You may not yet know her by name, but Madison Calley has very likely hit your social media For You Page on more than one passing occasion.
The bronze-skinned beauty has been seen tens of millions of times perched in her living room in long flowing vibrantly colored skirts, amid a lush indoor plant-scape, steamer blasting, making beautiful music with her golden harp.
Calley’s relationship with the unlikely instrument began at a very young age. Growing up in Washington, DC, she went out to eat every Sunday after church with her family to a local restaurant that featured a female harpist.
“She covered a lot of Disney songs at the time, so I always loved watching this harpist,” Calley shared, revealing that she had been eyeing the harp since about age 4. “My mom’s thing for me and my brothers was that she wanted us each to pick an instrument and a sport. I was so fascinated by that one, I chose the harp.”
But that infatuation turned into a love/hate relationship throughout her childhood.
“Once I started, I started to really resent the instrument, because it’s a very difficult one to learn,” she said frankly. “I also had to learn two years of piano first just to get down music theory and learn how to read music.”
Finally getting her first harp at 8, Calley faced a new challenge that Black people in the classical arts community often have to tackle.
“I never really felt like I was really included in the classical community, and I always felt outcasted,” she said. “I was always the only Black student anywhere at any recital I ever went to. So it was a very difficult journey, and I definitely would say my parents are the main ones that made me stick with it.”
With her mother’s encouragement, constantly telling her that dedication to the instrument would reward her someday, Calley’s talent eventually carried her all the way to college.
She was accepted into Carnegie Melon for music study. And though she excelled, she ended up stepping away from the instrument for several years after graduating.
“I stepped away from music because all that was presented to me was orchestra or weddings or small private events that didn’t really pay that much,” she recalls. “So I was like, ‘let me pursue other endeavors and see what else I could do with my life.’ It’s funny how things come full circle.”
While in LA actively pursuing other interests, Calley was called back to her lifelong relationship with the harp after a chance encounter with Jaden and Willow Smith.
Moving in fashion circles due to the swimwear line she started upon relocating, she chanced upon a man who actually managed the superstar siblings. He heard that she was a harpist in passing, and happened to recall nearly two years later while looking for instrumentalists to accompany Willow for an acoustic set at her home.
“I had shipped my harp out here with me when I moved, but it was just collecting dust in the corner, to be honest,” she said. “We ended up doing some rehearsals at her house, and that was my first time really playing R&B on the harp. She didn’t know, but it was really unlocking something really special for me. I felt I connected with it so deeply.”
This prompted Calley to start experimenting with more R&B covers via her harp in her spare time.
“I thought, ‘this could be really cool to record and put on Instagram.’ So I put my first one on there, and it got, I think, 50,000 followers that week,” she said. “And then the pandemic came around, and that’s when I really decided to start putting these covers out.”
Calley’s soothing renditions carried many through the uncertain, isolated times of the pandemic’s earliest days, and made her a recognizable face on social media. Where many would have rested on the laurel of being “IG popular,” Calley made sure to parlay that notoriety into a music career.
Her first album, Ethereal, just hit the streams right before the new year. A full album of harp instrumental covers of current smooth R&B favorites – Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” and Daniel Caesar and H.E.R.’s “Best Part” being among the standouts – Calley’s first foray into formal music releases is easing fans into her own original compositions, which she hopes to release later in 2022.
With a bright future so deeply intertwined with the same instrument that she resented so much as a child, there’s no doubt that Calley’s mother’s words resonate with her even more deeply today.
“My mom would always tell me, ‘you’re going to thank me one day. You’re going to love it one day. I know it. It’s going to reward you. It’s going to be worth it.’ Obviously as a kid and then a teenager, I never believed her.”
Clearly, as the saying goes, Mom is always right.