “I didn’t even write that song, it just came through me.” It was sort of like that. It was a story that had been inside my mind for a long time that I’d been eager to tell… The whole idea is a story happening inside my mind: having a crush — who I’m now dating — and wanting to talk to her, being like,”I’ve never wanted something like this before,” letting your fantasies grow bigger and bigger. In the first verse, I’m nervous to talk to her. Then the second verse is fantasizing about dating. The bridge is, I used to be no fun, now I can see myself having this awesome relationship with you. And the final chorus is, “will this always be in my head or will I ever act on it?” It was a story I never really told even though it’s a long time ago now that we first started dating.
What did letting that out feel like?
I hadn’t written from a place of excitement and happiness about falling in love because that period of my life was so shrouded in fear and anxiety. I had to come out. It was my first time falling in love, so I also had to come out to my family and friends. Everything I was writing at the time was how scared I was, or how happy I was but with a tint of shame or sadness. Now I’ve grown so much as a queer person and I’m super proud and excited about it. I think our love story is really cute and wonderful, so this collection of songs is really happy and positive.
What does each of the songs tell in your narrative?
It’s my favorite collection of songs I’ve ever written. It starts with “Hometown,” which is where I came from and where I’m going. “Loners” is so fun because it tells the story of us falling in love in college: kisses behind the book stacks in her attic and starting to tell some of our friends. In “Physical” I got to portray us as unlikable, which was really fun: I’m moody every three weeks of the month and I’m all these different things but so are you, actually maybe we’re perfect together. “Give Into Me” is: “will this ever become real?” And “You’re Still My Sugar” is probably my favorite song I’ve ever written. It sums everything up so well: after all this time, you’re still the person that makes the most sense to me out of everyone in the world.
What about the debut full-length you’re working on — what’s in the works?
Madison has this really cool concept. Our music has gotten a lot of comparisons to rom-coms and high school nostalgia… Madison had the idea of leaning into it and doing a project where every song on an album is meant to score a different scene from a rom-com. The titles of the tracks right now are like, “Hot Girl Walking Down the Hallway,” “Driving Up to High School For the First Time,” “Finding Out It Was All a Bet.” She’s been sonically building a landscape for all these. And I’ve been top-lining to all these tracks. We originally had November scheduled to crank out most of the writing for this album, so [because of the tour] we’re gonna have to push that back to December and January.
What are some of your favorite rom-coms?
Mean Girls — I’m just from Generation Mean Girls. And also The Devil Wears Prada, which opens with “Suddenly I See,” shout out KT Tunstall. 10 Things I Hate About You. She’s All That. Also Freaky Friday. That came out right when I got my first Squire electric guitar and was playing with my cousins. Lindsay Lohan playing guitar… My dream was to be in that band, practicing in that garage.