Michelle Malone: Writing For Herself

Photo by Carie Ofori.

Compared to most of her contemporaries in the Americana genre, Michelle Malone seems like a pair of torn-up Chuck Taylors, compared to a bunch of cute, ladylike Candies’ sandals. This Atlanta-native has a voice that’s the vocal equivalent of Multiple Personality Disorder. One minute she’s got you crying in your beer with a country-ish tune, the next she’s brought you to your feet with a great Gospel bark. She’s as sweet and pure as Emmylou Harris, as gritty as Bonnie Bramlett and cool and sexy as Dusty Springfield. All of these elements abound on her new album, Stronger Than You Think.

Malone comes by her independence and eclecticism naturally.

“I started singing in church when I was about 4,” says the Atlanta-born Malone. “And my mom, a single parent, supported the family by singing in clubs and bars, doing everything from the hits of the day to jazz and blues standards. So I grew up being exposed to all kinds of music.”

It shows.

Starting with the scintillating, slow-rockin’ “Stomping Ground,” which talks about that glorious place we all misspent our youth, to the synth-soaked, folkish ballad “Black Swan,” right up to the quickstep Rockabilly of “Vivian Vegas,” where the singer talks about getting her “Rock and Roll degree,” this wondrously varied album covers a lot of musical turf. And makes hash out of all the careful boys and girls who think Americana means staying sheepishly within certain boundaries. And if you do, maybe radio will play your stuff. The truly rebellious, effortlessly eclectic Malone just doesn’t care.

This Don’t-Tread-On-Me attitude started almost from the time she got into the music biz. In the early ‘90s, Malone made one album for Arista, produced by the Patti Smith Band’s guitarist, Lenny Kaye. Finding this an uncomfortable fit, she left and became one of the pioneers of the Indie movement. Malone then started SBS Records, made 13 discs, toured the globe and somehow managed to keep her hipster cred while picking up mainstream attention. We’re talking placing songs on the TV shows Dawson’s Creek and True Blood, playing in Sugarbush member, Kristian Bush’s band, duetting with Gregg Allman, playing with pianist Chuck Leavell and the Atlanta City Orchestra. Quite a CV.

Now there’s Stronger Than You Think. Which is not only a terrific, idiosyncratic record, but a statement, for and about, Malone’s contemporaries. Many of whom, due to their age, are now struggling with particular and particularly difficult issues.

“I didn’t plan for so many of the songs to be about people overcoming obstacles,” she says. “It happened organically. Part of my inspiration had to do with several friends who have been fighting cancer and other illnesses. Then there are people whose parents are aging and dealing with Alzheimer’s, so the songs are for the caregivers, too. These tunes are my attempt to inspire folks dealing with difficulties. I want to empower them to continue to put one foot in front of the other, to keep on going through their obstacles, whatever they are. I want them to know that they’re stronger than they even know.”

This is the 3rd record that Malone has made with producer / drummer Gerry Hansen (Chuck Leavell, Shawn Mullins, Randall Bramblett), and they work well together. A few of Malone’s other high profile Atlanta friends who dropped by to to lend their backing vocals are Amy Ray (Indigo Girls) on “I Dont Want To Know,” and the selfsame Kristian Bush on “When I Grow Up.”

Plus, for a veteran Rocker, Malone is doing something in the crowd-sourcing world that is as modern as tomorrow. And may suggest a genuine paradigm shift for all sorts of musicians out there. For Stronger Than You Know, Malone is partnering with her fans and the company LOUD Record Deals. For $49, you can get something called a Gold Record Deal, which includes exclusive bonus content and higher LOUD percentages. Five percent of overall digital sales of the album (from all major outlets) will be shared with GOLD Record Dealers.

So, before her touring starts, how does Malone finally feel about her latest offering.

“I write for myself first,” she says, “because I need to believe in what I’m singing. I wouldn’t aim it at any demographic, even if I knew how. I just write what moves me. I believe if the songs resonate with me, they’ll connect with other folks and bring them joy and strength, as well.”