By Alison Richter
Michelle Malone has been releasing albums and running her own label for over 20 years. She took the independent route long before it became a given for artists to take full control of their careers. You might call her an entrepreneur, but she just calls herself lucky — to have had the prescience, courage, and right place and time to step away from industry pressure and follow a trajectory that was true to her heart.
Her latest album, Slings and Arrows, showcases the singer-songwriter-guitarist in a different light. While her music has always been driven by emotion, this time her hybrid blues/rock/folk sound weaves a personal tapestry that digs deep into the dark and light of the human condition.
This is not a concept album, but it does have a theme. Did you begin writing with that theme in mind, or did it emerge as the material came together?
I had the theme, for the most part. It did reveal itself as I was writing, and I was surprised, but once it revealed itself, I had a goal. Some of the songs were already written, so they may not be so obviously aimed at that goal, or about that theme, but I think they all lend themselves to joy and healing and all those positive things. I’m the kind of person that gets knocked down, gets back up, and feels like I can do it, and I want to spur others on.
Where does that inner strength come from?
I’ve always been that way, and I feel very lucky to have that fortitude and perseverance. But I also think you can learn that behavior. All it takes is an example to inspire you that you can do whatever it is that you’re trying to do, whether it’s reach a specific goal or get out of bed every day.
“I guess because I’m old-school, and I remember putting on
vinyl records and being
taken on a journey.”
How did you sequence the material?
It fell together very easily. One of the things I try to do with all my records is start off with a bang — if it’s going to be a banging record! — and set the tone. The tone of this record is driving and upbeat and positive, so it was easy to do. I spend a lot of time sequencing my records, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. I guess because I’m old-school, and I remember putting on vinyl records and being taken on a journey. If someone chooses to listen to the entire record at once, they’re going to go on a journey with me. The other 99 percent that listen to it in the background or pick certain songs may not get the entire journey, but they’ll eventually get it.
“I’d like to think that I helped pave the way for other women, and for 11-year-old girls who are learning to play guitar and want to rock and make noise…”
Only 1 percent listen to albums in their entirety? That’s uplifting. Is it something you think about when you release albums?
But 1 percent of how many billions of people? That’s quite a lot! I do think about these things because I have my own label and I have been independent for a very long time, so I have to think about them. But having said that, you have to change or die. That’s the thing in life. The same goes for business. You have to change, or you’ll be stagnant. But I trust the universe, I trust my fans, I trust my music. I think it’s a really good record and I’m excited about it.
I get discouraged at times, but I’ve gotten pretty good at talking myself down from the ledge and learning to trust the process. One thing I’ve learned is that so much of everything is your thoughts and energy and how you view the world and yourself. You need self-esteem, and you need to be able to keep going when others tell you that it’s impossible. I’m the type of person that keeps kicking at the door until it opens.
It’s not just for myself, and it could be years from now, but I’d like to think that I helped pave the way for other women, and for 11-year-old girls who are learning to play guitar and want to rock and make noise and bring a message to other little girls in ten or twenty years. It’s not just about me and it’s not just about this record. It’s the big picture.
I’d like to produce more records as well. I really enjoy producing, and I think a lot of people could use a more organic sound so they can sound like themselves and less like everyone else. We need more female producers and more women who turn their amps up and rock. The industry, by and large, and I don’t know why, but it seems like they don’t allow it. It’s not that women can’t do it. It’s just that … I think that type of fierceness intimidates the industry as a whole.
A lot of people come see me turn my amp up and do my thing. A lot of people love Chrissie Hynde because of the same thing, or Joan Jett, but can you name anyone else who has kicked through that door? It’s very limited. For every woman on the radio, there are twenty men, or for every huge female pop star, there are twenty male pop stars. I love male pop stars, but there are just as many women in the country who want to hear and support other women, relate to what they have to say, and who are fierce and want to see fierce women up there kicking and screaming so they can break the glass ceiling and break down that door.
I think it’s possible. It may not be in my lifetime, but it’s not going to stop me. I feel a huge responsibility, and the older I get, the bigger the responsibility feels because I realize it’s less about me and my music. It’s the big picture. Let’s keep the conversation going. That’s all we can do. There’s no failure in persistence. You can’t fail if you keep trying. There’s success in trying. That’s what I believe, and maybe that’s what keeps me going.
You describe this as “a Georgia record.” How did that inform the end result?
It informs everything I do. I am from this earth, these trees, this air. I could be blindfolded and I would know where I was. It just resonates with me. My people have been here since the 1700s, and I guess that’s in my DNA as well. It’s not that I don’t love other cities and other music. I absolutely do. But I feel there’s such great talent here that people need to know about.
