We caught up with Georgia’s own Michelle Malone for a phone interview about her new CD, Stronger Than You Think, playing with Kristian Bush, the Atlanta music scene and her love for llamas.
GM: Tell us about your new CD, Stronger Than You Think.
MM: It’s called Stronger Than You Think because I feel like everyone IS stronger than they think. It’s got 12 or 13 songs written over the past year or two. Some of the songs are written for people I know who are going through a hard time or they’re dealing with health issues or family issues or work issues. Like, lately, I don’t know if it’s our age or the state of the world, it seems like everyone is having such a hard time, at least the people I know. The only thing I know to do to help is – the only thing I’m really good – at is writing and singing these songs. So I thought that if I did that in such a way as to help people feel stronger, to bring them a little more joy, and forget, for just a moment, then that would be a positive contribution I could make. I hope to fortify people in their daily lives and bring them a little extra joy.
GM: It looks like you had a lot of fun on the video, “When I Grow Up.”
MM: Yeah, it was a lot of fun, it was ridiculously fun! I love these llamas. I guess they’re alpacas, but I don’t know the difference, to me they’re llamas. I’ve always liked them – I have no idea why – so I asked if we could make a video with llamas (laughs). So I was having a blast!
GM: What’s your approach to songwriting?
MM: With Stronger Than You Think, my approach was to write songs that were to help people feel a little joy and give them a little escape for a few minutes…that was my approach. I guess this is my 14th record, I don’t really know, it kind of changes every record depending on where I’m at in my life. It’s very intentional – I sit down with a guitar and a pen and a piece of paper and I play and write. I see it as my job so it’s very intentional. And it was even further intentional that I get behind the song, you know what I mean? 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 I then I actually start to write it. Sometimes I write in the studio, but I try to get it done before I get there.
“Maybe I’ll get a TV show?”
GM: It sounds like that works well for you.
MM: Well, it can (laughs). I don’t know if that’s the best idea because it can limit your time to work out the kinks. I do like to take the songs in cold to the studio. I used to prefer to work them out before I got there but now I like to keep it really fresh and go in. Sometimes I’ve only played the songs once or twice in my kitchen after writing them and not have played them live – so they’re really fresh and that way I don’t have any idea how they’re supposed to sound, per se. I just go in and let them run their course and go where they want to go. I think it’s really organic and keeps it real without getting over thought or over processed, you know? I can tell the difference in music that is very labored over or that is really off the cuff. I just feel it differently in my body.
GM: You play different instruments. What do you find yourself playing the most?
MM: I’m a guitar player and I write everything on an acoustic guitar, I always have. I like my electric guitar too so when I get in the studio, I crank that up and I do both. I like records that have a layer of acoustic under them because I feel like it percussively drives the rhythm of the song; what the Rolling Stones would do on any number of their songs, they did it so often. I think it’s very percussive and I like the way it feels and plus it gives me the option to play live either acoustic or electric without it getting contrived. I’ve got to make the music I like, you know, and that’s what I love.
GM: As a singer-songwriter, guitarist, producer and record company exec, how do you think of yourself?
MM: I’m just a singer. I’m just a singer who plays guitar. I became a guitarist so I could play, I mean so that I could sing without having to enlist anyone else so I could write. I’ve sang ever since I can remember, and I started playing guitar when I was 11 and, to me, when I discovered Led Zeppelin and all that kind of stuff, when I discovered rock ‘n’ roll, I had to play guitar.
“I love my town. I love my people.”
GM: It sounds like you grew up in a very musical household.
MM: My parents are both musicians and they still are. My stepfather is a music minister now. My mother supported us as a single parent. As a singer she supported us for at least ten years. It’s the family business. Both my grandmothers were pianists and singers and performers. Well, one was a singer and performer in church and the other was a pianist in church. You know, it just goes back. It’s just what we do, I don’t even think about it.
GM: What are some of your golden moments?
MM: Probably what I’m going to do next week (laughs). I mean I like to look forward. I don’t necessarily look back at what was great then and what is not now. For me, I’ve been very fortunate to make music for a living and I’m continually learning and making new things and getting better as a writer and a singer and a guitarist. So, to me, my golden moment is now. Especially since I have more gratitude for it now than I ever have and as that continues to grow I feel that this is right, this is it…right now!
GM: How was it like to have your songs in films and on TV?
