By her own admission, Michelle Malone is a chameleon– a blues beltin’ Georgia guitarslinger who can turn on a dime to become a cool Yule crooner or warm singer-songwriter. Malone’s latest effort 1977 knocks it down a notch, gliding on reverberations from Laurel Canyon and flipping through the family scrapbook to deliver moving narratives and striking personal sojourns that are kitchen table close. While not a far cry from Moanin’ Malone’s rockier, rowdier craft, 1977 nevertheless offers fresh shades and reveals greater influences.
The last time I spoke to Michelle Malone, she was working out the chords to The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” in between soundchecks. This time, I called to talk about her upcoming show at Grant’s Lounge on November 10th, her various side projects, and the decision to be satisfied.
AI- Had you not been forced to stop because of the pandemic, would 1977 have happened the way that it did? ‘Cause you’d been livin’ stage to stage and not really slowin’ down…
MM- Stage to stage! Well, I don’t know. Part of the reason it sounds like it does and I wrote these songs is because I had just spent two weeks in California touring and really soakin’ up the vibe out there– the sun and the sea and the trees and just this laid-back vibe. So that was half of it but the other half was that I got to be home for so long and really relax. There’s no way of knowing! That’s probably partially true, right?
“Not Who I Used To Be”, confronting that idea that you aren’t the same person, the same artist– how often has that happened to you throughout your career, where you’ve looked around and realized that you’ve moved passed whatever goal or ideal you had and onto the next step? And was the reaction the same?
I seem to be a chameleon of sorts and I seem to change and grow a lot and quickly, but it’s not always as obvious in the music as it is in life to me. I think “Not Who I Used To Be” is one of my favorite songs on the new record, and I actually wrote it a day or two before lockdown– so it wasn’t even about all that.
Do you think your subconscious knew what was comin’?
(Laughs) Noooo… I’d had a really difficult UK and European tour a few months prior to that, and I remember thinking that I did not want to tour that way anymore, that I had grown past it. That was part of the impetus and the catalyst of my writing the song, but the other part is just that you grow and change as a human all the time. I was just recognizing that. I wrote it with my friend Eliot Bronson, and I really think he was bringing another element to it in that he was writing from a breakup perspective. So it’s two-fold– almost three-fold (laughs)!
The line “Even the queen has dreams.” When you were first starting out playing with the goal of doing it for a living, did you consider back then in 1977– or thereafter– that your heroes still weren’t necessarily where they wanted to be? And did you as you progressed have that realization of, “This doesn’t stop, there’s always gonna be another step to take?”
Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten that through my head in recent years! I came to realize that no one’s ever really satisfied, not just in the music industry but in any career. People are very rarely satisfied with what they have in life. I came to realize that it’s really just a decision of being satisfied, being happy, being grateful– it’s not about getting more, it’s about being appreciative of what you’ve gotten already. Which gets heavy, right (laughs)? But that’s just part of how I’ve changed.
The musical dreams you have now– are you realizing them? Are they the same as they were when you first started?
They’re very different. Although I do remember saying early on that I just wanted a long career– and I’m having that! I should’ve wished for something else (laughs)! No, I’m pretty grateful! But I feel successful. I feel like I am having a long career, I’m able to support myself playing the music I write, and doing it my way. I’m incredibly grateful and successful in that respect. Do I want more? Yes. I would like to sell some more records, I would like to be able to retire one day– but who knows? I’ve seen in cartoons where people are walking down the street and pianos fall out of the sky and then you’re gone (laughs), so I don’t really need to worry too much about the future. I’m tryin’ to just live in the moment if that’s even possible as a musician because they’re always making you book shows three and six and nine months in advance (laughs)! It’s always this balancing act!
Family is another large component of the album. “River Song” is full of names and imagery– and you seem about to lose it on the “Ann is waitin’ on the tow truck” line. I feel like you’re fighting laughter!
I think that speaks to your comfort with the people you know are gonna hear your songs. I’ve spoken to a lot of artists who’ve had a great deal of success in connecting with their fanbase through their Patreon. How much music do you work out on Patreon as you’re creating it?
