Michelle Malone Strips Down (and Folks Up)
Atlanta-bred singer/songwriter Michelle Malone has lived through more than a few different incarnations in her career. She’s been a blues rocker, a torch singer,an Americana troubadour, and, with her upcoming Acoustic Winter record, a folk singer… or as close to a folk singer as the fierce vocalist will probably ever get.
Indeed, this new effort finds Malone stripping down to the basics. In these songs, in this setting, she wears her heart on her sleeve — an outfit she’s not altogether comfortable donning in public. At least she has the courage of her convictions and the passion for her calling to keep her warm.
Those of us who have been around for 25+ years have seen a lot of changes in the music business. How has your career shifted to keep up?
I started out as an independent artist because I am an empowered can-do type of person. All I need is someone to tell me I can’t do something, and I’m off to prove to myself that I CAN do it. I released my first independent recording in 1987 — because I wanted to make a record, because I had written some songs that were important to me, and because I had always loved music. Along the way, I discovered that I enjoyed writing, performing, and recording. I didn’t need anyone to give me permission to do what I enjoyed.
Luckily, I have always been a pleasure seeker, so I followed my bliss. I am essentially the same person as I have always been, though the way I see things philosophically and spiritually have changed. To me, making music is not about power or money or keeping up with the Joneses or any worldly pursuit; it is about following my unique path as an individual. My life is about being true to myself both as an artist and as a spiritual being. A person who lives from their spirit will always be relevant, regardless of what’s popular, because it is the path to true happiness, and everyone wants to be happy.
So many artists are now taking their careers in their own hands, but you did that quite a while ago. How does it feel to have been on the front lines of that trend?
I have never been good at being a conformist. … My mother has always said that my mantra as a child was, “I can do it anyway I want.” So it wasn’t a trend to me — it was my natural disposition. Being an independent musician is both rewarding and, at times, an overwhelming responsibility. I have always enjoyed my autonomy, to a degree; but I have also learned that it takes a village, and I have had the good fortune of working with some thoughtful and intelligent music-loving aficionados.
However, when I make a decision that does not bring about the desired result, there is no one to blame but myself. I have often wondered if things would have turned out the same if i had done this or that differently, but, in the end, I cannot fault myself for following my instincts. I chose and choose to do the things that enable me to like who I see in the mirror and sleep well at night.
I believe the fact that music is so independent now is more of a direct reflection on the industry itself — its greed and undying search for mediocrity to spoon feed to the masses. The music industry is about marketing. It has very little to do with music. This is why music has become so incredibly devalued to the point where people don’t think they should pay for it anymore. Things that have no value or no cost to produce should be free. It takes time and money to record and release a record and take it on the road. And, once you’ve bought the music, you get to keep it forever. I still buy music all the time. To me, music is as an important as food or water or sleep. Without it, I feel starved and dead inside. It has the ability to change our brain chemistry and even our molecular structure. Music is powerful stuff! It is so much more than a commodity. I believe it should be paid for, but that is not more important than the art itself.
People listen to music to find a commonality and to connect. How can souls truly connect with perfection and greed? It is when we share ourselves at our most imperfect moments that we truly understand and empathize with each other. And THAT is why independent music is important. That is why it feels good to be independent and follow my spirit, in spite of pop culture and the music industry. I cannot be dismissed, because I do not fit in a little box. Indeed, I fit everywhere, because I empower others.
Even though the technology has made it easier to make music, do you think it’s easier — or harder — to get it heard?
To get heard, it takes a little talent, a little desire, youth, and an attorney. To be a professional musician, it takes persistence, passion, resolve, and the belief that there is no better way in the world to make $50. There’s a huge difference between getting heard and making a living as a musician throughout your life. They are both difficult paths for obvious reasons, but it’s the blue-collar musician who will continue to walk the talk after the glitter rubs off and youth fades (at around 30 or 35 years old by industry and society standards).
Do you feel that, regardless of what happens in the music business or the world at large, you will keep on keeping on with music? Is it that kind of calling for you?
My mother sang five and six nights a week, four to five sets a night, in every smoky bar and hotel lounge in the southeast just to put food on our table and keep a roof over our heads. She was a single parent doing what she was driven to do, and she was very good at it. She was offered a recording contract in the ’70s, though she turned it down to be with her family. She is a gifted singer who lives with passion and conviction, and she is my hero.
As a blue-collar musician, I continue to make music, simply because I’m so passionate about it. It feels as though I have no choice, because it feeds my soul more than anything else I have ever experienced in my entire life. I am driven to discover what new songs lie in wait around the next corner. I believe there is no worthier way to spend my time than chasing a song and connecting with audience members at live shows. Recognition or a steady income with benefits would be a plus, but I cannot and will not sacrifice my well being for such hollow victories. Music is as important as breathing. I am proud to be in the family business. It drives my spirit. Without it, I would likely lose my sanity, dry up, and blow away.
This new record is totally stripped down, a recording scenario you don’t often put yourself in. What’s that experience like — for you and your songs to be raw and vulnerable like that?
Well, the songs are more vulnerable than I believe I have ever been, though, to be fair, vulnerability has not come easily to me until the last few years. I’m still learning so much about myself and finally becoming the person I always believed I would be — aware, secure, and vulnerable. I must be a late bloomer.
The new songs were written out of a state of sadness and loneliness. I always get sad in the Fall, but there’s been a lot of tragedy and loss in and around my world lately. Normally, I would do whatever I could to escape the dark places, but this time I resolved to stay in them and write about it rather than run from it. So I feel like I’m trying on a new pair of leather shoes that aren’t exactly broken in yet.
Production-wise, the only other time I made a record this stripped down was my very first record, New Experience. There are no drum kits to speak of, nothing to mask the vocals and acoustic guitars, though there is other instrumentation on some songs — a little bass, percussion, strings, 12-string acoustic — but nothing distracting. I want to get back to basics for now. In addition to the handful of new songs, there are a few new versions of songs like “Super Ball” and “Counting Stars” that begged to come join Acoustic Winter, either because they needed a gentler touch or they needed a vocal update from a more experienced person’s perspective. There will also, finally, be a studio version of “Wild Horses” (from the Rolling Stones) which people seem to love to hear me sing, and, fortunately, I love to sing it.
I feel very creative, and I feel the need to reboot the system, cleanse the pallet. Acoustic Winter is a different kind of record for me. I’m used to making upbeat toe-tapper records with one or two sobering moments. Acoustic Winter is intense and stark from beginning to end with the sole purpose of creating empathy through song. I want to crawl inside my acoustic guitar and wrap it around me all winter long. I love this record… and it scares the crap out of me.
Help Michelle kickstart her record with a visit to her website.