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How Maddie Zahm Spun Her Deepest Insecurities Into Songwriting Gold: ‘I’m Writing to Heal’

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When Maddie Zahm meets fans of hers in real life, a question immediately pops into her mind. “I’m always wondering, ‘Okay, so what’s your trauma?’” she tells Billboard over a Zoom call, sporting a cozy autumnal sweater. “Usually they will straight up tell me, because I have absolutely touched on like four different traumatic topics with my music.”

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The singer’s face lights up as she begins laughing at her songwriting habits. To others, that level of candor and directness from a stranger on the street might sound scary; for 24-year-old Zahm, it’s a reciprocation of what she started with her music career. Thanks to radically forthright songs like “Fat Funny Friend” and “You Might Not Like Her” going viral on TikTok, the singer-songwriter grew accustomed to sharing her most internal thoughts with the people following her.

On her latest project, Zahm is going all-in on diaristic songwriting. Now That I’ve Been Honest, the singer-songwriter’s debut album (out Friday, Oct. 20 via AWAL), provides listeners with some of Zahm’s most intimate lyrics yet, looking back at her own experiences with trauma, coming out, and learning how to live her life as a fully functioning adult.

As she describes it, Zahm says she knew that she’d already let fans in on her thought process, so it only made sense that her full-length project would double down on the premise. “There’s this level of familiarity between [my fans and I] because I was really brutally honest with the EP [You Might Not Like Her]. So it didn’t make sense for me to all of a sudden not be honest,” she says. “Why would I stray from what I’ve been doing right thus far?”

Getting to this point in her career was never a given for Zahm. The singer-songwriter took an early interest in music when she became a worship leader in her church at age 13. When leading services, she remembers feeling a sense of “calling,” but later found herself asking questions about what exactly was calling to her. “Is that the Holy Spirit, or is that just a good synth?” she recalls with a wry smile. “I have since figured it out.”

As her interest and belief in her church waned, her fascination with music only grew. At 19, Zahm decided to audition for season 16 of the just-rebooted American Idol. “It was mostly because I wanted to skip class, and I stand by that,” she quips. Wielding an acoustic guitar and a cherubic smile, the singer wowed Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan with her soulful rendition of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” immediately earning three “yes” votes and advancing to Hollywood Week.

“I don’t know how the f–k I made it,” she says, looking back on her brief Idol stint. During Hollywood Week, she found herself forgetting the lyrics to the songs she was tasked with performing, “which is hilarious now that I’m such a lyric driven musician.” Eventually, Zahm was eliminated before the Top 24 of the show were announced.

Going back home to Boise, Idaho, Zahm decided to take a different approach to her career. Throughout the early days of the pandemic, she wrote, recorded and self-released a series of songs, which she later compiled into an LP called People Pleaser. Bearing very little resemblance to the delicate, earnest lyricism of her contemporary music, People Pleaser saw the songwriter trying her hand at simpler, country-inspired songs with one goal in mind: Get a publishing deal and become a songwriter.

“My intro to writing songs was listening to a bunch of breakup songs — I love a joke and I love leaning all the way into a bit, and with breakup songs, I realized that it’s literally just about being witty to a tune,” Zahm explains. “It felt like most like country songs were basically just ‘f–k you’ songs with a good storytelling aspect, so I decided to make that my genre.”

Her gambit worked — within a few months, Zahm was signed to a publisher and immediately began turning in her country tracks to see who would end up recording them. That’s when, as she puts it, she got some life-changing advice. “My rep on the publishing side basically told me, ‘This isn’t you,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Ouch.’ But she was right — I had so much more to write. So then I started writing pop music and way oversharing.”

One of the earliest songs Zahm wrote in her new phase of pop authorship was “Fat Funny Friend,” a devastating ballad about societal mistreatment of plus-size people and the toll that mistreatment can take on a person’s mind. Zahm’s voice aches with resonant pain as she sings heartbreaking words like, “They can’t relate/ To how I’ve drawn out in Sharpie where I’d take the scissors/ If that’s what it took for me to look in the mirror.”

But Zahm nearly didn’t release her career-defining song. When she originally started writing the track in 2021, she was in the middle of a weight-loss journey — which is what stirred up her feelings on the subject in the first place — and experienced conflicting emotions about the optics of releasing a song about being fat while actively losing weight.

“I was very aware that there wasn’t a song that blatantly talked about an experience of being fat,” she explains. “I know that when I was at my heaviest weight, if I heard a song like ‘Fat Funny Friend,’ looked it up, and saw this person singing it that had a smaller body, that really would have rubbed me the wrong way. So that was part of the reason I told everyone it was never going to be released.”

Things changed, though, when a man offered to help Zahm with some car trouble — when she arrived back home, she couldn’t stop thinking about the exchange. “I knew that before weight loss, it wouldn’t have been the same conversation. He would have acted totally different, and I was really upset about it.”

