Song You Need to Know: Rett Madison, 'Shame Is a River'

As thoughtful, acoustic finger-plucking introduces listeners to 23-year-old Rett Madison’s silvery voice on her new song, “Shame Is a River,” it’s easy at first to confuse this cathartic battle cry with a lullaby. “Shame is a river/When I cross its waters, I always sink,” the West Virginia native sings with the kind of weathered sageness you might expect from a timeless folk artist like Joni Mitchell. “Hope’s on the other side, but I’ve got guilt tied like bricks to my feet.” However, once the audience crosses the two-minute mark, a sparkling crescendo of strings and keys builds, squashing any potential timidity.

“I was 15 when I had my first drink,” she sings. “Numb on the sofa, across from a shrink/Keeping my mouth shut and grinding my teeth/I got away as far as I could, but that didn’t do me any good/This hurricane’s within me.” The emotion in her fluttering vocals is tangible, especially when she takes an unexpected lyrical turn to look to the light in times of darkness. “Love is a sunrise,” she sings as her voice soars. “Where’s the light to eclipse my grief?”

This poetic prowess is rooted in devastation: The song’s inspiration stems from a final visit with her mother, who died by suicide months later. “She struggled with addiction and her mental health for most of my life and as I got older I began to understand that like my mom, I dealt with anxiety, PTSD, and depression,” the not-yet-signed artist shared in a recent statement. “The song isn’t solely about my experience, but about both my mother and I’s individual experiences with shame and guilt intertwined.”

Simultaneously brazen and vulnerable, Madison joins the likes of Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker in the new school of acclaim-worthy troubadours — with a voice that’s all her own.

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