Former Tampa songwriter Madison Turner talks burning out and crash landing at St. Petersburg's Lucky You Tattoo

Listen to her new album, 'A Comprehensive Guide To Burning Out' before her show on July 21.

click to enlarge BURN TO SHINE: Madison Turner at a 2015 Atlanta show. - NICOLE KIBERT/ELAWGRRL.COM
Nicole Kibert/
BURN TO SHINE: Madison Turner at a 2015 Atlanta show.

A huge reason Madison Turner left Tampa was to survive. The Richmond, Virgina songwriter isn’t sure when she became averse to small talk, but touching base with the former Tampa native about a homecoming show requires no icebreaker.

“One of the only ways that I foresaw finding health coverage that would actually cover me and my needs was moving to the west coast. The saddest part is that I found a lot of community in Tampa within the year leading up to moving, and so I ended up leaving a lot of people that I really loved,” Turner, 31, wrote to CL. It’s been five years since the Sickles High School grad skipped town, and her July 21 show at Lucky You Tattoo finds Turner supporting a new album, A Comprehensive Guide to Burning Out, which is just as revealing, but more complex than anything she’s ever done before. CL caught up with Turner ahead of the gig to talk about survival, depression and why she had to turn her music on its head for Guide. Read highlights from our full Q&A — and listen to the album — below.

Madison Turner
w/Yankee Roses/Gutless/Piss Ghost/Community Couch
Sat. July 21, 8 p.m. $8. Lucky You Tattoo, 9633 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg.
More info:

Happy belated birthday, by the way. You’ve turned the corner around 30 — do any thoughts of aging start to creep into your music?
Thank you! I just turned 31, and my body aches for no reason other than that these days. I don’t address aging directly that much in my songs, though I think it does play into the music, in both that the lyrics might be more bitter than angry these days, and that a lot of my influences are 90s bands that a lot of people probably don’t think about too much anymore. The song "25-4EVER," which is the first track of the EP UGGGHHHHH!, is heavily about aging and repetition.

Real quickly, could you tell me about the two puppers you live with? Their names? Why they rock?
I have one dog, Baileybee, and she’s just the best. She’s some sort of pit mix, I would guess pit and lab mostly, and all she really wants to do is cuddle with you as fast as she can. She’ll dart across a room and then be in your lap and you won’t know what happened, other than now you’re cuddling with a 55 pound sweetie. I’ve got really sick shirts for this tour with Baileybee on them; I sent an Instagram photo of her to Chris Carreon, and he did an amazing illustration of her. Including my roommates’ pets, there are two other dogs and three cats currently in the house, all of which are super sweet.

“Portland, OR” gets re-imagined on the new LP, how did you know which songs you wanted to bring to A Comprehensive Guide to Burning Out

When deciding on the tracks I was going to record for Guide, I ended up with eight songs; I’m not somebody who writes extensively past the mark and drops lots of songs, but I did have a few that I just didn’t feel were good enough for the album, and so I ended up dropping those. I wanted the album to be a solid 10 tracks, so I decided to go back to the UGGGHHHHH! EP, which I feel is more like a group of demos. I re-recorded a couple of those songs to just be bigger. I think picking the two "location" songs was pretty easy; Richmond was a song that I knew I could make sound much bigger and much more “alternative rock” like it sounded in my head when I wrote it, and it was also the only “slow” track from that EP. The other three were all the same tempo super fast strummy songs, which I didn’t want Guide to be completely full of. "Portland" is a song that I just think is a lot of fun, and it fit with bringing Richmond as well, so I went with it and I really like what it turned into for the album.

Your St. Pete show is the only full-band gig on this tour, but you also have a full-band gig up in RVA. What’s the difference in the two bands you’re playing with in those cities?

Since starting this chapter of the solo project back up in 2012, I’ve been doing full band shows with a whole variety of friends playing different instruments, rather than have the same lineup for everything. This has a lot to do with schedules, as most of the people I tend to play with are also lending their talents to about 27 other bands, and with location, as for how I’m playing with different lineups in different cities right now. But it also keeps things really interesting.

