By Al Kaufman
Usually when an artist’s new album is heralded as “her most mature work to date,” it should be taken as a warning sign. Warning: this album is slow and boring. Blues mama Michelle Malone has just issued her 11th album, Day 2. It is easily her most mature album to date, and that’s a good thing.
In Day 2, Malone deals with the death of her father, a recent audit, and failed relationships. They are issues about which she feels like she has grown enough to take on. But she has not forgotten that she is a musician. Malone, who owns her own record label (SBS), and has produced albums for herself and others, called in fellow musicians Shawn Mullins and Gerry Hansen to produce Day 2, ensuring the CD did not turn into a naval gazing nightmare. “The Auditor” offers up some angry guitar and harmonica, while “Immigration Game,” which offers a bit of a Biblical twist, is a rhythmic boogie. And while she shows off her sweet voice on ballads like “Marlboro Man” and “Shine,” she is still not afraid to stomp the dust off her boots on “Chicken Lickin’ Boogie (Keep Doing What You’re Doing).”
Although fighting a cold and barely able to finish a sentence without coughing. Malone talked about her new album and new outlook on life.
This is your most personal album to date; with the death of your father showing up in songs like “Marlboro Man” and “St. Peter.” Is it easy or hard for you to write such personal stuff?
I guess that would depend on how we define hard. It gives me a lot more substance to work with, a lot more emotional content to draw from. “Marlboro Man” was actually pretty easy, but it was emotionally taxing to conquer that subject. My father died several years ago and I just wasn’t up to the task for several years. I dealt with it, obviously, in my personal life, but I didn’t really feel like writing about it yet. And when I finally got around to it, it just flowed out of me, along with all the tears. So it was very cathartic, and that’s a good thing. The amazing thing about that song is that it seems no matter how many times I sing it or perform it, it still chokes me up. And you can always hear people sniffling in the crowd when I sing it. It’s just one of those things, and sometimes I feel guilty for singing it because I know it’s going to make people cry.
Are there nights on stage when you’re tired or you had a tough day when you say to yourself, “You know what, I’m not going to sing that tonight. It’s just too tough for me.”?
Yeah, there are definitely times like that, but most of the time I enjoy singing it because it takes me to a place within myself that I don’t visit on a regular basis. These things happen to everybody, so we can all relate to it, and I think it’s great to share that with each other. It’s not a place I care to dwell in all the time, but I’m definitely visiting it more often than not because of the songs. I think it was most difficult to sing it when my sister was at the show.
Had she heard it before?
No, that was the first time she heard it. This was about a year or two ago at a show and I had just written it.
Were you looking at her while you were singing it?
Hell no! (laughs) It was really hard.
What was her reaction afterwards?
You know, it’s just a sad thing; that subject matter. But it’s very poignant and it’s very visceral, and I was as honest as I could be, so . . . You know I just started this thing where I feel more comfortable in the world and I feel like I can write about anything I want. And I don’t know that prior to that I felt comfortable enough or safe enough, or whatever you want to call it. I didn’t trust people very much up until the last four or five years, and it’s helped me grow; obviously as a human, but as a writer as well. It trickled into that and all the arenas of my life, but everyone keeps talking about how the new record shows such maturity and I’m like, “Well, it does to you.” It’s always been there. I just didn’t show it to the world.
What brought on that trust in the past few years?
Hmm, that’s a good question. It’s hard to put my finger on it. It could just be aging and growing as a human on the planet. And having been away from Atlanta for a number of years, and lived in other states and tackled so much and met so many different people and made so many different relationships everywhere, you get to the point where it changes you and makes you, I like to think, more traveled and more learned, and puts more colors on your palette. So it begins to open you up in all these ways that I don’t know that I would have had I stayed in Atlanta and not traveled so much. And it doesn’t hurt that I healed my relationship with my mother (laughs).
Is that on the album? Is that part of “St. Peter?”
No, but I think when my father died my relationship with my mother got a lot stronger and deeper. And that was very important to the both of us and very healing. You know, you’re born perfect and then the next 20 years you get really screwed up, and then you spend the nest 20 years trying to fix it (laughs). That’s sort of what I’ve been doing recently, how about you?
Well, I’m in my 40s and I’m still working on fixing it.
Well, there you go.
I’m curious, you have your own record label and you’ve produced yourself and other people. I was wondering if because this record is so personal, you felt the need to have someone else produce it, someone who could listen to it more objectively?
Just for the record, Nick Di Dia helped produce my last record [2009’s Debris]. I would say that he did produce my last record. I gave him full credit on that. I like for people to help guide me in the studio, I always have. But sometimes I find it difficult to find the right person on the budget that I’m generally working with. And with the last two records I did, with Nick and Shawn, they were amazingly generous with their time and talents and I could only afford them because of their generosity. And working with Shawn was just so wonderful because we’ve known each other a long time and we’ve worked together. I’ve sung on his records and he’s sung on mine. We both have admired each other’s work for years and we’re familiar with each other’s work. It felt like hanging with a friend, and you want that level of comfort. And he’s one of the best damn singers in the world and I’m a real snob about that sort of thing, so I knew if he was in there, my voice on the record would be a focal point and it would sound damn good, and he would push me. And he did, and I wanted that guidance. Also, I’d written so many songs I needed someone to help me decide which ones to put on the record and how to approach it. I sort of returned to more of a singer/songwriter mode in writing for this record, and I wanted to focus on the songs and my voice instead of guitar riffs and having some fun and making some ass-shaking music, which I love, but I just needed a change.
