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Meet Madeline Merlo, the rising star who'll pay tribute to her idol Shania Twain at the CCMAs

By
Melody Lau

“There’s always a lot of pressure when you meet your idols, but I think she’s going to be awesome.”

This year may be country artist Madeline Merlo’s fourth CCMA Awards appearance, but it's possibly her most nerve-wracking because it will mark her first time meeting one of her all-time favourite artists: Shania Twain.

And not only is the Maple Ridge, B.C., singer-songwriter going to meet Twain — she’s going to pay tribute to her onstage alongside fellow musicians Jess Moskaluke and Kira Isabella. It’s going to be a surreal moment for Merlo, who still vividly remembers seeing Twain perform at the first concert she ever attended.

“I remember my jaw was on the floor,” she describes enthusiastically. “She was so beautiful and such a great singer and she was Canadian. I just couldn’t believe it. She really was one of the reasons why I was like, 'OK, I can do this, because she did it and she’s from Timmins, Ont., and I’m from my tiny town.' Those moments as a kid are super powerful.”

At 24, Merlo is the youngest nominee in the female artist of the year category this year — which pits her against Lindsay Ell, Meghan Patrick, Moskaluke and Twain — but her place in the spotlight has been well-earned.

After being discovered at the age of 17, Merlo, who grew up around music and jokes that performing is “hereditary to some degree,” has been working hard on her songwriting skills. In 2014, she released her debut self-titled EP featuring five songs that showed a promising range for her as a vocalist and songwriter, from the anthemic chants on “Alive” to the stinging kiss-off of “Deleted.” Armed with some songs, she hit the road, opening for Dean Brody and Paul Brandt. And just a year later, she found herself at the CCMA Awards recieving the Rising Star award, an unexpected accolade that Merlo says “changed everything for me.”

“I didn’t even hug my mom who was sitting beside me!” she laughs, recalling that win. “I was so happy. It felt like such an affirmation from my community and the country world. It shined a light on my career at that point which was pressure, but pressure’s good.”

She says that award encouraged her to write some of her best songs yet, including “War Paint,” off her 2016 album, Free Soul. The track, which has become a fan favourite, finds Merlo opening up about mental health, a topic that she continues to promote to this day.

The reason why is personal: “Right before I graduated high school, I had a friend take her life and we didn’t know that she was struggling. It was a shock.” It took Merlo a few years to find the right words to put into a song, but she eventually transformed that experience into an uplifting melody of support where she sings to her subject: “I’ll take your fears and wipe your eyes and wear it all like war paint.” The song’s opening refrain, “It’s okay to not be okay,” is even scrawled all over Merlo’s merch, and she recently announced she’d be donating all those proceeds to mental health centres in the cities she's going to visit on tour.

“It’s crazy just seeing how many people suffer with their mental health or have family or friends who are impacted by it,” she continues, noting that she herself developed problems with anxiety after writing “War Paint.” “My fans and I talk to each other and we support each other. We’ve created this community and it’s just important to be in it together.”

Since the release of Free Soul, Merlo has relocated to Nashville to focus even more on her music. “I just want the opportunity to become the best artist and writer and musician that I can be and it’s like with anything, you have to go where people are the best,” she explains. “And for country music, it's Nashville.”

While she offers no concrete details on a followup album, Merlo has released some music since, most notably “Neon Love,” a pop-inspired country song about the artificiality of going out to the club, that has quickly become one of her most successful. Whereas “War Paint” connected to fans on an emotional level, Merlo’s latest proves she can also churn out an infectious and fun song, too. When asked why she thinks people relate to “Neon Love,” Merlo laughs and replies, “Drunk girls, I guess?”

With successes and milestones still building up for Merlo, she speaks about her experiences with a newness that she can’t seem to shake. “I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away,” she says, when referring to herself as a new artist compared to the many big names she’ll be rubbing shoulders with at September’s CCMAs. “I just have this laundry list of goals and places I want to be. It’s like Everest and I’m at the bottom.”

And what will happen when she finally conquers that Everest? “There’s always another Everest!”

The 2018 CCMA Awards will take place in Hamilton, Ont., on Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. (5 p.m. PT). It’ll be broadcast on CBC TV and can also be streamed on cbcmusic.ca/ccmas.

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