Student Profile: Madi Diaz

Rob Hochschild
July 13, 2007

You could make a case that she's already ahead of Bob Dylan. After all, the iconic songwriter was 22 years old when he played the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 1963. Fifth-semester student Madi Diaz, who will open for Linda Ronstadt at this year's festival, is only 21.

"I am really freaked out," Diaz says. "There's 3,000 people. It's such an ancient festival with such a huge reputation. This is the craziest thing I've ever done."

But as she talks about being nervous, Diaz punctuates each statement with a full-on belly laugh. Clearly, this is a young woman who is not going to let the hugeness of the moment get in the way of enjoying herself.

It was obvious that Diaz was having a good time when she led her five-piece band in a set earlier this summer at Boston's hottest new club, the Beehive. She broke hearts on country-flavored ballads and played the snarling lead singer on roots rockers. Her all-Berklee band was tight and the crowd packed into the room hung on every word. The attention she commanded that night leads you to believe that she won't have any problem in Newport.

If Diaz comes across as a seasoned performer, that's because she is. She's been writing songs and fronting bands since her mid-teens. Diaz burst into the national consciousness in 2005 as one of the promising young musicians featured in Rock School, a documentary about the Philadelphia-based Paul Green School of Rock.

Soon after, she was was recognized walking down the street or waiting tables as "that girl from the movie." All that fame and accomplishment at such a young age notwithstanding, Diaz remains a young woman filled with humility and gratitude.

"It gets me so gassed that these guys [in my band] want to do my songs," says Diaz, adding that her new compositions are much more personal than the ones she wrote for bands she played in as a teen. "I never thought people would want to play my music, but they all like it."

Diaz's bio compares her to artists such as Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, and Patti Griffin. But her listening tastes run wide, encompassing not only roots rockers like Ryan Adams, but also bands ranging from the Books, who combine acoustic instruments and music samples, to lo-fi pioneers Guided by Voices. Her father, Eric Svalgard, who went to Berklee in the 1970s, is also an influence. A keyboardist, Svalgard performs with Frank Zappa tribute band Project/Object and runs a music school in Delaware.

When Diaz takes the stage on August 3 at this year's Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Festival, she'll join an impressive group of Berklee alumni that have played Newport in the past, including Bruce Cockburn, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Patty Larkin, and Melissa Ferrick. But this year's festival will be the first to feature a current student, marking an important chapter in a relationship that goes back to 1976, when Berklee honored Festival Productions founder George Wein with an honorary doctorate of music.

Several songs on Diaz's setlist and on her debut solo CD, Skin and Bone, were the product of work she did in her songwriting classes at Berklee. "I wrote ['Canvas'] for a class assignment, but I wanted to make it my own song," says Diaz. "I didn't look at it as some whim assignment. I'm not going to write something and just throw it away at some later time."

Songwriting professor Pat Pattison has had a big impact on Diaz's tunesmithing and in other ways. Pattison, along with Dunkin' Brands chairman and CEO Jon Luther—a Berklee trustee—helped pave the way for her appearance at Newport.

Pretty soon, people won't think of her anymore as "that girl from the movie." She'll be the "woman who played Newport."