MM: Well, it’s always an honor and I appreciate it, it brings in a little money. It’s a nice thing to add to the resume. Honestly, again, I just keep moving forward and want to keep pitching songs to films and TV. Timing is everything. I don’t necessarily make popular music, music that is popular at the moment. I do what I do and it comes in and out of popularity so there have been times when I’ve gotten a lot of songs on films and TV and there are other times when I’ll get one in something.
“I got my last gig with playing in Kristian Bush’s
band out of my neurosis and anxiety.”
GM: What do you do when you’re goofing off?
MM: I don’t have a lot of goofing off time lately because I’ve been putting out one record after another for the past, I don’t know, three or four years, I guess, or moving, touring. I keep busy; it’s part of my molecular structure. I like to keep busy. I like to feel useful and then when I get tired, and I think I want to take some time off, maybe I want to take the winter off, but as soon as it rolls around, I get really freaked out because I’m not working and I don’t have a purpose and I’m like, what’s the point? You know, then I start calling around looking for work and that kind of thing. That’s actually, honestly how I got my last gig with playing in Kristian Bush’s band out of my neurosis and anxiety of the winter. I had put out an e-mail to a handful of folks that I knew at studios and musicians and things like that and said I’m looking for side projects, I’ve got downtime. If anybody needs me, holler and they hollered. I went and played guitar and mandolin in his band and toured with them for the last year while I was recording. Then I was twice as busy as I should have been but, nevertheless, it was a really good experience. It helped me become a better musician, I just keep learning. It was really awesome to watch him perform every night to see how he did it, what his approach was. He’s all about the joy and that really inspired me
GM: Will there by more coming from you and Kristian?
MM: Oh, I don’t know. Right now I have to concentrate on this new record. Of course, we have a co-write on my new record and that’s the song I made the video for “When I Grow Up.” I also have a co-write with Amy Ray on there that’s actually a song we wrote a looong time ago that they recorded that they sold a lot of those records. So I guess I have a gold and platinum record because they recorded this song but it never occurred to me to record it because they did it so well. One day I was fooling around with it because once in a while people will request it from me at my shows. So I started fooling around with it, I just came up with a completely different arrangement of it that was more like something I would do and not their arrangement, and I really, really liked it. It felt really good to play so I ended up recording that and Amy came and sang on my version. It’s good to share songs with people, it’s a good feeling.
GM: Do you consider yourself part of the Atlanta music scene or a musician who lives in Atlanta?
MM: No, I am definitely part of the Atlanta music scene. I’m very proud to be an Atlanta musician, an Atlanta native. I love the community here. The friendships I’ve made through playing music in Atlanta have lasted my whole life. For example, I met the Indigo Girls when we were all in college. We all starting playing together, performing together and we continue to do so. I met Kristian Bush in the early ‘90s, and it goes on and on and on. It was a time, I don’t know if it’s still like this here in the community because I travel more now than I did back then, but it was a time when there was so much bubbling, so much talent, so many songwriters, and it was new and exciting. We were all helping each other and working together and performing together.
“I’m just a singer.”
GM: Is there a secret talent you have?
MM: I can shoot pool and throw a Frisbee with my left hand because I broke my right hand for a while. I can juggle, I’m not good at it, but I can do it for a few seconds. I don’t know about secret talents. I like to play drums as a hobby. I was a drummer before really anything else. My stepfather’s a drummer and he taught me when I was a kid. I love to play drums so much because it takes me completely out of time and space, but I’m not very good at it. I can keep a good beat but I wouldn’t do it in a band unless it was a terrible garage band, you know? I just like to play AC/DC because it’s straight up rock, you don’t have to think too much about it.
GM: As a musician, was there a turning point where you decided this is what I’m going to do?
MM: I was not as intentional at becoming a professional musician in the beginning as I am intentional now. Even though I grew up in it, I never gave it that much thought because I was always singing and making music of some kind, but I didn’t think about doing it as a profession. I was in college at Agnes Scott and I was a singer and a songwriter and a guitarist – I just wasn’t doing it out in the world professionally. Then I met Amy and Emily and they almost got mad at me for not performing and they encouraged me to come play at their shows. Then one thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a record out and then I got signed by Arista. So it just all kind of fell into place. It’s pretty painfully obvious that my heart was in music and not in college at the time. Having been kicked out twice by Agnes Scott because I wasn’t going to class, I was making music at night and sleeping in the day. It was an expensive lesson to learn but there you go.
GM: What are some of your favorite things about Atlanta?