Yes, Memphis, Austin, and Nashville are great, and Georgia is too. If it weren’t for a lot of folks that came out of Georgia, like James Brown, Little Richard, and Ray Charles, I don’t know what music would be like. We wouldn’t have had The Beatles and Elvis. Obviously, if you like those artists, you like Georgia music. Those are the roots of the tree, and the tree goes on and on, but I think it’s very important.
So I come from that. I come from more rock and R&B, and I started on acoustic guitar, so I have that in my background. I mix it all up and you get this thing that’s an edgier singer-songwriter at times, or a balls-out girl with a slide guitar who has been told she plays like a man, whatever that means, and I say “Thank you,” because they mean it as a compliment.
I want to be an advocate for Georgia music and songwriters and musicians and studios. It’s a great place to record. I co-wrote with three other people on this record because I wanted to collaborate with Georgia writers. They are all my friends, and it’s very laid back. It’s not that thing where you have to make an appointment with someone and it’s a business and it’s twice a day. I respect that, I really do, but that’s not necessarily how we do things here.
The music scene here is very much about community and playing the kind of music that inspires you. I don’t want to write music for other people. I’m happy if other people want to write with me, or if they want to record my songs, but I’m not going to sit down and say, “I need to write this type of song for this type of singer.” That might be really good for business, but it doesn’t do sh*t for my spirit. I didn’t become a musician because I wanted to work in the corporate mindset. I became a musician because it’s my passion, and so I make records that I am passionate about. I have to please myself, first and foremost, before anyone else can be pleased with what I’m doing. It starts with me. I am the catalyst.
In addition to playing a number of instruments, you also produced this album. What does the word “producer” mean to you?
It’s wearing a lot of hats. You choose the studio, you choose the musicians, or they come to you as a band, and you help develop their sound if it’s not developed yet. You encourage them. You’re a cheerleader. You’re a positive force in the studio that keeps the energy going. Sometimes you’re a parent. And you also know when to stop. You know when it’s a good take, when you can do better, when you need to stop because you’re beating a dead horse, or you need to come back to it another day when the energy is there. There’s a lot that goes into it.
I’m not an engineer. I don’t sit behind the console and tweak sounds. That’s someone else’s job, and I much prefer to hire people who know what they’re doing to do a better job.
I don’t want to record in my house. I don’t want to be in control of every tiny little thing. I want to collaborate with others and have a lot of energy on it, not just my energy. You have to be good at delegating, all that stuff, and luckily I’ve been here my whole life, I’ve worked in this industry for three decades, and I know a lot of talented people. I happened to choose this group of folks, but for every one of those people I worked with, there are thirty more, and that doesn’t include the ones I haven’t met yet!
“On “Sugar On My Tongue,” I decided to play my Martin through my Blackface Deluxe, use the reverb and tremolo like I would live, and not try to make it perfect post-production.”
Which guitars did you use, and what are your preferred recording techniques for acoustic and electric guitar?
I’m pretty set in my ways at this point in recording. One thing I did differently was I decided to use a different studio and a different band, and I decided to cut it live, for the most part. I did very few overdubs. That created this live energy that you normally only get at a concert, and that’s when I’m able to get out of my head and into my spirit. I’m not thinking so much about getting it right. I’m just performing. It took me all this time to figure out, fifteen records later, that that’s when I’m at my best. I need to stop trying to perfect the recording process, get in there, perform like I would live, not worry about the end result, and just be in the moment.
As far as gear, it depends on the song. “Just Getting Started” I cut with my Supro Dual-Tone, and it was probably going through my matching amp. They came together and they’re still a pair. There’s a very specific tone you get with those, and it’s mighty. I don’t need pedals with it. I will use a compressor to get longer notes when I’m playing slide, and that’s about it. Live, I’ll throw a tiny delay on it because that inspires me — you get a certain sound out of your guitar and you’re inspired.
On “Sugar On My Tongue,” I decided to play my Martin through my Blackface Deluxe, use the reverb and tremolo like I would live, and not try to make it perfect post-production. So it’s definitely got this strange tone, and I love it. We got that on the second take because we were inspired. We didn’t even know how the song was going to end. We ran it once and recorded it twice.
I really enjoyed recording this way. My job is to be my authentic self and try to get that down on the record. I was able to do that this time, and that’s why I’m so proud of this record. Yeah, I like the songs and the band and the whole thing, but I feel like I got over this hurdle that I’ve been trying to get over forever.
When I first started recording, it was very hard because they tried to make us be so disciplined. We would work on the same song for three days, trying to get a drum part, and our drummer was fantastic. We’d work for three more days trying to get a bass line, and my bass player was great. They’d make me and my other guitar player soak our hands in warm, soapy water before every take so they wouldn’t hear fret noise.