I’m really looking forward to the St. Pete show; the lineup is going to consist of the core people who helped make A Comprehensive Guide to Burning Out what it is: Woody Bond, Tyler Bisson, and George Geanuracos, along with a long-time friend from Tampa Mike Bartholomay. It’ll also be the first time that I’m doing the full band show live with a fiddle. I think it’ll be a great time.

In Richmond, the lineup varies from show to show depending on who is available; I just played a show with Sawyer Camden from the amazing band/solo project Warrington on drums, and Marilyn Drew Necci on bass, and the upcoming Richmond show will be with Bad Magic and Pirahna Rama’s Tim Falen on drums, Neat Sweep’s Max Gottesman on lead guitar, and Marilyn Drew Necci on bass again. Sometimes people will approach me about playing with in the band, sometimes I’ll approach them, but it’s a cool and different experience each time. The three-piece set that I just recently played sounded more grunge (at least to me) than the album comes off, just due to how we modified the songs to fit the instrumentation, but I think the St. Pete lineup will sound about as true to the album as it can. Playing with so many different people also makes it so the sets aren’t always as sharp as I might like, and it’s not the same lineup of people practicing and performing the same songs for years, but it’s always fun.

You were in Skantly Prepared and The Game Show and Paranoia Dance Party, but that latter band was a particularly transitional time for you and a time when that band was kind of falling apart. I know Woody was instrumental in you getting back into music, but do you ever worry about touching base with that part of your life when you come back to Tampa Bay?

First of all, I’m surprised that anyone other than my mom still remembers The Game Show. As for Tampa Bay, I don’t worry about touching base at all, I’m really looking forward to it! I mean, I wouldn’t (and didn’t) come back to Tampa for my high school reunion, but coming back for a music scene reunion will be a tons of fun for me. I think Paranoia Dance Party! died because it had to; we weren’t getting along well with each other and wanted different things from music and touring. We were a band that had a tough time finding a following in general, likely in part to playing such a niche type of music. Woody was absolutely instrumental in bringing me back into music, and I’m honestly not sure if I’d still be playing music now if it weren’t for him.

You were born-and-raised Tampa, even have the tattoo to prove it, and did enjoy your time here, but there was so much negativity that you needed to get away from. You went to Corvallis, Oregon and couch-surfed for a year and a half. When, after leaving, did you finally feel removed from what you left here?

A huge reason for leaving Tampa was survival. One of the only ways that I foresaw finding health coverage that would actually cover me and my needs was moving to the west coast, and that really was the primary reason for moving. There was some negativity in Tampa as well, and I had lived there a total of 26 years, so I felt it was just time for a change anyways. Leaving was scary, and perhaps the saddest part is that I found a lot of community in Tampa within the year leading up to moving, and so I ended up leaving a lot of people that I really loved when I moved.

How old were you when you left? Where’d you go to school here?

I left when I was 26. I graduated from Sickles High School, took a year off, went to St. Petersburg College for a year for music, dropped out, and then many years later finished my Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts at Hillsborough Community College. I took more years off, and just this past semester graduated from Portland State University with a Bachelor’s in Science of Social Sciences, Summa Cum Laude.

In writing Guide you were couch surfing for a year-and-a-half. Why, was it just to travel? And do you think you could have written an album you could be equally proud of had you not been in that situation?

Okay, so follow me on this one: I needed to stay on Oregon’s state health plan in order to receive health coverage. But if I made over a certain amount of money, I wouldn’t qualify for the coverage anymore. And if I didn’t qualify for the coverage, I wouldn’t even be able to buy coverage that was nearly as comprehensive. So therefore, it would have been really tough to maintain necessary health coverage and rent an average spot.

I decided instead that I’d maintain residence while traveling, because I didn’t have anything tying me down to one place other than a need to maintain residency, so as long as I didn’t permanently move elsewhere or start making money, I was OK. On top of that, I would be able to see friends all around the country that I wouldn’t normally get to see. I do think that I would have still been able to write an album that I could be equally proud of in a different situation, but it probably wouldn’t have been the same album.

Your music lends itself to a lot of growth — how different do you feel, today, from the person who was in a three-piece band in 2013 (life LP) and the one who put out the Depression EP in 2015?

