Maddy Walsh’s Tunnel of Love

The Blind Spots have long been a favorite local band in Ithaca and the surrounding areas. I remember first seeing them at The Choconut Inn located in Friendsville, Pennsylvania, and becoming an instant fan. I’m not sure whether it was their coordinated white stage clothes, their amazing cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dirty Woman,” or Maddy Walsh’s bigger than life voice and stage presence, but I’ve been following the band for a long time. They have even headlined Montrose’s annual Chocolate and Wine Festival not just once, but twice. As I prepared to interview Maddy for this article, I listened to her whole catalog, and again, I felt that shock and awe at Maddy’s powerful voice that first made me a fan.

So as we all sat back and fell into a Netflix stupor over the past year because of the pandemic, musicians like Maddy and The Blind Spots have been at a lost, especially since so much of their income is generated from performances rather than music sales.  What to do with this time?  “Things were so twisted around,” said Maddy, “that our normal methods of uplifting ourselves just didn’t work.” Instead of music, she told me she became interested in gardening, cultivating plants and staying rooted to the land. She’s not the first person to tell me that helped them get through this difficult time, and I’ve actually been told, there’s something about getting your hands in the dirt that helps improve your mood. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’m willing to take that message to heart.

The land is important. Place is important, maybe even more so, now that we’ve been tied down to our little plots of land more than ever before in our lives, which makes Maddy’s new album, The Tunnel Sessions, more relevant than ever to the lives we are leading as we push through this pandemic.

So let me explain. Just before the pandemic hit full force, according to Maddy, she made a trip to see friends in central Pennsylvania for a few days.  One day, they headed out to Poe Paddy State Park. Yeah, I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all my life, and I never heard of it either. The park is perched right in the middle of State College and Selinsgrove, where the lumbering town of Poe Mills used to exist, and it’s named Poe Paddy after Poe Mountain to the west and Paddy Mountain to the east.  I, myself, was hoping for some connection to Edgar Allan Poe, but alas there’s none.  

However, there is something quite mysterious and beautiful there. The park has a metal ribbed tunnel along a park pathway, and as Maddy explained to me, the sound and reverberations of the tunnel had such a unique quality that left her feeling inspired, especially by the organic nature of the sound. Here, there were no computers, no sampled sounds, no electronics—just her voice travelling through the tunnel, echoing and resounding off the walls, to the light at the other end.  By the time she left, she knew there was something special to be captured in that tunnel.

It wasn’t until August that Maddy would get her chance to go back to Poe Paddy State Park to record some music.  By then, we were all well into the pandemic, and like many artists, she had something to share about the pandemic, having written some songs that dealt directly with the feelings we all shared having been cooped up for so long. She had decided, “We need to write something to uplift people. We need to try to do what music does, which is give people hope.”  So the tunnel at Poe Paddy became her recording studio, and instead of seeking approval, they decided to just go at it, guerilla style, and get everything done, and there, inside the tunnel, Maddy could let her voice run wild.

I wanted to know, especially, what were the influences behind that voice. She told me two major influences were Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige—black female voices, which surprised me, though listening to her music I can feel them.  She said she’s always been interested in what those voices are doing with tonality and their runs, especially Houston. The Bodyguard soundtrack, Maddy said, had a profound influence upon her. As a teenager, she studied Houston’s voice on that album.

So with the tunnel at Poe Paddy as a backdrop, Maddy set out to record an album, dripping with the unique acoustics of that place. After running the wires and revving up the generator, the results are a remarkable six song album called The Tunnel Sessions, and as of now, I believe it’s the first full album to deal directly with the physical and emotional resonance of living through the pandemic. Indeed, a must for fans of The Blind Spots, but I think it deserves a reach much farther. 

Yes, there’s the tunnel, lending its own character, but what else? Well, Maddy and her producer, Steve Dewey, have stripped down the sound of The Blind Spots for this album.  If you’re used to electronics and synths driving the rhythm section of albums such as Rhizomatic and Talk, those sounds are abandoned on this album for more raw, organic sounds, that came with recording in such a unique location. Those sounds permeate the album, finding unique ways onto the tracks.  It’s very much a back-to-basics kind of feel, though there is definitely some cool techno-wizardry going on through the album. I’m reminded of Daniel Lanois’s work on both Emmy Lou Harris’s Red Dirt Girl and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Like those albums, The Tunnel Sessions remains raw and seemingly unadorned, and that quality for me, makes it stand out all the more.

Take for example, the song “Mantra.” It’s such a simple song, but given the Lanois-style treatment by Steve Dewey, the song becomes so much larger and expansive.  It has one lyric, a mantra: “Don’t let yourself get in the way of itself when your self wants to grow.” It’s easy, as you listen, to forget that there’s only just one lyric being repeated again and again as the layers of this song culminate toward a climax.  And the pandemic influence?  To me, there’s something about the message that seems so true, because we can be our worst enemies during this time alone in our houses, saturating ourselves in unhealthy pursuits, or we can allow this to be a moment of growth that leads us to new understandings of ourselves and our strengths, and I have to admit, I cried listening to this song more than once.

Another stand out track for me is “Swan Dive,” which Maddy also named as one of her favorites. This one also has the Lanois treatment, but the guitars are stronger with a beautiful little upward guitar riff that brings a buoyancy to the song. This riff plays against the lyrics describing three powerful “swan dive” moments that seem to be preludes to suicide or death. It sheds light on an unsavory reality, which many of us have been fighting, because the pandemic taken so many people down deep dark paths. It’s a song, at least for me, where I want to open the liner notes and read the lyrics, because it speaks to the emotional toll of this strange moment in history.

What Maddy has done with the liner notes, too, is something special. She’s created a pandemic scrapbook of sorts, 25 pages long. Sure, there’s the obligatory pictures of the artist and the tunnel itself, but there’s also a kind of diary of the pandemic and the creation of The Tunnel Sessions during a pandemic. And then there’s the question she asked her audience: What are the most soothing words someone could offer you right now?  The booklet contains the responses, all of them, along with answers to some other questions she wanted to explore.  Those responses became the song “Antiphon,” which is a collection of soothing words for the pandemic.  It’s such a beautiful moment on the album.  For me, the line that stood out was “You’re enough.”  And that’s so important, because we’re all feeling that scarcity right now. Not enough connection. Not enough love. Not enough music.

But Maddy Walsh wants us to know there’s an end in sight. Just like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Every day more people are vaccinated.  And more people connect with loved ones.  And music, whether it’s Maddy’s or somebody else’s, will come out of that tunnel and back to bars and stages. “The album feels like a hug,” said Maddy, and I can’t agree more. Though we’ve lost some people along the way, we are making it through, getting closer to that light every day.  We’re almost there, and I encourage you to listen to this album.  As a gift of sorts, Maddy wants to share The Tunnel Sessions with everyone, and it’s available for download for a donation of your choice or absolutely free, if you make that decision. So until we can all gather in the light on the other side of the tunnel, I wish you rest, peace, and happiness.

To download the album follow this link:

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