It was unfortunate that I started recording at a time when they were so concerned with that type of perfection and not concerned with the performance. That changes the way you think about recording and the way you think about yourself. None of us are perfect. We’re human. And I’m not interested in perfection. Ever since music became more computer-generated and digital, everyone is concerned with perfection, but the more perfect the music has gotten, the less personable it is, the less you hear the human element, and that’s the thing that connects our spirits. I don’t feel as connected to modern music, and I don’t think it’s just me. There’s a lot of great music out there, and I do like a lot of newer music, but overall, I think it’s not good for itself.
Do you consider yourself an aggressive guitar player?
It depends on the song. My shows are half acoustic and half electric, and a lot of that is because I grew up loving classic rock, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and they drove those recordings with an acoustic strumming guitar because it’s so percussive. If you were to take the acoustic guitar out of so many of those great songs we love, it wouldn’t have the same angst. It wouldn’t have the same thing going on. So, if it’s appropriate, I like to drive the song with the acoustic, and I think that works pretty well. It’s tried and true.
Live, I do that a lot. Plus it’s difficult to sing these songs and play electric guitar, these parts I’ve recorded in the past. There are a lot of great guitar players who can do it better than I can. I can do it in the studio, and I like to get my thumbprint on there, but live, I don’t see the point. Even Eric Clapton has two other guitar players onstage with him to play all the parts, so I don’t see any shame in that. I’ve been asked by guitar-oriented magazines if I played all the guitars on the record. I don’t know if they do that because I’m a woman, or if they ask everybody that. When they found out I didn’t, they were not interested in doing the article on me, which I thought was ridiculous.
So yes, I do half acoustic and half electric. If it’s a ballad, I fingerpick. If it’s a driving song, I bang the hell out of the guitar. There’s no way to play electric guitar as hard as you can play an acoustic guitar. It would sound terrible. I’ve about got a hole on my Martin at this point. I love all genres of music, and I have more than one thing to say and more than one way to say it. I’m that type of restaurant with a really big menu — you can get all kinds of food there! When I play electric, more often than not I’m playing slide. I always play slide on my Supro with my Rocky Mountain slide, kick on the compressor, and have a good time.
I never took lessons, so it’s been figuring things out as I go. I never had people who took me under their wing or things like that. It’s a long learning process, there’s more to learn, and I’m looking forward to that. I come from a place that’s in the moment. I’m a feel player, not a technical player. I wish I were a more technical player, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, so I try to realize what I’m good at and work with those tools that I have. One of those tools is being in the moment. I’m not concerned with all the notes. Some people are. All the fast notes — that’s another gift. I don’t have that, and it doesn’t make me feel anything deep down in my soul.
“I need to hear music.
It gets me through the days.”
In 2012, you said, “If I get up first thing in the morning, have a cup of coffee and a guitar and sit down at my kitchen table and start writing before I get a chance to think, then it works best for me.” In 2015, you said, “I don’t write every day, I’m kind of a lazy writer. I was that way in college, I would wait until the night before a paper was due to write it. I kind of still have that problem; I think I work really well under pressure. What happens for me is when I know it’s getting time to make another record, I start getting neurotic in my head until I can’t stand it anymore and then I actually start to write it.” Which was it this time?
It’s both. I feel like, OK, I need to make a record soon, I need to start writing again, I don’t feel like it, but I need to. Once I start to do it, it feels really good, I get more encouraged, I get creative again, and I tend to do it every day because you have to exercise that muscle. When I get in the zone, I stay in the zone until I’m done, until I have a group of songs that will fit together on a record and are worthy. So it’s both, and it’s feast or famine.
I’ve never been good with discipline, and it’s ironic because I used to be athletic and run every day. I ran races and marathons. I even did it when I was on the road. Then I quit and never did it again. Same thing with cycling. I gave my bike away when I came back from a trip across the country on the damned thing. I’ve always been extreme, and my pendulum has always swung from one end to the opposite.
I’ve learned to work with everything I’ve got, and I seem to be doing OK and functioning all right. There are people who do it better, and some who don’t quite do it as well. Again, it’s a process, learning by rote, doing it, and learning what works and what doesn’t. I’m not sitting at a desk from 9 to 5, working as a label. I work at my own pace, my own hours, and do what needs to be done. That’s the bottom line. It’s more about survival, frankly. I’d like to make a buck, but the bottom line is if I make enough to keep the lights on, I feel I’m doing all right.
Many independent artists follow the same trajectory: they write their own material, play gig after gig, release albums on their own label, and despite their best efforts … nothing. What do you know that they don’t?
I don’t know anything. I just have been doing it for a really long time, and I started at a time when there weren’t nearly as many people doing it. Everybody couldn’t make a record in their bedroom and put it online. People bought records. There wasn’t as much competition and white noise out there, and there weren’t as many bands and records. It’s just timing. So much of everything is timing and luck and fortitude.