MM: I love everything about Atlanta. I love the dirt. I love the trees. I love the sound of the frogs and the crickets at night. In the city you have this. I love the fact that I can go to a concert and see 20 people I know. I love the fact that I still get asked to play festivals and private events; that I’m appreciated here. I love that I can go out and run in to someone that I went to elementary school with. I love it here. I do belong here. These are my people, I will claim them. They are my people! (laughs)
“It seems like everyone is having such a hard time.”
GM: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing girl guitar players?
MM: There doesn’t seem to be that much interest in female guitar players and it’s not a complaint, just an observation. You can name them on one hand pretty much, in general, in the world. There’s Nancy Wilson of Heart and Joni Mitchell. I’ve seen some newer bands with female guitarists but I don’t know their names because I’m a classic rock junkie. There’s really some great talent, but I don’t think they get quite as much attention, but music in general doesn’t get as much attention as it used to. It’s not as important, in general, as it used to be. We’ve made it disposable and it kind of breaks my heart, but people don’t buy as much music as they used to. Whether or not it’s because they spend more time on Facebook or not, I don’t know, but it’s not as important as it used to be. Having said that, I feel there are still a lot of huge music fans out there. People who cannot live without it, like me and probably you, and those are the people that I play for including myself. It’s a gas!
GM: Who do want to be the next President?
MM: I don’t think it really f***ing matters, they’re all talking heads. I think they have great intentions but, at the end of the day, they’re talking heads. There are much bigger powers that are controlling everything so that’s where I’m at. It doesn’t mean I won’t vote, I will vote, and I will vote in a way I see fit at the time but anyone who knows me at all knows the way I will vote. I don’t really want to talk about that, but I’m for the greater good.
GM: What are some cool things about your upcoming tour?
MM: First and foremost, I’m looking forward to getting out of this heat and heading north. I think it might be ten degrees cooler and less humid in Chicago and Minneapolis and up there where I’m headed next. I’m really excited because I’m going back on tour with the Indigo Girls and that will be wonderful and exciting. I’ve always enjoyed that and I’ve been doing that off and on for a couple of decades. We sing so well together and it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It reminds me of when I used to sing in a choir. I don’t get that experience very often so I enjoy that a lot. They’re just the kindest people and I’ll make some new fans and enjoy playing my songs and getting my new record out there. So I always enjoy that.
“My golden moment is now.”
GM: What’s the best way for people to get the latest information on you?
MM: It’s MichelleMalone.com. Also, you can follow me and be my friend on Facebook all you want but that doesn’t mean you’ll see my posts. For whatever reasons these Facebook algorithms are inconsistent. If you want to really keep up with me, you’ll be on my newsletter and you can sign up for my email list it my website. You can get my tour dates at my website anytime you want. You can get news at my website. I’m having it updated for a mobile app right now so hopefully it’ll be ready soon. Also, my CDs are not in stores. You can order them directly from me or get them at a show; I’ll sign them for you if you want. I’m working with a new tech platform out of Atlanta called Loud. JoinLoud.com is where you basically partner with me in what we call a record deal with the fans. They help proliferate the record through their exclusive link and get paid for it when people download it through their exclusive link. It’s very cool. It’s a whole new way to get the music out there through the fans who like to tell people about the music they like anyway already, so why not reward them for it? I’m excited that it’s an Atlanta company. I love my town. I love my people.
GM: What about the Girl’s Scholarship?
MM: We started a girl’s scholarship fund about three years ago and we’ve been helping several girls pay their way through college. Right now we have one girl who’s going to be a senior next year and we’re going to finish helping her get through. We take donations and we have fundraisers and lot of times I sell set lists from shows on my website for people who want that sort of thing and then also want to help a less than fortunate girl get through college – so that’s really fantastic. I’ve had the best fans – they’ve been so supportive. Not only of me, but of the scholarship fund, and they ask about the girls and they always want to help. I’ve always had a lot of help from people and could never have paid for Agnes Scott without grants and things like that so I think it’s only fitting we give back when we can. It’s the little things. To some people it doesn’t matter, but to this girl in particular, it’s everything to her. It’s no different than helping anybody out. You’d help a family member out or a friend so why do we have to know who they are? Why do you have to know them? When you get to know someone you get a new friend.
GM: After this record, what’s next?
MM: I really don’t know. I don’t plan these things out. I didn’t plan to play in Kristian Bush’s band or make a new record this year or go on tour with the Indigo Girls. You just keep on keeping on and stay open to possibilities and who knows what will happen next. Maybe I’ll get a TV show? Maybe I’ll get a job? I don’t freakin’ know. Whatever it is, it’s going to be something I enjoy that I want to do.
For more on Michelle Malone, visit her site HERE.