It’s interesting that you ask that– I haven’t really done that. I started my Patreon after I’d written that record, I believe. Mostly what I’ve been sharing on Patreon are either livestreams or guitar lessons or a segment called “Dear, Michelle” which has morphed into a Q&A including other artists– ’cause I know so many people! I do other things on my Patreon– silly fun things as well– but that’s an interesting angle. I could try that in the future.
I’ve spoken to artists that have done that and even had the conversation about how that has become a new component to songwriting in the 21st Century. Social media, for good or for ill, has become…
You mean getting other people’s opinions about what you’re writing?
In fact, workshopping them in real-time in front of people.
Oh… I don’t believe in that. My music is really personal, and I don’t need other people’s opinion about it. If I’d only been doing this a little while or only made one or two records or something of that nature, maybe. But for me personally, it’s hard enough to just write with someone else. I got good at that and now I’m comfortable with that, but I don’t think your average person can really give you constructive criticism about songwriting. They might tell you they like it or not, but that doesn’t make good art or bad art– that’s just someone’s opinion. And everyone’s got one.
First and foremost, as I songwriter, I have to please myself, and I have the experience to know if something needs more work or not. Obviously, I’m not the best songwriter in the world, but I have a lot of experience and I know what I like. I’m honestly tryin’ to please myself first because if I like what I’m writing, my fans will.
Let me ask you this– “Dust Bowl Man”, you wrote that one with one of your students [Carol Price]. That was her first song. Tell me about experiencing that first song feeling with another person from your particular perspective as an accomplished songwriter and a mentor in that situation.
You know, that was really fun! She didn’t play an instrument, she had never written a song, and she didn’t sing. In my classes, I like to pair up someone who doesn’t play with someone who does. I had an odd number of students that session, so I paired her with me and it was exciting to get to show someone how to write a song and how fun and easy it can be if you allow it to be. She was so excited with the end result, and she was also really into the process. She brought a little bit to the table and more than anything, she said to me, she “wanted to see how the sausage was made” and that’s why she took the class. She did get to see that! And then when I realized how much I loved the song and was gonna record it, I was really excited for her to have what I would tell her was her “first cut.” But she’s a doctor actually saving children’s lives– and she didn’t get nearly as excited as I thought she would (laughs)! That put it into perspective (laughs) because I realized, “Well, yeah, she’s saving lives– I’m just making people happy!” But it was a wonderful experience!
Was that from your Malone Music School?
No, it’s from Muse Destination Workshops. I usually teach songwriting, and my partner teaches painting. We do it a couple times a year up in Blueridge. I’ve started getting other songwriters to come teach some sessions [because] a lot o’ the same students come and I’d like for them to have different experiences. We’ve had Will Kimbrough teach and Sarah Peacock and Eliot Bronson and some great songwriters in there.
My music school, I’m teaching guitar virtually, I have a bass teacher– who happens to be my brother– and I have a drum/keys/voice teacher– who happens to be my stepfather! So it’s all in the family (laughs) and we’re all teaching virtually!
Do you cover parts the business aspect as well? It’s great to learn the fundamentals and how to play, but I think in this day and age, education as far as how to navigate the business as a performer– especially being an independent musician yourself.
I don’t specifically. I could. Most of the students I get are not professionals. There’s a few songwriting students who perform out but it’s not their job. I guess I could consult– Lord knows I’ve got enough experience– but more than anything, I can tell people what not to do (laughs)! I’ve had a lot of experierience at that as well!
You’re a proud Georgia artist, and the song “Georgia Made”— is that another family song? Is that about your grandfather?
Yeah, it is about my grandfather!
I have all different things that come to mind when I think of “Georgia” music. For you, what is that Georgia sound? What is Georgia-made music?
It starts with soul and rhythm & blues and all the things that came out of Georgia back in the day. I think of James Brown and Ray Charles and Little Richard and Gladys Knight and Ma Rainey… There’s so much great music! If it weren’t for those artists and Otis Redding, I don’t think we would’ve had the Allman Brothers– and then we wouldn’t have had so many other artists! It’s definitely a giant musical tree with roots in R&B to me.
