Madi Diaz

Madi Diaz's new album Phantom is a break-up record, but you'd never know that from a casual listen - and that's just what the singer/songwriter was aiming for.

"I'm trying to push past the break-up-record thing," she said in a recent phone interview in advance of her November 21 record-release show at Rozz-Tox. "I'm hoping the music pulls it past the cold, harsh idea of a break-up record. ... That's kind of my favorite thing, that juxtaposition: the very dry, grounded, present lyrics with a kind of uplifting, soaring musical bed. That's what I was striving for with the record."

Both Diaz and Christian Lee Hutson - who will be returning to the Quad Cities for the show with Diaz - are promoting records whose idiosyncratic pop textures mask darker emotional content.

For Diaz, that pop direction was a choice born of practical considerations. "You become very aware of the idea that you're going to have to live with this thing for a couple of years if you're lucky," she said of the album. "And I wanted to definitely make sure the music was something that made me feel powerful, empowered - and not just illustrating the sadness."

Filler magazine called Phantom "a beautiful blend of pop hooks and storytelling" and "an indelible listen that will have you humming your favorite tracks through the week." And taste-maker radio station KCRW noted: "Rarely has an album about being knocked down by life sounded so attractively catchy ... . Glossy production nicely shapes Diaz's dance-music-flecked songs, which throb with subterranean bass lines, ear-tickling refrains, and her own genuine, no-frills vocals."

It's not all bright beats and keys, though. Closer "Ashes" has a sweet but haunted, arresting vocal break that carries the slightest hint of threat. In the middle of the record, the indie-rock guitar of "The First Time" and the low-end piano and blunt percussion of "Ghost Rider" have a lean muscularity that helps anchor Phantom.

Diaz often uses the word "lush" to describe her sonic goals with Phantom, and producer Nick Ruth was essential in accomplishing them, she said.

The pair first met on a blind writing session, and they spent the first four hours just talking. "For a second I really thought that we would maybe end up better talking friends than musical friends," she said.

But their first writing session spawned Phantom's "The Other Side," and she found that Ruth was the first producer candidate who got the scope of the record - spanning a relationship from its beginning to its end. It helped that he shared her belief in pop music beyond sugarcoating songs.

"I hadn't really found anyone that I felt could cover the width of the record yet," she said, adding that both she and Ruth have a love of pop with a "lush, wide landscape, but nothing hollow and nothing shallow. ... He brought a warm thoughtfulness to it that it definitely needed and that I was looking for."

Given the emphasis Diaz places on the pop elements of these songs, it was important that she could re-create the record's sounds with a live band. In particular, she said, keyboardist Jenn Stone helps achieve that.

"It's pretty much all there," Diaz said. "She hears a sound on the record, and she goes, 'I want to be able to replicate and make exactly that.' ... She'll work on a sound for eight hours."

Christian Lee Hutson: "A Really Strange, Narcissistic Pop Record"

Christian Lee HutsonWhen I talked with Hutson by phone recently, he said I caught him at an odd time: He was listening to a song by an ex-girlfriend that he was pretty sure was about him.

It was deserved payback, he admitted: "I've written two records about her. This is what it feels like." His joking advice: "Never date a musician that has a voice, also."

Like Diaz, Hutson has dressed up dark songs in a pop costume, working with producer David Mayfield on his release-one-song-per-month 2014 album Yeah Okay, I Know. But while Diaz's record would fit comfortably on pop radio - the songs are fully invested and transformed - Hutson's is merely trying on outfits.

The songs undoubtedly have the right warmth, but their roots in the singer/songwriter tradition show through.

"I listen to a lot of pop music, and I really wanted to make a pop record," he explained. "That's a really strange choice considering everything I had done musically up to that point."

He added that his and Mayfield's dispositions don't really lend themselves to pop; he said that he's "too much of a weirdo" to make a pure pop record, and Yeah Okay, I Know ended up "a really strange, overly self-aware, narcissistic pop record." (This was delivered with a laugh - a protective layer of self-deprecation.)

That mix of serious, sharp Americana songwriting, oddball instrumentation, and ear candy can best be heard on "Playing Dead." It has an organic core - Hutson's voice and bright guitar and synth - that's stretched by beats and a climactic screech of melodic guitar noise.

The recordings began with Hutson playing the songs on guitar - "a raw performance of them," he said - "and then we'd kind of go through it and tear it apart or build it up."

"That'll Do" sounds mostly torn apart, with the only accoutrement an ambient backing vocal that barely registers as a vocal. That's an example of what you should expect at Rozz-Tox, as Hutson said that in solo shows "I just make them what they originally were - stripped-down, finger-picked."

And in those settings, he said, "lyrically, it feels a lot maybe heavier ... . You just have to listen to what it says. ... There's a lot more space."

Giving songs space of a different sort was the goal with the unconventional release strategy for Yeah Okay, I Know.

When the album was finished in late 2013, Hutson said, "I was happy with every single song." And he thought: "I wish I could release all of them as singles."

He also said the song-a-month approach was a reaction to the experience of his first album, when he was "really frustrated" that it came out and "now it's over."

And as the unveiling of Yeah Okay, I Know winds down, Hutson said, "I'm happy that each one [of its songs] had a chance to be heard. ... It's interesting to see them compete against each other. It's a really weird way to gauge what the audience likes."

But he jokingly warned that "in the time that this record has been coming out, I have two more records" tracked and finished. "I have these things in the wings."

So he could, in theory, continue releasing a new song each month for the next couple years - Yeah Okay, I Know as a triple album: "In 2017, it's over," he said. "Then I'll probably retire."

Madi Diaz and Christian Lee Hutson will perform on Friday, November 21, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; Admission to the 7:30 p.m. all-ages show is $7 to $12.

For more information on Madi Diaz, visit For more information on Christian Lee Hutson, visit

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