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The Journey Took Madi Diaz To Creating Her New Album, 'History Of A Feeling'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than once, it seemed like Madi Diaz was on the verge of a breakthrough. In fact, the singer-songwriter has been on a longer journey. Jewly Hight of member station WNXP says Diaz has made her way through breakups with the industry and a partner to arrive at her sharpest perspective by far on her first album in seven years, "History Of A Feeling."

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Madi Diaz didn't always know how to show the unraveling of complicated emotions in her songwriting, but she does now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW PERSON, OLD PLACE")

MADI DIAZ: (Singing) Can't be a new person in an old place.

HIGHT: In the video for that new song, she rides with her past, present and future selves in her own squatty, blue-green 1997 Toyota Tacoma. That's a metaphor. In real life, she looks back on signing a publishing deal at the age of 20 as...

DIAZ: Making my first bad decisions in my music career (laughter). Hooray.

HIGHT: Diaz jokes that she spent the next 15 years figuring things out and offers to retrace some of that journey on a drive. Her first act as tour guide is to retrieve pliers from the floorboard of her pickup truck and adjust her manual windows.

DIAZ: I don't know where my passenger-side window crank is, so there's so many things that can go wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR IGNITION STARTING)

HIGHT: Diaz navigates to a corner cottage, her first Nashville home. Both backyard hangs and songwriting appointments let her see that friendships could free up creativity.

DIAZ: Like, it really taught me the importance of, like - I don't know - just being able to, like, sit still or, like, have, like, a conversation with somebody or, like, a song comes out of, like, something real that you're talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO")

DIAZ: (Singing) What a strange day. For once not lost in a bad way.

HIGHT: She landed songs and TV shows. And just before she released what was expected to be her breakthrough album, her label folded. At the moment, she's steering us down a winding tree-lined road in East Nashville that she finds serene. Back then, in search of new experiences, she signed a lease in LA and tried doing a more danceable version of singer-songwriter pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE DARK")

DIAZ: (Singing) I just want you all alone, standing in my danger zone.

HIGHT: It was good but didn't really help Diaz's voice stand out. She wondered if she was meant to be a musical partner and joined a couple of bands. She also had a serious romantic partner.

DIAZ: I had never really, you know, allowed myself to kind of, like, go there on the level of, like, hey, get married. Have kids.

HIGHT: But when a fire drove Diaz and her partner from their home, she took it as a sign. Their relationship was already disintegrating, and her partner, who she'd first known as a man, was transitioning into living as a trans woman. After they split, Diaz couldn't see herself staying on the West Coast and loaded up the Toyota in 2017.

DIAZ: I absolutely hurled myself across the country. I mean, I just kind of kept my head down and got back to Nashville as quick as possible so that I could physically and mentally unpack.

HIGHT: Diaz found a place where she could do that in Shelby Park. It's a hill with a sweeping view.

DIAZ: Man, I came here on so many, like, lonely full-moon moments and just, like, pulled my sad truck into this parking lot and backed my sad truck bed up to the edge of the hill and set up my sad blanket (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MADI DIAZ SONG, "NERVOUS")

HIGHT: Curled up in her truck bed, Diaz recorded her thoughts as voice memos and later fleshed some of them out as songs. She didn't have a record deal or publishing contract, just a bartending gig. For once, what she did with music was entirely up to her. She worked her way through as many as 200 songs, repeatedly chiseling on the same themes until she had the 11 that became her album "History Of A Feeling."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NERVOUS")

DIAZ: (Singing) I know why I lie to myself.

HIGHT: Diaz turned to the co-writer she knew and trusted, including Jarrad K.

JARRAD KRITZSTEIN: I feel great with her being able to say, like, that's wrong. That's not actually how you feel.

HIGHT: A breakup always involves more than one person. Diaz was writing about an especially complex one and focused on which parts of it were hers to tell. What she was after and achieved was emotional clarity.

DIAZ: There are no sides. There's just, like, this story. And, like, I'm not trying to be right (laughter). I'm just trying to say, you know, what I experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOMAN IN MY HEART")

DIAZ: (Singing) There's a woman in my heart.

HIGHT: Diaz hadn't recorded an album in a while, and she took a new approach, favoring the immediacy of her first takes. And the music sounds and feels so different than what she's done for the last decade and a half.

DIAZ: All of these years have been so like disastrously important (laughter) - crucial.

HIGHT: Crucial to Madi Diaz collecting necessary insight on her way here.

For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOMAN IN MY HEART")

DIAZ: (Singing) There's a woman in my heart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.