I’ve always considered myself more of a blue-collar musician in that I’m going to do what I need to do to pay the bills. I’m just lucky enough to play my music and not cover songs, but having said that, there’s merit in that as well. My mother is a musician, and my stepfather, and they supported us by playing in cover bands. I grew up watching my mother sing every Linda Ronstadt song there was back in the ’70s, so there’s beauty in that as well. In the end, you just do what you know, and again, timing is everything.
It’s very difficult to make a buck in the music business these days because of the competition, and also because a lot of people don’t buy music anymore. On Spotify you’re making 1/100th of a penny for someone listening to it. I hear arguments from both sides, but all I know is my income has dropped drastically. It started dropping in 2000, I guess, when people started burning. They’d come up to the merch table and say, “I’ll get this one, you get that one, and we’ll share.” Like, wow, OK, so that’s happening. They come up now and say, “I don’t have anything to play a CD on anymore. I just listen to you on Spotify.”
You have to go with the flow, change with the times, and whatnot, but it’s disheartening that music has become so unimportant. To me, music is still huge. I need to hear music. It gets me through the days. But other people need social media more. I get that. It is what it is, so you work with what you’ve got and catch as catch can.
You are active on social media.
It’s very important. From what I can tell, it’s the number one way that I was able to have a successful Kickstarter and get people out to shows. It’s a great resource and I love it for that, but I also resent it. I’ve gotten much better at accepting the way things are and hiring the right people to help me understand what to do. I have a nice team to get me to radio, and to people who are kind enough to write about it, and get me to social media, because I’m old-school and I don’t know what to do anymore, so again, it’s about delegating.
It’s exciting to live in a time when things change so rapidly, there’s a lot of possibility, and it’s more of a level playing field, but for those of us who know the difference, it’s a little frustrating, so again, you have to adapt and conquer or be left behind. It’s all positive. It’s full of hope and wonder and promise. We just don’t know.
I do know that thoughts create attitude. If you have a good attitude and think positive thoughts about these things, you will get through all this stuff. You will do well and you will live long and prosper! I believe that. I know how I feel when my thoughts are negative and cloudy and bad, and how I feel when they’re the other way around. No one is in charge of my thoughts but me, so it’s nice to know that I have that control. If I can’t control anything else, I can control that, and that feels pretty good. It’s a daily thing to think about, it’s a daily hurdle, and you just have to practice it.
“I’ve played in schools where
kids have never even seen a woman play guitar.”
Fifteen albums, you’re not bussing tables anymore, you performed with Elton John — it doesn’t get much better than that.
I remind myself of all these wonderful opportunities I’ve had. There’s always the next rung on the infinite ladder, but you can also move down a rung, or you can never have gotten up to where you are now, so I’m excited and curious to see what tomorrow will bring.
Also I want to help others in the process. I find things that need to be done. There’s a great Georgia music program and we’re able to find guitars for them. We go to schools and play for them, and have them play and sing for us, and have a little exchange. That’s encouraging for them. I’ve played in schools where kids have never even seen a woman play guitar. So I feel I have a bit of duty to get out and do that.
It’s all-encompassing. It’s not just about playing gigs and selling records. It’s not just about me. I’m just part of this giant picture. We’re all here together trying to figure out the same things. I’m on this part of the path of my journey, a lot of people are ahead of me, a lot of people are behind me, and I might be able to help the people who are not quite where I am on the journey.
Maybe part of the reason the world is going to hell so much is because we don’t have as much authentic music. We don’t have a connection to each other’s spirits through music as much as we used to. It’s just a theory. Again, part of my job with this record is to heal this divide that was created in recent years. I don’t want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution. So I’m hoping that I can help bring people together who have been on opposite sides of the fence recently, either people in the community, or people in families, or what have you.
I experienced that first-hand, and I figured I could either add to the divide, continue my rants on social media, and get on my soapbox, or I could talk about things that matter to all of us, and play the kind of music that fortifies everybody. At the end of the day, that’s what I hope for the most. I want people to feel good, and I don’t think you can feel good if you’re spewing out all that vitriol and negativity.
Trends come and go. Will the singer-songwriter always survive?
I don’t know. I think there will always be a need for music. I don’t know how big or small of a need, but I know that as long as I’m here, I’ll be doing it because I need it. It’s really selfish at the end of the day — it’s just to make myself feel better. But I can’t do it in a vacuum. I need others, and hopefully others need me.
94 Martin HD-28
66 Gibson J45
1959 Matching Supro Dual-Tone guitar and amp
65 Blackface Deluxe
74 Tele custom
Rocky Mountain slides (Michelle Malone signature model)
2014 Breedlove Premier FO American Series mandolin
Martin SP Phosphor Bronze acoustic strings
D’Addario XL Nickel Wound electric strings
Martin 80/20 Bronze mandolin strings
Check out our previous interview with Michelle Malone:
Interview with Atlanta’s Michelle Malone: ‘My golden moment is now’ about her new CD Stronger Than You Think