Madison Price grew up in a musical family, but it's fair to say that she experienced much of her musical education on stages around St. Louis. She had played bass guitar in college and eventually picked up the ukulele, but her trial-by-fire began with borrowed guitars at open-mic nights and south-side hootenannies.
"Whenever I first started playing out, I was kind of forced to play in front of people," Price recalls. "I was hanging out with a bunch of folk singers who would call you out to play. I feel like I developed as a performer in front of people."
You can still hear some of that development on the Bandcamp page for Sister Wizzard, the one-woman project she has helmed over the past few years. There you'll find a pair of live recordings from 2017, made with nothing more than a too-loud drum machine, an errantly tuned guitar and Price's clear, affectless voice — a voice that got stronger and more assured the more she played live.
For Price, being part of a supportive musical community has helped; those same friends who prodded her to sing her songs in front of an audience still provide inspiration through example.
"I still get terribly nervous, but something that has really helped me is watching my friends perform," she says. "They snap into it and are totally in their element. I feel like I've taken that from seeing my friends. It's time to be present in this music, in this moment."
That was Price's experience at her album release show for Sister Wizzard's full-length debut Page of Mirrors, which took place in early August at the Heavy Anchor. These days a Sister Wizzard set is still led by Price, but instead of a guitar she uses a tiny KORG synthesizer and a loop pedal to craft intoxicating pop songs with tones that can range from saccharine sweet to darkly dubby.
In a season that promises upcoming releases by some of the city's most promising and challenging artists — Le'Ponds, Golden Curls, Katarra — Page of Mirrors serves as a benchmark for what is still to come in 2019.
Part of the album's appeal lies in the unexpected approach; if you only knew Sister Wizzard as a singer-and-guitar act, the nimble structures and airtight rhythm section will be a surprise. But even those familiar with Price's stage show will pick up on the precise production, courtesy of Drangus' Tom Pini, as well as Keith Bowman's feather-touch drumming. Price and Pini bonded after a shared bill at the Ready Room and started working together last winter.
"I had recorded at two really nice studios and was never happy with what I had paid for," Price says. "I wanted a friend who knew me and knew my music. Sometimes you need that personal connection."
Price credits Pini with keeping her songs largely unadorned. "You can tell there is a lot of space in the album and lots of room to breathe. He knew exactly how to fill some of the spaces to add textures," she says.
Much of the mood comes from Price's own synth programming; her instrument, a microKORG, is versatile enough to summon a host of keyboard sounds, and Price was conscious to avoid casting a too-disparate sound over these songs. Her tones are generally simple — not harmonically overloaded or aggressively buzzy or abrasive — and Price says that her sound-sculpting is inspired by her lyrics.
"The sounds should mirror the tone of the songs — I want the upbeat songs to feel brighter and on the lighter side of things," she says. "For those more Nancy Sinatra, Peggy Lee type of songs, I want it to feel smokey."
Some of that slinky, smokey sound comes out on "King Cobra," a song about a caddish playboy that exposes the sliminess of dickish dudes — kind of a "Smooth Operator" relocated to Cherokee Street. The slow and swirling "Dry Up" takes a more personal and vulnerable look at busted relationships and the role that addictions play in deepening those fissures; Price calls it a "palette cleanser" on an album that is largely beat-driven.
Album closer "Enough" is Sister Wizzard's take on an empowerment anthem — Price calls it her Lizzo-inspired "bad bitch" moment and envisioned crowds chanting its chorus back at her as she wrote it. The song also serves as a capstone to the eight-track album.
"This whole album is about me falling in love and love being fresh and fun, and then going through the loss and heartbreak," Price says. "I also needed to have a song where I talked about having self-love.
"If I can leave people with anything," she adds, "I want them to feel good."