Writer: Luke Manderfeld
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
In the early 2000s Madison Ray was attending college at Soka University of America in California, studying philosophy and literature. But he felt something was missing in his life.
As he confided in a friend, she suggested he get back into music. After all, the Des Moines native had been involved in music throughout his childhood—his parents still play tapes of him dancing and singing to Paula Abdul songs when he was 3. As a teen, Ray participated in choir and theater at Roosevelt High School.
“I realized I needed to get music back into my life. It was such a no-brainer, now that I look back on it,” says Ray, who is now 35. “When I finally got back into it, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is my purpose.’ There was such joy. I was all in.”
Ray finished college in 2004 with a degree in philosophy and moved to Japan to hone his craft and explore more of the world, performing in Tokyo nightclubs and festivals. Still, he watched as Des Moines was transforming—the recently built Wells Fargo Arena was drawing nationally touring musicians, for example—and decided to move back in 2008. He wanted to be a part of the city’s growing energy.
“All these things I could have wished for as a kid were suddenly at my fingertips right here in Des Moines,” Ray says. “I saw an opportunity to join that conversation and could help build Des Moines into this cool place to live.”
Ray’s local break was starring as Tom Collins in the musical “Rent” at Des Moines Community Playhouse in 2012. He remembers the warm feelings he had when he saw his face on a billboard promoting the show and when he watched the faces of audience members light up.
“It was the first big project I was a part of that touched people in a special kind of way. And that’s obviously the magic of music and theater,” Ray says. “It was a step up for me. To perform and bring audience members along that emotional journey with me during a show, that was a breakthrough.”
Charlie Reese, a local musician and actor, met Ray in 2011, when they both were cast in “The Producers” at the Playhouse. He’s seen Ray’s influence grow on the local arts and culture scene and says he has an “all-out” stage presence.
“One of the things that makes Madison stand out from other artists is his music is just really fun,” says Reese, now a backup vocalist for Ray’s band, the Finesse. “He enjoys creating a world within his music. He holds nothing back. He presents himself as this party starter and gets the audience to go along with what he’s doing. He commands a presence when he’s at the microphone.”
Ray is currently signed with Station 1 Records, a nonprofit Des Moines-based label, and performed in “Escaping the Labyrinth” last fall at the Playhouse. Finesse performed at the Riverview Music Festival in September, one of their first live music gigs since the pandemic started. Ray says it will go down as one of his favorite memories—a reminder of why he got back into music.
“We got to show what the Finesse can do and make people feel good again,” he says. “There’s something irreplaceable about what live music makes you feel.”