Max Dvorak appreciates heartbreak just as much as happiness. Well, almost. As the local singer-songwriter, 17, prepares for life after high school, he appreciates what it's taken to get to where he is now. He knows that the good and the bad have shaped who he is today, and that both can inform the songs he writes tomorrow.
While some people remember adolescence by paging through yearbooks or polishing debate-team trophies, Dvorak tends to capture his memories in lyrics and melodies. His debut album, Home, focuses on his past two years of self-discovery.
"I was 15 or 16 when I wrote all those songs, so it captures the kinds of thoughts that go on in the mind of a young teenager," he says, noting that eventually, a kid starts thinking about leaving behind what's familiar.
"'Home' just felt like a good title for that [moment]," he says.
Throughout the album's 11 tracks, Dvorak melds introspection with commentary on events that are much bigger than himself. He typically plays solo with his guitar, drawing inspiration from artists like Dave Matthews, Tom Petty and Tyler Hilton. But while many high schoolers are content to play friends' parties, Dvorak set his sights beyond the borders of his social circle, and beyond the borders of Madison itself. His sincerity and charisma have won him numerous fans in southern Wisconsin, as well as shows at the Loft and Redamte Coffee House. He's been the headliner at several of these performances.
Dvorak describes the experience as "humbling," noting that it takes tons of hard work to get noticed in Madison. Talent is important, but so is teamwork.
"I work with a lot of great people in the Madison music scene," Dvorak says. "I was lucky to get in front of a lot of audiences over the last couple of years [and] to get to somewhere that I can headline."
Dvorak has even taken his music outside of Wisconsin, to places like a teen club in Orland Park, Ill. Prior to his performance there in February, he sent an unreleased acoustic demo to the venue. When it came time to perform, he found out that the club had put his songs in heavy rotation before his show. Because of that, he had a fan base waiting for him. It was almost like playing to a group of friends.
"I get to the show, and the first song I play is a brand-new song, and I have a hundred kids singing the lyrics to it," Dvorak says. "That was a first for me."
Reactions like this have given him confidence. They've also convinced him that songs have great power.
"The best advice I got was that it's all about the song," he says. "You can do all you can with your performance, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the songs you're singing. That's the most important thing I do, writing good songs."
Storytelling is an essential part of Dvorak's craft as well. Beau Lee, a music teacher and producer in Madison, gave him advice on how to tell a tale with his songs. One of these tunes is "The Ones We Left Behind," written in response to watching TV coverage of the Japanese tsunami a few years ago. Dvorak says the song is about a family that got torn apart by the storm.
In addition to deepening his songwriting knowledge, he's been beefing up his guitar skills. This has helped him compose more unconventional songs.
"Now a lot of the songs I write don't follow the standard four-chord progression," he says.
Dvorak hopes to one day move to Nashville and work as a professional musician. But until then, he's focused on building a family of fans that will support him no matter where he goes.