Michelle Malone is a highly respected singer-songwriter and guitarist based in Atlanta, Georgia. With her soulful vocals and electrifying guitar playing, Malone has been a prominent figure in the Southern rock and blues scene for over three decades. Known for her dynamic live performances and poetic songwriting, she has garnered a loyal fan base both in the United States and abroad.
Born and raised in the deep south, Malone was exposed to a diverse range of musical styles from an early age. She began playing guitar as a teenager and quickly developed a unique style that blended rock, blues, and country influences. Over the years, Malone has released over a dozen critically acclaimed albums, earning praise for her powerful voice and fierce guitar work. In this interview, we’ll delve into the inspirations behind her music, her creative process, and the challenges and triumphs of being a woman in the male-dominated music industry.
Malone is releasing her newest album, Fan Favorites, Vol. 1 Unplugged, on May 12 via Malone’s own record label, SBS Records, and distributed by BFD Entertainment / The Orchard. The inspiration for the album came to her during the Covid lockdown, where she, like so many other musicians, turned to live streaming. She acknowledged, “We were having to wade through unknown waters with alligators and snakes in them.”
“There are a couple of blues-influenced songs with slide guitar,” says Malone, who produced the album itself. “There’s some pop. Some folk-rock, too. There are moments that sound like Little Feat. We wanted everything to sound honest and organic. Adding production to a song is like dressing it up. You can dress it up in a party gown or in a t-shirt and jeans, but the song itself has to be good. With this album, the songs might as well be naked.”
During her sessions, she said, “I played original songs, and I played full albums. I had to go back and learn some of my old records. And I played cover songs.” Malone also took requests and said, “I came to see the songs that people requested the most, and then I just asked them at the end and made a list. And those are the songs that I recorded.
So after live streaming for a while that year, I decided that I wanted to go record because I love recording. I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t put out a greatest hits kind of thing in 20 years.’” She and her guitarist, Doug Kees, whom she’s been working with since 2017, went to Bakos Studios “with two acoustic guitars and a microphone or two and sat down and recorded some songs. It was really as much for me as it was for my fans. It just helps me feel more grounded and connected again, and doing what I do with other people is more enjoyable.” The process only took a couple of days to record, as Malone explained, “We’d sit down and play the song live two or three times and then adjust a thing here or there. That’s also the beauty of it – recording live in the studio.
I love playing live – playing live and recording are my two favorite things.
I love playing live – playing live and recording are my two favorite things. So to play live in the studio to record is kind of a perfect world, especially if I don’t have to leave Atlanta! I just wanted to go in and give an honest account of what we sound like live. I think we’re honest and organic performers, and I think it shows on this record. Just like I said, we just sat down in the studio and played the songs as we mostly performed them live.”
When it came to revisiting her previous songs, Malone said, “Some of them took on a bit of a new life. Partially because we changed an arrangement or changed the key or the tempo, or something like that, and that would inspire us to perform it a little differently, which was fun. Like the bonus track of ‘Matador,’ it kind of blew us away. It just happens, you know. You get in the studio and start playing; magic happens. I think Quincy Jones said, “You’ve got to leave enough space for God to enter the room.” You kind of get out of the way, get out of your own way, and you just let it happen. I feel like that’s what the record sounds like.”
Two of Malone’s favorites on the album are “Matador” and “Strength for Two.” “Well, like I said, I loved ‘Matador.’ It was funny because we originally recorded it for that record, but it was so special I thought I was gonna put it on another record, so I held it off the original recording. That’s why it’s a bonus track. And I really like how ‘Strength for Two’ came out. The original recording had Emily Saliers on it playing guitar, and of course, it’s very different from the way Doug plays guitar, so I like his twist on it. It’s just a different part altogether. After a while of singing the same song for many years, it changes and morphs at a live show.”
The album includes a bonus track featuring Malone’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.” She explained, “After having been out in California before the lockdown, I was really in that California vibe. Then we got locked down — I went and listened to a lot of that ‘70s California country stuff because it’s what I grew up on, and I found it very comforting at the time. I thought it would be a nice edition that everyone might know. That’s what a bonus is about.”
Malone’s choice of acoustic guitars for the album was her “old Gibson J50. I think it’s a ‘66. And I played my old reliable Martin HD-28. I think that’s a ‘96. That’s about it. I’m a creature of habit. I stick to the same guitars most of the time.”
Everyone’s got an opinion, and most often, they’re willing to share it — whether you ask for it or not!
Fan Favorites, Vol. 1 Unplugged, was produced by Malone, who has been producing her own music for the past two decades. When discussing the producer’s role and what it means to her, she said, “It means that I get to go with my instincts as opposed to someone else’s. I do trust my instincts; however, sometimes, it’s nice to get others’ input, whether they’re the guitarist, the drummer, the engineer, or whoever is in the room. Everyone’s got an opinion, and most often, they’re willing to share it — whether you ask for it or not! Most all the people in my world that I play music with, record with, or work with are beautiful people, have a lot of experience, and are people I trust. It’s a give-or-take thing in the studio.” However, she adds that occasionally she will enlist someone to come in and help out.
If you’re a fan of Malone and would like a follow-up Vol. 2 Unplugged, stay tuned because it’s already in the works. And if you’re in the Atlanta area, Malone will have the CD release party of Fan Favorites, Vol. 1 Unplugged at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA, on May 20, 2023, where she will be performing as a Duo with Doug Kees.
Tickets sold at Eventbrite