The Risk-Takers: Maddie & Tae’s Well-Planned Journey to ‘Start Here’
Spend time around Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye and find yourself quickly getting wrapped up in their innocence. They'll accidentally dress alike. When one has to sneeze, the other will blurt "Purple elephant!" to make it go away. They make birthday wishes and keep them secret.
Maddie & Tae knocked a sub-genre of country music off the rails when they released "Girl in a Country Song" last summer, and through all the hype, attention and criticism, never seemed to let on that it was intentional, or that they were aware of what was happening around them. Arrows came slinging past them from marksmen skilled in the art of Twitter. If one cut deep, the wound never showed.
Their ascent to No. 1 was historic, but there's no sense that success has gone to their heads. The real challenge, they say, is getting the follow-up "Fly" up the charts. It's nearing the Top 10 after 30 weeks, a tortoise to their debut single's hare.
If any man ever talked to me like that I would slap him across the face,” Marlow says. “Come on! Your mama raised you better than to speak to girls like that!
But did they know? Did two 18-year-old girls know what they were doing or have any idea what the ramifications would be if they released such a statement on radio, to country radio? The answer is an unequivocal yes. They absolutely knew what would come when they began their radio tour in Columbus, Ohio, 13 months ago, and they embraced it because it's what they'd been preparing for, for years.
“We almost didn’t play that song,” Dye says of "Girl in a Country Song." Maddie & Tae were unsigned, about to sing for Big Machine Label Group and Scott Borchetta, and they had about 200 songs to choose from. In the end they went with a song that took a not-so-subtle swipe at a dozen or so A-List artists, including a few on the BMLG roster. There was no decaf version in waiting, and they weren't going to change a verse to mollify another star. It was an all-or-nothing proposition.
Borchetta loved it. He signed them immediately, and after two years holed up in their producer's basement, Marlow's 18th birthday wish had come true. On the morning of July 15, 2014, they pulled up to WCOL-FM in Columbus to see if radio would share their enthusiasm.
“We’re gonna go in here and we’re gonna go guns blazin’ at 6AM in the morning and show them everything that we’ve got and get these people on our team,” Marlow remembers thinking. They did. The program director loved it. Two stars were born.
“I think we said something that was so true, and that’s why everybody got on board,” the now 20-year-old adds.
“If any man ever talked to me like that I would slap him across the face,” she furthers. “Come on! Your mama raised you better than to speak to girls like that!”
An Unlikely Partnership
Songwriters started telling Maddie & Tae that they were writing differently in a post-"GIACS" world. You don't hear any new "slide your fine self over here" lyrics anymore. The men are behaving, mostly. But while the song fueled a cultural shift, some level of naiveté lingers. Marlow and Tae are still to some degree unaware of how important a role they played. There was growing sentiment that things needed to change prior to the song. The phrase "Bro-country" was a thing, and people were starting to grumble about how few women there were on the radio. They didn't start a movement, but they gave it a face and a theme song.
On Friday, the duo's debut album Start Here will be released to stores and digital retailers. Each of the 11 tracks are available online in some capacity, so fans already know the stories behind songs like the anti-bully anthem "Sierra" and the deeply personal "After the Storm Blows Through." Each song offers a different side of the duo, and as a whole, it's an album as fine as any debut is recent history. This would be quite a different story if they weren't prepared to follow-up "Girl in a Country Song." For that they can thank Aaron Scherz. Without him, their story had all the makings of a one-hit wonder tale.
Scherz is Maddie & Tae's Yoda, and his basement is their Dagobah. They met when the girls were 16 and he was ... much older. Somehow, this married father found common ground with two teenagers, and more importantly found something worth investing in. They recognized immediately what his dedication signified.
“He would take us down there and just grind ever single day," Dye recalls. "Nine hours a day, we would practice, rehearse, write songs, work on stage presence, everything!"
Scherz's 2-year-old would bring her dolls downstairs to make an audience. Again and again they'd go through the songs and the what-ifs. Then he introduced a video camera.
“He would set up a video camera and video us, and the hardest part is watching those videos back, because we are our own worst enemies and we’re perfectionists.” Dye admits.
For us it’s not risk-taking, it’s staying true to who we are," Marlow says. "We are not going to release an album that we don’t believe in.
Scherz is a co-writer on "GIACS" and four other songs from Start Here. He co-produced the project and still serves as unofficial counsel. He saw to it that when their time came, they were ready.
Tae Dye admits she's an adrenaline junky. She loves fast roller coasters and scary movies. Yet in interviews she's the (slightly) more quiet of the two. Marlow tells most stories, bringing you into her teenage world like you're watching it on television. If they didn't look younger than their 19 or 20 years, you'd call them old souls, until they start talking about needing Chick-fil-A to cure the "hangries."
Initially they were asked to change the second verse of "Girl in a Country Song," specifically the line "Well, shakin' my moneymaker ain't ever made me a dime." It's a reference to labelmate Thomas Rhett's song, and some thought it was bad business. Maddie & Tae refused.
"For us it’s not risk-taking, it’s staying true to who we are," Marlow says. "We are not going to release an album that we don’t believe in."
"Fly" shows vulnerability, which both felt was important to let fans know they're not one-dimensional. Songs like "Shut Up & Fish" exist to snap any man thinking they're too vulnerable back to attention. Maddie & Tae co-wrote all 11, each stemming from personal experiences.
"Saying I'm pretty, saying he's in love / And how it don't get any better than this / I say yeah it could / Boy if you would shut up and fish," they sing.
Marlow's 19th birthday wish was to play the Grand Ole Opry, something that happened last fall. For her 20th birthday, she'll only share that her wish is not about her. "I wish for other people because I already have all my wishes," she declares, Dye nodding along. They won't wish for fewer arrows or barbs from trolls on Twitter.
"One guy, he goes ‘I wish someone would introduce Maddie & Tae to a chloroform-soaked rag really quick,’" Dye recalls. Marlow compliments his creativity, but wishes he'd use it in a more productive way.
"You know you’re doing something right when you get a little push back," Dye explains. "It means you’re doing something worth something.”