For some, writing songs is a means of catharsis — a way to exorcise past traumas and level the playing field in fights that were previously lopsided. Maddie & Tae’s new single “Sierra,” which has been part of the duo’s repertoire since it appeared alongside “Girl in a Country Song” on their self-titled 2014 debut EP, comes out of that rich tradition. Like so many lingering traumas, its origins are rooted in the Game of Thrones-style competition more commonly known as high school.
Unusually driven by high school standards, Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye were already making regular visits to Nashville in their senior year, getting ready for what they figured would be their logical next step. Meanwhile, a classmate of Marlow’s was marshaling her friends and followers to spread rumors about the singer. Predictably, it hurt.
“She and her friends would say I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty enough, would never make it in country music. Very vicious,” recalls Marlow.
“Sierra” (her real name, different spelling) strikes a devastating blow back at the tormentor, warning her that her beauty queen looks will fade and she may one day not have any bridges left to burn. “Ooh, I hope that I’m around / when you get knocked up or get knocked down,” they taunt over bright strums of acoustic guitar and a skittering beat. Writing with collaborator Aaron Scherz, Maddie & Tae somehow manage to embody both old-soul wisdom and right-in-the-moment teenage pain, the wounds still fresh. The song also appears on the duo’s debut album, Start Here.
“[A]t the time I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s the end of the world. I’m never gonna live past this,'” recalls Marlow. “And that’s why we wrote that song, because I personally had to heal from it. I had to know that it’s gonna be okay. Like, someone does not define your self-worth.”
But part of what makes the song work so well is that idea of “Sierra” — specific as it may be about Marlow’s situation — isn’t limited to the experience of high school bullying. In nearly every facet of existence, bullies and abusers of power are still lurking.
“You might say that some people on Twitter are bullies. It doesn’t matter what situation you’re in,” says Dye. “Everyone gets in those moments where someone or something in their life just makes ’em feel like they don’t have what it takes.”
Additional reporting by Jewly Hight.