Michelle Malone defies easy description. Wild-haired Rock God, political singer/songwriter, passionate performer with roots in church music–no single characterization tells the whole story.
Over the course of Malone’s decades-spanning career, she’s collaborated with artists like Jackson Brown and Steve Earle, released more than a dozen records and gone indie when it still took guts. She spoke with AfterEllen.com about the futility of labels, her new album Day 2 and identifying as a “human on the planet.”
AfterEllen.com: When did you realize you wanted to become a musician?
Michelle Malone: I grew up in a musical family. My mother’s a professional singer and my grandmother sang in theater and church so it was a natural progression for me. It was nurtured.
AE: Sometimes you hear about artists who don’t want their kids on the same path, but it sounds like that wasn’t the case for your parents.
MM: It was almost the opposite. When I got accepted to college and even once I started attending, my mother wasn’t really excited about it. They wanted me to play music because they knew it was my passion.
AE: I’m not sure how useful classifications are, aside from marketing purposes, but I’ve heard your music classified as Americana. Does that label resonate for you?
MM: That’s been something I’ve always dealt with: classifying what I do. From the time I began, my work was difficult to classify. Not only do I not stay within any genre’s boundaries, I just draw outside the lines. When you do that, frankly, people don’t know what to do with you. When you say it’s a marketing tool, you’re absolutely right.
When I was growing up, everything was rock and roll if it wasn’t anything else. They called Crosby Stills and Nash rock and roll, as well as James Taylor and Led Zeppelin. They all fell under this huge umbrella. As time progressed, dividing into genres seemed advantageous for marketing purposes. So it’s been difficult for people to market me. I’m a strong singer and a bluesy slide guitarist and my music is rooted in Southern styles and idioms but it’s not country, it’s not strictly blues. I believe it has more in common with old school rock and roll but to me it’s all the same–it’s music. And I love all kinds of music. I listen to everything, from rock to opera to jazz to blues to classical. If you’re going to stay in the lines, it’s just boring. I don’t wear the same clothes every day and I don’t eat the same food and I don’t play the same music every day.
AE: How has your writing process changed over time?
MM: That’s a good question. I think I have more awareness now when I write. Though I don’t always know what I’m writing about ’til I’m into the process–often I just pick up my guitar and start playing and singing whatever comes to mind and it could be gibberish and then slowly it evolves. I just put words together that feel or sound good and the meaning comes later as the song takes shape. I always write with guitar in hand. I write lyrics and music simultaneously. I usually have to be in solitude to do it. This last record, Day 2, I got up every morning and got a pot of coffee and my guitar and sat down at my kitchen table and just made myself write until I had something, anything. I did that most every day for several months until I had a body of work I could choose from when I went into the studio.
AE: Is there one specific song you’ve written that you feel you learned a lot from writing?
MM: Absolutely. The crux of this record and the first song I wrote for it was “Marlboro Man,” and it’s one of the most guttural, heartfelt songs I’ve ever written. It’s painfully honest, about my relationship with my dad and how he’s no longer with us and the impact that had on me and our lack of relationship. I was able to dig deep and lay it all out there in very plain, transparent terms. That type of writing has always kind of scared me. I didn’t really want to be that honest with my work. It felt like I was airing out my dirty laundry. I didn’t know if other people would want to hear it and I certainly didn’t know that I wanted to sing those songs. It’s still a difficult song to sing but I’m more able to write from that place now if I need to because of that song and that breakthrough.
AE: Writing, do you ever touch on really personal territory and then feel reluctant to go forward with a song?
MM: As a writer you know that you pick words that resonate with you and you try to write like you speak so it feels real. I try to write that way as well, so I guess I’m just careful of the words I choose and how I present things and I don’t want to write anything that doesn’t feel like I can sing it. And if it’s a good song, I’ll leave it that way and I’ll record it but some nights I don’t feel like singing that song because it rips my heart out or I just don’t feel it that night. So I don’t have to sing all these songs every night. And there are also songs I’ve recorded over the years that I never sing live for one reason or another. But like “Marlborough Man,” I don’t sing that song at every show largely because it’s just kind of exhausting emotionally.
AE Back to labels, how do you think being a lesbian has affected your career?
MM: First and foremost in my brain and in my life and in my career, I just think of myself as a human on the planet. I don’t really operate from a place where I think of myself first as a lesbian or even as woman. I get asked the question, “has being a woman in the music industry affected your career” as well. I’m sure it has. I’m sure being a gay woman has affected my career in some way, shape or form, but I don’t know how. And I don’t typically tend to sing from a specifically gay perspective because I want my music to appeal to everyone. It’s nothing I’m ashamed of and I’ve been out since high school but it doesn’t feel like that big a deal. But I grew up in Atlanta and maybe it’s more accepted here. Maybe I didn’t have as difficult a time as someone growing up in the midwest in a small town might. In general, it is difficult to be a woman in the world and then add on top of that a gay woman, and that does have some hurdles. Whether they’re actually out there in the physical world or they’re mental hurdles or to do with family approval–all of that can affect you in ways that society at large or the music industry in general may not cause. Maybe it’s self-inflicted.
AE: Over your career’s span you’ve obviously been both single and coupled. How do romantic relationships affect you as a writer? Do you find you have access to more material when relationships are in flux?
MM: It doesn’t affect my ability to write, it just effects the types of songs I write. My writing is really a commentary on my life, so if I’m happy, I’m going to write songs about that. If I’m in love, I’m going to write songs about that. If I’m with someone I can’t stand and I really need to break up with them, I’m going to write songs about that and then when I break up with them I’m going to write a whole record about it called Debris. I take lemons and I make songs about lemonade, I guess.
AE: How has being an independent artist changed since you left Arista?
MM: In the late nineties when I went back to being independent, the whole story about the release of my next record was that I was independent–it got a lot of press and attention. Now you can go make a record in your bedroom and put it out and it’s no big deal. Every person on your block has probably put out a record. It flooded the market with a lot of music that maybe we could live without, but we also get to hear music that maybe we never otherwise would have known existed that has really enriched our lives.
AE: You’re headed out on tour this summer to promote your album. Do you enjoy touring?
MM: I enjoy it when I don’t do as much of it. I used to tour about 200 days a year and I began to tour less and less so I could focus on my family and my home life. Touring just feels disconnected from the rest of the world. Even though you’re getting out there and meeting new people, you’re not really grounded, or at least I wasn’t. So it’s better for me when I tour a little bit less, maybe 100 days a year. Then I get the best of both worlds. I get to have a nice home life which I felt like I’d missed out on being gone for so many years. So I have a nice balance now.
AE: What songs are you most proud of on the new album?
MM: As a songwriter, I believe this is my best record to date. I think my writing has really grown, not only because I’m more able to open up now when I write, but because I have more clarity. I’ve had glimpses of clarity in the past but I feel more in touch with it now. Does that make sense? I may not be able to articulate it, but I have it. So I’m proud of the love song, “Shine.” I wrote that for my wife as an anniversary gift and I feel like it’s a special song. I just channeled it. I didn’t have that much to do with it. It just flowed through me and I feel very fortunate. And I love the title track, “Day 2.”
AE: How do you pick a title track?
MM: Generally, you record your songs and you get a vibe about the record and you choose a title based on that. In this case, the song “Day 2” has meaning in and of itself, but as an album title it felt like, okay, this is a new chapter in my writing and recording. A new era for me; I’m turning the page. It just kind of felt right.