Within that timespan, musically, I think I’ve grown a lot. Those albums were mostly purposefully lo-fi in that I wanted them to sound very real and that the same amount of instruments and voices that you hear on those records would be what you would also hear live. I think with Guide, I knew I wanted to abandon that and turn it around completely, making a heavily produced record with all sorts of instrumentation and vocal harmonies that would be much more difficult to replicate.

Lyrically, I don’t think it differs all that much from Depression or UGGGHHHHH!, though I stepped back from cramming as many words as tight and quickly as I can in favor of spacing it out more, which I think is a step up from how I commonly used to write. I also wrote a lot about being transgender, and while I think being transgender informs a lot of my depression and social anxieties, I’m not directly discussing it in my music that much if at all anymore because it’s just not super interesting to me at this point. It used to be at the forefront of my life, but now I suppose it’s just a part of it. I feel like I’ve also just gotten much better and more confident as a vocalist and as a guitar player within the past five years or so, too.

You’ve talked about the numb repetitive nature of life, but what did finally realizing you were “burnt out” really feel like, and how did you know you needed a change? Was it in one specific moment?

When waking up is the most difficult thing you can do, I feel like that’s when you know you’re burnt out. You get up, you do the same morning routine, you go to the same job, you do the same things at that job and you have to act happy about it, you go home, you eat the same food, you go to sleep, and the cycle continues. Add your own specific struggles in the mix; in my case, marginalization for being trans can definitely be a high one up there, particularly years back before the average person had even heard the word transgender before.

At what point in your life did you realize that you weren’t a “small talk” kind of person?

I don’t know that I could give you a specific answer for this, as far as timeframe goes. I just know that small talk, to me, feels like you’re talking about nothing to either try and make things less awkward, but feels like everyone is supposed to agree that the conversation doesn’t get too deep or else some sort of social contract is being broken. The only way I can get through life is by telling myself that everything is awkward, and that social contracts are meaningless.

Did you really get fired for being trans? How are you dealing with some of the pressures you have felt since coming out in 2010?

I did get fired for being trans; this was in 2011 I think? Without saying the name of the restaurant chain, I’ll just say that I don’t think their food is really as authentically Australian as they purport it to be. I was even given the option to resign like I was some sort of politician wrapped up in a scandal, but I turned them down and made them fire me if that’s what they were going to do. I can’t remember the official wording, but I was fired for disobeying the proprietor, and what the proprietor was asking me to do was to not be transgender. He told me at one point, “You were hired as a man so you have to stay a man.” He basically was okay with my hair being long when he thought it was because I was a musician, but when he found out it was because I was trans, he told me I had to cut it, along with some other crude things.

The kitchen manager, who joked about me using strong homophobic language, was the second manager to sit in on at least one of the meetings that I had to be at in which I was lectured about being fired if I didn’t decide to not be transgender or whatever it was that they wanted me to do. I basically didn’t come out to them at the time, but was outed accidentally by a co-worker, which led me from being praised one day and being let go the next. I spoke with representatives from the company as well, and they all stood with the proprietor. Other egregious stuff included the district manager trying to help me by pointing me toward conversion therapy, and an HR representative telling me that if I worked with heavy machinery, I’d have to wear short hair, and when I told them that that means everyone would have to have short hair and not just people the company perceived as men, they became flustered and angry.

Nowadays, things aren’t as bad. There’s a lot more awareness, and people don’t read me as transgender as often as they used to anyways. That, of course, doesn’t mean that things are wonderful either, I still face a lot that cisgender people probably don’t even consider, and I still live with a lot of past trauma, but for me at least, it’s better than it was by a pretty great margin.

I like this sentiment you shared about paying everyone who played on your record. How many hours do you have to work outside of music to make that possible?

At the time of recording, I was working about 25 to 30 hours a week at the animal shelter that I still currently work at, and was also going to school full-time and was collecting loans and grants. The job was basically paying my rent, while the college money largely paid for the recording, which I’ll still have to mostly pay back. For me, making sure the people that are helping me out are being compensated in some way is really just appreciation for their time and talent. I think seeing a lot of the visual art community speak out a lot about people demanding free art from them and how absurd that is, and the idea of people paying others in exposure which oftentimes can be pretty worthless depending on the context, put it into perspective for me with music too, or really anything for that matter. I was in a place where I could make this happen, which was a spot I don’t always find myself in, so I decided that was the way to go.

