Exclusive: Family Affair with Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear

Recently, Milk’s JamRoom served up something a little different to its select patrons. The featured artists of the night? Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. The mother-son duo has been touring across the world, even stopping by one of the last shows of Letterman, in support of their debut album Skeleton Crew.

Much like their music, the pair is relaxed and completely authentic in their interactions. Seeing them sit together really is just like watching a mother and son laugh, banter, and be family, but once they get on stage, they have a sound that can bring you to tears as easily as it can make you get up and boogie. Milk Made’s Jordan Mack got to sit with them minutes before the rocked the Jam Room to talk about their relationship as bandmates and family members, David Beckham and opening for one of B. B. King’s last shows.

Are you guys excited for the show tonight?

Madisen: Yeah, Milk is a cool space. Plus, they just told me David Beckham might be coming. DBecks! That’s just so cool.

Ruth: We’re getting a picture with him. I don’t care what I have to do.

How did the mother-son duo come to be?

Ruth: Well, I’ve been playing music since I was 19 in coffee houses, some clubs. The whole family would come out to hear me play. Then when Madisen was in high school, he started to play and write songs. I noticed that he had a gift, so when I would go to play, I would make Madisen come up to play some of his songs. We got a good reaction from the audience, and we had a good rapport, so it just evolved from that.

Was that nerve-racking at first to be called up on stage like that?

Madisen: Not at all. I’ve always loved being on stage. When I was young, I would act in plays and stuff like that. I love performing. Music was just a later ambition, because it was always in the house. I grew up with it, and Mom always played it, but it felt like her thing. Once I got up on stage though, it clicked. It was really comfortable, especially having my mom literally right next to me. There was a certain freedom that I became addicted to in just being able to write whatever you want. I think if I had been playing from when I was little, my writing would be very different.

How do you think coming to music later shaped your writing?

Madisen: You have a weird sense of discovery when you start playing music. I’ve never been one to focus on other artists, or learn their riffs. There are bits of my mother’s playing style with me, but it’s really just me sitting in a room trying to figure this thing out.

If you could cover any musical artist, who would it be?

Madisen: Tom Waits, for sure. He’s got soul.

Ruth: Out of anyone, probably Adele.

Madisen: Really?

Ruth: Oh yeah, she’s got a depth to her that you know is real. She’s my girl. When anyone, man or woman, can sing and really just caress the vocals.

Madisen: Oh, can I change my answer to Ginuwine? [laughs] That’s my real answer.

What’s it like touring together? Do you ever get on each others nerves or anything?

Ruth: Oh yes! All the time.

Madisen: It’s the nature of family really. It’s really not different than living at home together. I think that’s also the nature of touring with anyone, it’s like having a roommate. My mom and I get on each other’s nerves but we still love each other. It’s kind of a cruel advantage because –

Ruth: We know we’re not going anywhere [laughs]

Madisen: Well that and we know it’s not personal. If I had just met her and we had just starting playing together, I’d be so nervous because let me tell you, my mother knows how to tell it like it is. If I wasn’t her son, I would totally think she disliked me, but there’s that love there as a base.

So you guys just debuted ‘Skeleton Crew’, and you guys have blown up between Letterman and Rolling Stone. How has this increase in fame changed the process, and the dynamic between you two?

Madisen: It makes you want to work harder, but the dynamic really hasn’t changed. It’s still the same feeling of us just playing at home. That hasn’t changed too much, and we don’t want it to change.

What’s it like raising Madisen Ward and vice versa? What’s it like being raised by Ruth Ward?

Ruth: Well I have two other children. I have an older daughter and son, and a beautiful granddaughter. I raised them the same. Everyone is the same. I would joke with them and tell them that ‘fair’ doesn’t live here, when they would say ‘it’s not fair!’ But I don’t know. I mean he’s my son? No one has ever asked me that question [laughs]

Madisen: You don’t know what it was like to raise me? [laughs]

Ruth: I guess I was there, but no one really asks that. He was a good kid. He never gave us any real problems. He’s very normal. My biggest thing was to love unconditionally and allow them to be who they wanted to be, whether it’s a musician or a real estate agent, like my other two children. I just wanted them to be able to function as adults.

Madisen: Growing up having my folks as my folks was an interesting background. They’re pretty eclectic people with great taste, which is something I really appreciate, looking back. It’s really affected my own tastes. They didn’t really argue. Like she said, it’s a pretty normal household. We’re all really close because it’s always just been the five of us. We’ve always depended on each other and had a tight knit group.

If we talked to either of you 10 years ago, and we told you that would be playing together, going on tour together, doing these interviews, what would you have said?

Madisen: If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have told you my dad’s favorite line, ‘You teasin!’ [laughs] I really wanted to do something in the entertainment industry, not necessarily music. I always wanted to follow my uncle’s footsteps, Vincent Ward. He was on The Wire and I looked up to him my whole life. So if you told me all of this 10 years ago, I’d be thinking ‘oh good, my plan comes together.’ [laughs] But as far as what it became, that’s where the unreal aspect comes in.

Ruth: I’m of the same mindset, ‘you teasin.’ I’m surprised. 10 years ago, I never would have dreamed of this. I was playing coffee houses for years, and my brain never really went further than that. Now that we’re doing this, my mind has really expanded. We even went to Europe! I went to a cooking school in Italy about 10 years ago, and I always really regretted not traveling when I was younger. Here I am now, fulfilling all of these dreams. But the most important thing is that no matter what, I’ve always been content.

Madisen: That’s always been a big theme in our family: contentment. It’s never been about having a lot. It was about using what you had. It comes into the music too. We don’t like big production, it’s just our voices and our guitars. That’s the ‘skeleton crew’. Just basics.

Ruth: My husband would always say, ‘simple pleasures are the best.’

Your husband has a lot of great one liners.

Madisen: That’s all he does. We’re going to make him put out a book of them [laughs]

Have you always been a ‘Mama Bear? Like ‘don’t mess with my cubs or I’ll cut you’ kind of thing?

Ruth: Cut you? That’s intense. You sound like B. B. King with that. When we opened for him, he would always talk about cutting people! ‘Don’t do this or I’ll cut ya!’ That’s an old school thing to say. But to answer the question, when we were first putting the duo together, Madisen suggested Mama Bear, but someone had that. So then my husband said ‘Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’, and it just stuck. As far as protecting my ‘cubs,’ I’m like a mama lion keeping the pride together, bringing home the bacon. ‘Mama Bear’ is new, but I accept it.

Madisen, would you say you have a ‘hip mom’?

Madisen: A hip mom? I don’t think I’m even that hip. [laughs]

Ruth: I’m not hip, but Madisen is definitely not hip either. [laughs]

Madisen: We’re just us. On stage we’re bandmates, but as soon as we walk off it’s back to mother and son. We’re not doing anything crazy and cool. We’re just doing us and having a great time. Our biggest mission is to make people happy. If people like our music, we can’t help but keep making more.

Listen to the new album Skeleton Crew here

Madisen Ward & Mama Bear photographed exclusively for Milk Made by Drew Levin

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