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Rising stars: Singer-songwriter alumni Rett Madison and Ava Suppelsa share where their musical journeys have taken them
From playing sold-out shows in New York to signing publishing deals, these young musicians are living their dreams—and using the skills they learned at Interlochen.
For many young musicians, it’s the ultimate dream to sing their hearts out under the dazzling stage lights or hear a song they wrote playing over the radio. In the past few years, two young alumni of Interlochen’s Singer-Songwriter program have turned their visions into reality.
Rett Madison and Ava Suppelsa have launched thriving careers in songwriting and popular performance that have allowed them to work with some of today’s biggest artists. Here, the two musicians share some recent highlights and talk about how Interlochen helped them get where they are.
Rett Madison: “I just felt so supported”
Ask Rett Madison (IAC 10-11, IAA 13-15) what she does, and she doesn’t list off her accomplishments, although the young musician has been lauded in publications like Billboard, American Songwriter, and Rolling Stone. Nor does she mention her album Pin-Up Daddy, which she released in 2021.
Instead, Madison cuts right to the heart of her musical project, revealing an artistic seriousness that sets her apart from her peers.
“First and foremost, I'm an artist that tries to write from a place of vulnerability and authenticity,” she says.
Madison studied a variety of subjects at Interlochen, all of which contributed in valuable ways to her journey toward becoming the musician she is today. Though she started experimenting on her family’s piano when she was about 11 or 12, she originally came to Interlochen Arts Camp to study creative writing.
“Once I got there, I fully fell in love with it,” Madison remembers. “That program helped me find my voice as a writer, storyteller, and lyricist.”
The next summer, she studied musical theatre—a program which she says helped her “connect better with the stories and emotions that I was trying to portray.” It wasn’t until she came to Interlochen Arts Academy, though, that Madison picked up the guitar and began writing songs in earnest. In the Singer-Songwriter program, Madison’s ambitions crystallized and her future became clear.
“I just felt so supported not only by the teachers, but by my peers,” says Madison. “I felt really safe to explore topics in my writing that I don't think I would have otherwise, had I been at home. I was able to dive in and explore complex familial relationships in my writing for the first time. I was able to write about queerness for the first time in songs at Interlochen. I felt like it was a safe enough place for me to take risks. Feeling like I was held by the community while I took those risks is really what helped me grow as an artist and a writer.”
The years since graduating from Interlochen have brought many exciting accomplishments for Madison (she’s worked with stars like Lorde and Theo Katzman), but two moments stand out above the rest. Madison says it was an incredible experience to sell out her first-ever show in New York City.
I just felt so supported not only by the teachers, but by my peers. I felt really safe to explore topics in my writing that I don't think I would have otherwise, had I been at home.
“That was the first time I ever heard an audience sing along to a chorus of one of my songs, called ‘Pin-Up Daddy,’ with me,” she says. “Honestly, it just made me really emotional to think that a song that I wrote while literally crying in my apartment actually resonated with other people. There was a really visceral moment where I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is something I’ve wanted for so long!’”
Another standout moment was opening for Sheryl Crow in Portland, Maine.
“Every single moment of that day felt really surreal,” says Madison. “I was like, ‘I can't believe I’m here, that I got to open for her, or that I can be this close to seeing her perform.’”
What’s next for Rett Madison? She just signed another record deal this February, becoming the first artist on Warner Records’ newest label, War Buddha Records. Her highest priority is to maintain her momentum: “I really hope I'm lucky enough to continue to be surrounded by musicians that inspire me, people that I want to collaborate with and make 10 more albums with. That's my goal—just keep making music.”
Ava Suppelsa: “I'm unique for having these skills”
Though Ava Suppelsa (IAA 13-15) got her start in performing her own songs, her true love was the writing process: “I like to perform but I love writing songs more than anything else,” she says. The Chicago native now makes her home in Nashville, where she has a thriving songwriting career and runs her own nonprofit. For Suppelsa, going to Interlochen Arts Academy marked an important transition in her artistic life.
“I went to a huge high school. I was the only kid that I knew writing songs, performing them, and having a goal that I already knew I wanted to focus on,” says Suppelsa. “It was incredible to be around other people [at Interlochen] who did that. At Interlochen, people acknowledged that I was actually good at this. Then I wanted to take it seriously, and that felt really exciting.”
Suppelsa says that coming to Interlochen was a big adjustment for someone who was used to being “the big fish in a small pond.”
“There were 30 other people just as good or better than me,” Suppelsa remembers. “At first, it was a little scary, but then it was exciting because there were so many people I could draw on and learn from and collaborate with. That was the first time I'd ever experienced that, which I think just opened me up to so many new writing styles, so many new perspectives on life in general.”
At Interlochen, Suppelsa rounded out her skill set with classes in music theory and music production. She also became proficient on multiple instruments.
“I'm unique for having these skills, even as I’m working with other full-time musicians,” Suppelsa reflects. “A lot of people don't know some of the chord theory that I learned in my senior year. Now, I can get into a writers’ room and hold my own. Interlochen gave me a really strong musical foundation.”
After Interlochen, Suppelsa studied at Berklee College of Music for two years before moving to Nashville and landing a publishing contract—the equivalent of a record deal in the songwriting world. Now, Suppelsa writes songs for a living, a job she’s come to love.
I'm unique for having these skills, even as I’m working with other full-time musicians. A lot of people don't know some of the chord theory that I learned in my senior year. Now, I can get into a writers’ room and hold my own. Interlochen gave me a really strong musical foundation.
“One day never looks the same. You never know what's going to happen, or how the day is going to go,” says Suppelsa. “Oftentimes, I have great conversations with people while it's happening. I love how dynamic it is. It keeps things interesting—I never get bored.”
Suppelsa signed her publishing deal at the start of the COVID pandemic. Her newfound career stability opened up time for her to serve others, so she put on a mask and started passing out food she’d bought on the streets of downtown Nashville. After putting out a Venmo request on her social media, Suppelsa received thousands of dollars in donations. One of her friends suggested she start a nonprofit.
Now, Suppelsa’s organization, Hope on the Row, serves as a vital link between Nashville’s music industry and people experiencing homelessness.
“We have about 75 volunteers that we rotate through every week. We serve about 200 people experiencing homelessness every Sunday,” says Suppelsa. “We do lunch, food, snacks, toiletries, essential items and a big clothing station where people donate their gently used clothing. Most of our volunteers are in the music industry.”
While she continues to give a fair amount of her time to service, Suppelsa hasn’t lost sight of her musical goals. She’s written for artists in a variety of genres, including Keith Urban, Temecula Road, Austin Burke, Home Free, and more.
“My goal is to have a number one song on the radio, whether that's country radio, pop radio, or whatever it may be,” she says. Suppelsa also wants to travel the world, reaching markets in other countries and eventually mentoring young musicians. Till then, she continues to live the dream.
“It feels like your whole life could change at any moment. You might be writing a number one song and you don't even know it,” she says. “Every day, I wake up and think, ‘This could be the day that I write something magical or that changes somebody's life.’ Even if it's not, knowing that it could happen is exciting. Everything has the potential to be something really special.”
Learn more about the Singer-Songwriter program at Interlochen Arts Academy.