Maddie Ross has music figured out.
The 24-year old's most recent single is one of the best rock songs released this year, never mind that approximately no one has heard it yet. The bubblegum bulldozer "You're Still My Sugar" is the product of a D.I.Y. master plan including her own label, a production partner, and a fresh USC diploma with "Popular Music Program" on it.
And -- because who actually does what they went to school for? -- the L.A. resident is part SAT tutor, part social worker, and co-host of the Love Is a Softball Field podcast. A couple years back, she came out as queer by telling friends and family about her current partner/then-college girlfriend, who also happens to be the other half of that label-production duo. For Ross, it's all coming together -- but before we get ahead of ourselves, just listen to "You're Still My Sugar."
"It's like my first love song ever," Ross tells Billboard. "[The lyric] 'everybody's braindead' is the overwhelming sentiment there… Making music, a lot of people I meet are so contrived, really trying to sound like something. I feel so good about my relationship -- how authentic my girlfriend is and how authentic the music we make is."
Madison Scheckel, who goes by "Wolfy" in her creative endeavors, is Ross' producer, publicist, music director, live guitarist, and co-leader of their imprint, Sentimental Records. That's not to say that working alongside your romantic partner is easy. "We'e both very emotional people," Ross admits. "We'll definitely fight or bicker and we'll have to come back to stuff… Making music is really vulnerable. You're being so honest and putting yourself out there and then, in terms of releasing music and promoting it, you're putting a huge part of yourself out there."
Ross and Wolfy became friends and collaborators early on in their time at USC and began dating in their senior year. They were both enrolled in the school's popular music program; theirs was just the second year the rigorous, discipline-hopping curriculum was offered. Alongside music industry classes, students were placed in bands, essentially tasked with playing their way through music history, new genres looming each semester. "We were in theory class with all these jazz majors, which was some of the hardest stuff I've ever done in my life," she remembers.
Naturally, bands formed. Most notably, Maddie and Wolfy were classmates of Katie Gavin and Josette Maskin, now two-thirds of the sensational alt-pop band MUNA, who've already released one of this year's outstanding albums on RCA Records. "Maddie was in a group of girls I'd describe as my secret role models," Gavin says. "They were a year above me, two years above Josette. I don't think Maddie knows this, but the first time I saw her for an extended period of time was on Halloween. Her, Madison and their friend Caitlin [Notey, of the indie band Huxlee] were dressed up in legitimately scary costumes, which was out of the ordinary for girls at USC. They were walking down frat row and actually scaring frat guys." It was solid first impression and one that Ross built on after graduating. "I can't believe the way her artistic voice has developed the past few years," Gavin says. "And that's because of her own work and effort. You don't go into the program guaranteed to come out an authentic artist."
But no, not everyone in the program was as cool these ladies. "I feel like a lot of the people in my community who I know just want to be scooped up by a manager or a label," says Ross. "That's one of the things that differentiates me from a lot of the kids in my class… They think someone bigger needs to do something for them." While not decidedly opposed to playing ball with the industry -- she interned with Warner Bros. Records during her junior year -- Ross does know exactly what she's not looking for.
"I was talking to this one guy who was a manager," she remembers. "At first he seemed really cool and had worked with people I liked, but then he was like, 'I think we just really have to play up your sex appeal -- you're a cute girl, blah blah blah.' I was so taken aback. That was like last year. I realized I don't have to work with anyone ever again who makes me feel uncomfortable."
Alongside Wolfy, Ross devised a transparent payment model for Sentimental Records: earnings split into quarters amongst the artist, songwriter, producer and label. So far, though, they've only released their own music, covering all four bases themselves. "It's really empowering to do something yourself -- start a band, release your own artwork.," Ross says. "With 'Sugar,' I had this song written and I just wanted to release it. There are no rules; I can just release a single. No one's telling me what to do."
"Sugar" followes a pair of Maddie Ross EPs -- 2016's Making Out Is Easy and Television Is My Friend, released two years prior. While the songwriting's always been there, it's Ross' aesthetic that's recently blossomed. Television -- with a close-up, Revlon ad-esque Maddie on its cover -- features competent, politely polished pop-rock that's tough to place in a specific setting; Making Out and the "Sugar" single pivoted towards DIY cartoons of skulls and bubblegum, suggesting the sugary indie-punk sounds of Charly Bliss and Colleen Green.
"[Making Out Is Easy] feels like my actual debut EP," she says. "I feel like a real artist now rather than a kid just trying to make an EP." Adds Maskin -- "It's a lot more punk to me now in a way that I really love." Even better, the hooks run circles around 95% of like-minded Bandcamp bands.
Ross has new demos and hopes to release an "upbeat, fun summer EP" before the weather gets too warm. Ideally, she'd like to release an album and go on a full-fledged U.S. tour, but complications exist. Wolfy doesn't relish the live show as much as her and then there's the matter of Ross' job jobs -- SAT prep for underprivileged students and research/consulting for her parents' firm, which works to place women and minorities in executive roles. But more than covering rent money, these endeavors fill an important role.
"I've grown into myself a lot over the last few years," she says. "It's important for young people to see someone -- like the girls in MUNA -- cool girls or cool people self-identifying. We don't all fit the mold of what we think about those stereotypes. If I'd had more queer role models, it might've made coming out a bit easier."