Michelle Malone’s Uplifting Blues

Photo by Zak Arias

“We all know that there’s been a huge divide since the election. A lot of people on both sides are worried and unhappy. The polarization even exists within families! So with this album, and my upcoming shows, I think it’s my job to try and bring us back together. To try and heal the wounds. At least make everyone feel better.”

These are the words of a blues singer? Well, yeah. Her name is Michelle Malone.

On her new album, Slings & Arrows, the Georgia singer-songwriter-guitarist with the big voice and bigger cult, has attempted to do something rather difficult. To use her blues to make listeners feel they’re not so different from one another. At least during a good long listen to her album. Damn if she doesn’t succeed.

Slings & Arrows is such a smokin’ disc, with such sharp, incisive playing and a gorgeous widescreen production, it sounds like it must have taken weeks to get the tunes down and polished up. But such is not the case.

“We did it in four days,” says Malone with a confident chuckle. Which is stunning enough. But then she adds the kicker. “The songs were written, but we didn’t really rehearse them or have any arrangements done in advance. I had no real agenda. I just took everybody into the studio and we let it rip.”

Since I can’t hook her up to a polygraph machine, I have to take Malone’s word for this. Considering how smoothly the disc runs, though, her statement is kind of mind blowing.

From the opening track, a slinky John Lee Hooker-style shuffle, “Just Getting Started,” to the way funky song, “Love Yourself” (with its “When they go low/We go high” lyrical nod to Michelle Obama), to the emotionally-charged cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (a duet with Shawn Mullins), the album displays Malone’s many different shades of blue. It’s a little like the sky. It goes from the bright pacific blue of daytime to the deep, dark, starry blue of night. In other words: gal has it all going on.

Malone’s decision to work with singer-songwriter Mullins, which at first seems like an odd pairing and ends up as natural as Marvin and Tammi, was a very easy decision for her to make. And represents a sort of subtext for the whole album.

“I’ve lived most of my life in Atlanta. And something that you can’t miss about our city and the whole state of Georgia is how many great musicians have come from this region. Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell, Ray Charles, Little Richard. That tradition goes on. I’ve always loved (Atlanta native) Shawn’s work. But I had no idea he he could sing in that big soulful way he does here. When he did the second verse of the Otis song I was blown away. He just killed it, even with the difficult range of the song. And it’s nice to have another Georgian contribute to the disc.”

The talk continues. Me, still marveling at how brief a time it took Malone to cut this sensational CD, her saying it’s no big deal. That when you’ve played with people long enough and they have played long enough, it’s easy-peasy once you get going. That she felt this “organic” vibe in the studio and everybody played together as though they had ESP. Finally, that she will be touring to support Slings & Arrows, by playing shows of her own and opening up for fellow Georgians The Indigo Girls. But this blues singer just won’t get off her thesis statement about the disc. And I don’t mind.

“It’s just an important thing to me now that I spread the message that you need to love yourself. Once that happens, you can love others. Just maybe that is the way we can start to heal the country.” Then she pauses to consider her weighty psychoanalysis, as well as how she wants to end our talk. “In any case, I know what I’ve got and what I need to do with it. My music and this album particularly. I must be careful to use my powers for the good.” And though she’s dead serious, Michelle Malone starts laughing. Just before she says goodbye.