Tell me about the story in “Georgia Made”. Did you piece all that together or was it something that you’d always known growin’ up?
I found out a lot of it in the past five or six years. My uncle took me down to Alvaton, which is where my grandfather grew up in this little shack– and the shack was still there! He showed it to me and drove me around and showed me a couple of cemeteries where tons of my relatives were. It was just fascinating to me! My grandfather didn’t talk to me a lot about his childhood or the war or anything like that but I felt like I knew him well ’cause I was close with him. But I didn’t know him as well as my uncle (laughs)! I was really happy to write that song– and I love singing it! It’s just another interesting story in my family and probably a lot of people can relate to it.
What about “Buck Knife Man”? Is that a true story too? Did you write that one about your father and that knife?
The items, the vessels we carry our memories in– we do that in my family too. It’s a cast iron skillet from my great-grandmother that we all have. “When I hold it in my hand, I feel closer to the man.” Great line!
You know what? I have my grandfather’s cast iron skillet! He passed it down to my dad and when my dad died, I got it! I just think about the meals they cooked for me in that pan– the creamed corn and the pork chops and bacon and all that! I love that! You made me smile so big!
My favorite song on the record is “Powder Keg”, a track I think bridges the gap between what you’ve done in the past and what you’re doing now. I love the mantra, the chant, that whole big swell at the end… Tell me where all that came from.
It’s difficult to put a finger on because it’s about a lot of things, but it started off being about– one of my friends and I were not getting along and having misunderstandings. And then it started being about what was going on in the world and all the division and hatred and anger, so I guess it’s really a collage of a lot of different feelings. Yelling “wake up” and all that… There’s so many things to wake up from and for and to.
And it’s hard to watch other people stay asleep.
It is, and I wrote it as much for myself as I did for the world at large. I don’t like to tell people what to do or preach, especially in song, but it really was for myself and a commentary on a relationship that I was dealing with.
You’ve got Canyonland goin’ on, that California country rock sound– did that come out of experimenting with the songs on this album? Just goin’ back and listenin’ to those singer-songwriters– and also the trip to California?
I have been wanting to do this project for probably ten years. I looked for some folks that wanted to do it that had the time and had the ability to harmonize and it never lined up! And then somehow, after we made this record, the stars aligned and I found the right people! It’s really strange, we started doing it last October and it’s just grown in a swell! People love it more than anything that I do (laughs)! We play a lot but mostly just in Georgia. I love it so much! It’s the first cover band I’ve ever been in– other than my Christmas band– and I didn’t know how fun it was to sing cover songs! It makes everyone happy– including me!
Does it take the pressure off?
So much! There’s no pressure! The only pressure is to hit the notes (laughs) and not screw the great songs up! But I love it so much! It started off as a hobby, honestly– I just wanted to do it and I had no idea that people would like it. I just wanted to sing with other people, and I wanted to sing these songs ’cause they make me happy and that’s it!
You mentioned the Christmas outfit, The Hot Toddies– you’ve got a new project in the works there too. Maybe you’ve always loved Christmas music and maybe I did too, but it’s only been since I’ve been an older adult that I’ve really started appreciating it more.
Man, I love Christmas music so much! I always have! I love the old musicals and things like that. I just feel so blessed having this rich musical background from my family ’cause I know music from all styles and genres and decades! My grandmother turned me onto all that– ’40s, ’50s– and of course, my mother turned me on to the ’60s era.
What me and The Hot Toddies do is a classic Christmas. It’s really what you want– at least it’s what I want! It makes you feel warm and fuzzy and the world is a kinder, brighter, happier place in December and that’s what The Hot Toddies try to bring musically. We do all the songs you know and love, and occasionally, we’ll turn ’em on their ear and mess with them. We have a really cool version of “Blue Christmas” that’s in a minor key that’s kinda mysterious and spooky! And then the other things like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” or “Silver Bells”, those are all very traditionally sung and performed. But I love it! I think I have more Christmas DVDs than anything else– I’ll start watching Christmas movies in July! I got no problem with it!