She published a clip of the song on her TikTok account in December of 2021, where she had amassed a small-but-mighty following over the last year of writing and releasing her own music. At first, there wasn’t anything too special about the response to the song. But within a few weeks, Zahm received a call from her publisher, telling her to look at the number of times her sound had been used on the app.

“There were thousands of people telling their story, and I started getting anxious,” she says. “I posted a video explaining why I still resonate with the song, even when I’m losing weight. And I woke up to about 30 million views. I remember not sleeping that night and calling my publisher back, saying, ‘What is happening?’”

In a matter of weeks, Zahm had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of streams on the song, all after she was certain she would have to abandon her solo career in favor of working as a songwriter. Instead, she saw that blistering honesty was her strength as an artist — which meant that she could tell her fans anything.

“I don’t think I would be out of the closet if it wasn’t for ‘Fat Funny Friend,’” Zahm offers matter-of-factly. “That song encouraged a sense of vulnerability in me, and I saw what healing that gave to people. I would have been f–king selfish to have kept something like ‘You Might Not Like Her’ to myself. So, I came out for that song.”

Written as a letter to her younger, religious self, “You Might Not Like Her” tracks Zahm’s journey of deconstruction with her faith alongside her coming out journey as a queer woman. Throughout the song, the singer warns herself that “someday, you’ll kiss a girl and you’ll panic,” and that “you’ll hate that you’ll label yourself just to take it back/ Convinced you’re not bi ’cause you’re way too into guys,” before concluding that “for a while you might not like her, but I do.” The song, much like “Fat Funny Friend,” immediately found its audience on TikTok, with fans sharing their own coming out and deconstruction experiences along to the tune — exactly as Zahm had hoped.

With a brand rooted in writing intimate songs about her innermost thoughts, the singer-songwriter has found herself beginning to question what she reveals to her fans through her songs, and what she keeps for herself. “I’m writing the songs to heal, I’m not writing them to be relatable. So I’m still learning that line of what I’m comfortable writing about,” she says. “This album has actually kind of posed a conversation with myself, where I’m starting to figure out how much I’m willing to let people in.”

The other conversation Zahm found herself having throughout the making of Now That I’ve Been Honest was about her sound. Up until now, much of Zahm’s music has been rooted in soulful pop, reminiscent of the worship songs that she grew up listening to. But now, as an openly queer ex-Christian, Zahm wanted to find out what she sounded like outside of her church. “It was a lot of trial and error,” she says, rubbing the back of her head. “It was a lot of sending mixes to producers, them saying ‘This is f–king bad,’ and me saying, ‘So true, bestie, gonna try again.’”

That experimentation is evident on the album. Fans of Zahm’s established sound will have plenty to revel in with tracks like “Where Do All the Good Kids Go?” and the heartbreaking ballad “Dani.” But for those seeking something new, the singer-songwriter explores plenty of new sonic realms. On “Bedroom,” Zahm plugs in her guitars and turns up the angst, raging against an ex whose memory tainted her home. “Eightball Girl,” meanwhile, brings in bombastic pop sounds to follow Zahm’s all-encompassing crush on the titular character.

But there is likely no song on Now That I’ve Been Honest that feels more transformative for Zahm than “Lady Killer.” On the slick, disco-rock banger, the singer-songwriter steps into a Prince-adjacent funk aesthetic, trying on some swagger as she hits on a “straight” girl, letting her know know that “you think that you’re not sexual, ’cause with him … you’re not.”

The moment the song comes up in conversation, Zahm bursts into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “You know what’s so funny about that song? Listening to it, you would genuinely have thought that I had this high body count and that I had been out there being a lady killer,” she says, “At the time I wrote that, I had made out with maybe two girls in my life. I live for the fact that it is so unhinged.”

As funny as Zahm finds the song, she also recognizes how important it is for her, along with the myriad other sapphic themes explored throughout her debut. Where You Might Not Like Her served as a vehicle for the songwriter’s coming out story, Now That I’ve Been Honest lets her bask in what it means to live as a queer woman in the modern day. As she says, her new album is an earned progression in her career and in her own life. “When I came out, especially to my hometown and the people that knew me as a worship leader, I didn’t want to be like ‘F–k you, I’m gay now,’” she says. “I wanted there to be conversation about it so that I then felt the freedom to release something like this.”

But as with so many of her other works, Zahm also makes sure to point out that this album is not just for herself. “I want someone to hear ‘Lady Killer,’ and I want someone to hear ‘Bedroom,’ and I want them to sound like something you would hear on the radio when girls sing about guys,” she says. “Those are the songs that I would have really loved to hear when I was coming out and wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality. Like, there is such a power in a simple breakup song about a girl.”

She pauses for a moment to consider what she’s just said, before nodding her head in affirmation: “I hope that it can provide them solace the way that writing it helped me.”

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