I was going to ask that because this sometimes feels like two separate albums. Every other song is sort of a party romp, then in between you have your personal ballads. Was this a conscience effort?
Not really. I think there’s only two party songs on there, and they aren’t even party songs. They all have something to say, it’s all very autobiographical, so they’re all very important to me. It’s not just all songs about sex like “Tighten Up the Springs” [ from 2006’s Sugarfoot].
Right, songs like “The Immigration Game” and “The Auditor” both have a lot to say, but they both kick it, too.
Well that’s just a coincidence. There’s just some subject matter that when you approach it you just have to kick your boots up and turn your amps up. I was audited for over a year and I was really pissed off. And that song I hope gets that point across; about how pissed off I was and how pissed off I still am about it. That it was a giant waste of my time and theirs. It was just absurd. So I think the anger comes across in that.
“Immigration Song”? Hmm, I chose not to approach that subject with anger as much as irony and I think the immigration laws that were put into effect in Alabama and Georgia in the last year or so are just absurd to me. They turn back the clock and I think they’re very racist, but that’s just me. I try to steer clear of politics unless I have a different way of saying it or I can share a different side or bring something new to the table instead of just bitching and complaining and saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I don’t think that’s a party song at all, but I think it’s a toe tapper. It’s upbeat and enjoyable, which is the irony in it.
“Shine” is a departure for you as well. It almost sounds like one of those swelling love songs in the middle of a Broadway musical, like the showstopper in the middle.
Gosh, I don’t know how to take that. Is it a showstopper, or is it Broadway schmaltz?
It’s not schmaltz, but it’s a different sound for you.
It is and it isn’t. I’ve recorded in similar fashions and I’ve definitely written in similar fashions, but maybe the way it’s presented, and the way it comes across, and where it comes from within me makes you feel that way. It’s not just about the mechanics of the song. I don’t think it’s as much of a departure as I’ve grown as a writer and that song shows it.
Do you see yourself moving more in that direction?
I move in all directions. You can tell that, right? That’s the truest thing I’ve ever said. My record collection has always moved in all directions, as has my ipod, as has my singing and songwriting. To limit myself to one genre would be to eat at one restaurant for the rest of my life. I want a buffet of music. I want to do it all. I’m sorry if some people disagree with that. It’s really not their record. If they want to go write songs and record a record, so be it. It seems to me that a lot of people like what I’m doing, and that’s awesome, too. I do it this way because it makes me happy and I have to make me happy first. I have to look at myself in the mirror everyday, and I have to sing these songs every night. So it’s gotta start there. It’s gotta do something for me. And that’s the other reason I wanted to hire a producer, so that they can make the record sound like one project.
And maybe bring in some of their own ideas that you hadn’t thought of.
Absolutely. Shawn had great ideas.
Is there a particular song where you can say, “That song was okay and Shawn made it great.”, or a song where you can really hear his influence?
“Immigration Game,” since we’re talking about it. That’s his arrangement and his feel on it. The way I had written it was janglier. Is that a word? He made it more rhythmic, cleaned it up and took it to places that I wouldn’t have thought to take it. He helped a lot with background vocals and he sang on a lot of stuff. He has a lot of great guitar ideas and melodic ideas. And so does Gerry Hansen. He produced it as much as Shawn, he just focused more on arrangements and guitar parts, specifically. Whereas Shawn focused on arrangements and vocal parts specifically. They’re both just freaking brilliant, ya know? It was a pleasure.
You’ve got Chuck Leavell [of the Allman Brothers] working for you as well on this CD. It must be nice to be surrounded by all these guys who respect what you’re doing and love working with you. That’s got to be a good feeling.
Yeah, it felt great. And I felt very supported and lifted. I felt like I was lifted up by these people that I surrounded myself with. Because I was with such stellar musicians, they made me grow and rise to the occasion and work all that much harder. No one ever pushes me as hard as I push myself, and no one ever judges me as harshly as I do, so if I’m surrounded by people who are working that hard and have such a level of skill, them I’m going to do the same thing. I’m gonna work. I’m gonna make it sound great, or die trying (laughs).
One last question for you. On “100 Paths” you talk about being a musician and never wanting to be much else, but you have a line in there about being the worst waitress in the world, and I wondered if you could give an example of that.
Oh my God. I thought you were going to say, “And one time in 1986 you waited on me and you’re right. You are the worst waitress in the world.” The last waitressing job I had, I was waiting tables at R Thomas and I was going to college at Agnes Scott. And I was already playing music out, so I did not want to be there. It was painfully obvious. People would be sitting in my section waiting and waiting on me and I’d just be over in the corner smoking cigarettes and dreaming. I’m sure they were trying to wave me down and I was just not paying attention because I didn’t want to be there. I was just not very present until recently, frankly. And I just didn’t have very good life skills until recently. And one of my favorite lines in the whole record that’s so funny to me is on “Wasted On You” when I say, “I didn’t know how to compromise until yesterday.” I just laughed so hard when I wrote that because, yeah, it’s pretty true. I finally found the switch in me to flip, to get me rebooted; to reboot the system and make it right, so that I feel like a complete human.
Have you heard from people who are worried about artists that once they lose their anger they also lose their creativity? Have you heard from anybody who is worried about that happening to you?
All I have to say is life can make you angry at any given moment. You don’t have to carry it around on the inside. All you have to do is get audited or drive on 285 at 5 o’clock.
So there’ll be a driving on 285 song on your next CD?
I hope not.
Michelle Malone has her CD release party at Eddie’s Attic on Saturday, October 6th.