How’d you meet George Geanuracos and how instrumental was he and Tyler Bisson in making Guide the album you had in your head?

I booked George a show in Tampa in 2013 when he had reached out to me for one as a part of a Yankee Roses tour. I hadn’t met him previously but dug the music and made the show happen. He turned out to be one of the sweetest people, and we became good friends from there. George wrote all of the fiddle parts on the album with somewhere between minimal-to-no direction.

We had also sat down at one point prior to recording, because I wanted to run through all of the songs one-by-one with him and talk about how they could be recorded; which parts should be heavily distorted, which parts should be acoustic, what instrumentation should go here or there, which line should have a vocal harmony and which shouldn’t. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted prior to going in to that, but I know that some of his ideas are on the final album, though at this point I couldn’t tell you which is which.

Tonight in live music; TRAGWAG at Microgroove, The Earls of Leicester at The Cap and more

Tyler Bisson — who I had met years prior to meeting George as he drummed in skacore bands up in the Northeast where Paranoia Dance Party! used to tour a good deal — really made the album sound just how I envisioned it. I had a lot of ideas and reference points, but I don’t have the technical knowledge to make it happen myself, and Tyler took all of the words and reference points I sent him and really took it to heart, and it really does sound just like I tried to convey it to him. Tyler also played multiple instruments on the album, and does a bulk of the backing vocals. I’d mostly tell him in the studio, “I want a backing harmony on this line,” and he’d play a few notes on piano and just do it. He’s just so incredibly talented. Please check out his solo project by the way, TRAGWAG. Basically, with this album, I just tried to surround myself with people that I love, but who are also much more talented than I am. It’s a winning strategy.

There are so many moments on Guide where you can feel the dread and downtrodden nature of the songs (“Do You Ever Feel Like a Failure?” for example). How do you dig yourself out of those feelings, and what makes Madison the happiest? Is it really just getting to pet someone’s dog, or listening to records by Andrew Jackson Jihad and Bomb the Music Industry!?

I really love the song “Do You Ever Feel Like a Failure?” It’s a really upbeat sounding song, but is probably one of the most depressing lyrically out of a lyrically depressing group of songs. I’m really guilty of distracting myself using television shows and video games instead of trying to actually dig myself out of those feelings. Self-care isn’t my strong suit, and I tend to just try and put off feeling better by immersing myself into something else.

The AJJ side of the split with Ghost Mice was actually the album that I used to put on years back when I was beyond sad and angry, and just wanted to wallow in it. I don’t find myself doing that anymore; usually a good album will make me feel a bit better, or maybe it’s just another form of distracting myself. Happiness is weird, because I know it’s something that I sometimes feel, but it’s hard for me to place in general. Petting a dog is always a good move, though.

I love how proud you are of this record, but is there anything on it you wish you could change? Also, what’s next, musically? I know you mentioned that you’ve sang pretty much all you can sing about your trans experience.

I don’t think anything on this album needs changing; it’s the first album, at least since the Paranoia Dance Party! album Surroundings, that I’m truly, completely proud of releasing, and being that Comprehensive Guide is made up completely of songs that I wrote and is ultimately done in the way that I envisioned it makes it that much more special to me. If I were to change anything just for the sake of it, I probably would have added some sort of lo-fi filter to the vocals at the very end section of "Small Talk" and to the verses of "Our Wild Rage," a la how the vocals on The Strokes records sound, but I feel like that’s such a minor thing.

Even though Comprehensive Guide has been in the works and released for some time now, I’ve only written a single song that I like enough that I’ve played live and that I’d likely record for whatever the next project might be. There’s going to be a collaborative cassette release with Grimalkin Records and my label Close by Air Records coming out soon of A Comprehensive Guide to Burning Out on side A, and a live solo acoustic set that I played in Richmond on side B, and that live set will contain a solo recording of that song which is called "Fake It 'til you Make It." The proceeds from that cassette release will all go to a local non-profit.

Anything else?

My music is on Spotify, Bandcamp, and all of the other popular streaming platforms. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me! It means a whole lot. Thank you.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his intro letter and 2021 disclosure. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The Daily Beast. Products...

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