Boyceville singer advances on 'America's Got Talent'

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Jul. 7—LOS ANGELES — Singer-songwriter Madilyn Bailey considers herself an introvert, but she also loves to share her music with as many people as possible.

Though Bailey has loved singing for as long as she can remember — "I basically came out of my mother's womb singing, like 'Hello world,' " she told the Leader-Telegram — her first nerve-wracking public performances came during an Easter play at church and a school talent show while growing up in Boyceville.

Since those well-received debuts, Bailey has carved out a successful music career on YouTube, where her channel has amassed more than 8.5 million subscribers.

Her fan base appears destined to get bigger yet after her audition aired Tuesday night as part of the 16th season of "America's Got Talent," NBC's popular TV series in which singers, dancers, comedians, contortionists, impressionists, magicians, ventriloquists and other acts compete to win a $1 million top prize.

Bailey, 28, earned four "yes" votes from celebrity judges Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Sofia Vergara and Heidi Klum to advance in the competition.

Bailey described the experience of singing and playing guitar on the AGT stage in front of the judges as "surreal," "terrifying" and "awesome" at the same time.

A preview of Bailey's audition released by NBC shows her being greeted by Mandel and then drawing laughs for declaring, "I am originally from Wisconsin, born and raised in a very tiny town where there are more cows than human beings," in reference to her hometown of Boyceville (population: 1,086) just northwest of Menomonie.

In the audition, which already has been viewed more than 2.5 million times, Bailey explained her unusual song choice to the judges: "When posting content on the internet, inevitably comes the trolls, and so I thought I would take the hate comments from my YouTube videos and turn them into a song."

For the song, titled "I Wrote a Song Using Only Hate Comments 2," she somehow manages to take ugly comments such as "ear murder," "she's so overrated" and "I used to love this song, but now I hate it" and turn them into a lovely original folk pop song.

"That was clever," Cowell said after the performance.

Bailey, who performed at coffee shops and other small venues in Eau Claire and Menomonie before moving to Los Angeles in her early 20s, acknowledged it was a risky song choice because it doesn't show off her vocal range as much as others. Still, she hoped it would be memorable and make her stand out from the other hopefuls.

"I thought it might be a funny way to audition, show my songwriting ability and capture a very important issue in a humorous way — online trolls are a big problem with the internet," she said.

Her goal in writing the song, one of several she has created using social media comments, is to inspire others to take negativity, in her case hateful anonymous online comments, and use it as motivation.

Earning a positive review from Cowell, a famously tough critic not known to mince words if he doesn't like something, was a huge relief for Bailey, who recalls walking out on stage thinking "Simon, please like me."

In the comment section for the audition video, Bailey wrote: "Soooooo many of you asked me to go on AGT. I finally got brave enough."

Bailey, the daughter of Greg and Heidi Wold of Boyceville, grew up living across the street from her grandparents. She had six siblings, four of whom were adopted, and 52 foster siblings because her parents were devoted foster parents.

Bailey believes growing up with so many foster siblings helped add depth to her songwriting.

"I got to connect with very powerful emotions very young," she said. "These children go through some really terrible things at a young age and yet are so resilient. It helps you see that some really bad things can happen and you can still be OK."

Being home-schooled until high school also gave her more time to write songs and explore her creative side, said Bailey, who still gets back to Wisconsin regularly to see family.

As a high school student in 2009, she discovered YouTube music and thought, "I could do that."

Her videos took off almost from the start, and she hit the 1 billion views milestone last year.

Bailey is thankful to YouTube for enabling her to monetize the views to the extent that making music is her full-time job.

"People have given birth and danced at weddings to my songs," she said. "It's just so cool to be able to connect with so many humans in that way."

While online performance has been a good fit for someone not naturally comfortable with strangers, Bailey has learned to be at home on stage and toured worldwide until the COVID-19 pandemic struck just before she was scheduled to launch a tour in China.

"There's something about being on stage: It's where I'm supposed to be," she said.

Not only is Bailey a self-taught vocalist and guitarist, but her husband, Jimmy Benrud, also of west-central Wisconsin, taught himself how to be her producer and technology guru.

"At this point, we've basically DIYed our way through life," Bailey cracked.

For his part, Benrud is excited to be part of the team.

"I've been able to watch firsthand as she's built this huge online community of supporters (MadFam) that are totally infatuated with her music and voice," Benrud said, calling "America's Got Talent" the perfect platform for Bailey to share the gifts and personality he sees daily on a national level.

"I really believe that she has a great shot to make it all the way," Benrud said. "Madilyn is absolutely ready to represent Wisconsin and make the most of whatever opportunities her time on AGT brings."

After a series of audition episodes, "America's Got Talent" will move on to live shows in August.