Speaking from his Manhattan apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Jesse Malin pauses as sirens begin wailing in the background. “You can hear lots of ambulances and cops. After it gets dark it’s pretty Mad Max down here right now,” he says, adding that he’s strictly following the city’s self-isolating rules. “I only go out for the essentials. For once in my life, following the rules!”
Although Malin is clearly taking this situation seriously, he also seems upbeat and optimistic overall. This type of affable tenacity in the face of adversity has already secured his status as a longtime leader within New York City’s hypercompetitive music scene. His irrepressible attitude is especially evident in his new single, “Backstabbers,” which is being released on April 24 (with an exclusive video that was directed by Leah Hennessey that premieres here at American Songwriter).
“I think “Backstabbers” is about transcendence,” Malin says, explaining that the lyrics tell a type of coming-of-age story “about going to find yourself in another place, whether it be New York City or California – having to leave home, and the obstacles that come with fighting your inner demons and things that try to knock you down, like people that pretend to be your friend and they really talk behind your back.
“I think the best part of rock and roll or punk or any kind of art is to tell you that you’re not alone and that other people have gone through this and survived, and it’s okay to look different or come from a messed-up home. That it’s okay to feel scared. That it’s okay to feel like an outsider,” Malin says.
Malin wrote the song’s vibrant, swaggering music at his apartment with help from Derek Cruz, the longtime guitar player in his band. “I write a lot of stuff alone, but writing some parts with somebody where they’re playing a rhythm and I don’t hold the guitar forces my mind to go melodically into places I wouldn’t if I weren’t thinking about the chord changes. Derek is just so talented, and good at giving me a little take on what the whole picture could look like.”
After Cruz departed, “I just sat with the lyrics for a while,” Malin says. “I write sometimes in a stream-of-conscious, where whatever words come out while you’re creating the melody. And then I go back in like a Rorschach test and try to see, ‘What am I saying here?’” This time, he came out with an empowering message, filled with colorful references to his own childhood experiences in New York City.
As a child, Malin was already obsessed with music. “I saw KISS on some variety show breathing fire and I was like, ‘I want to do this!’” For a school talent show, “I dressed up as Gene Simmons and I spit ketchup for blood. And I wore big platforms and everybody seemed to get excited. I was hooked.”
Malin also recalls how music played a key role in his relationship with his father at that time. “My dad would play music in the car – Jim Croce, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley. And I felt that we were having conversations with some of that stuff. It was a way that I was able to quietly express myself or even communicate with my dad. He planted a lot of seeds with the songs.” Malin also cites The Replacements, Dead Kennedys, John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan as early influences.
When he was 12 years old, Malin formed a punk band, Heart Attack, and spent the next four years learning the ropes of writing, recording and performing. The band eventually got good enough to play New York’s legendary CBGB’s and go on tour. From there, Malin went on to lead D Generation, which became one of the most acclaimed punk bands in the 1990s.
But by the time D Generation called it quits in 1999, Malin knew it was time to shift gears. “In Heart Attack and D Generation, we felt that our lyrics were important, but it was frustrating to have people think the whole show was about moshing or what we wore onstage,” Malin says. “And when I did my first solo record [2002’s The Fine Art of Self Destruction], the songs were written really acoustic and stripped-down. When the record came out, people were noticing the lyrics more, and that felt so much better.”
Now, Malin says, he’s surprised at just how far his words sometimes reach, describing the surreal experience of going on tour and “some song you wrote in your apartment about some girl that broke your heart, or you broke her heart, and then some guy’s talking about it in Finland or Moscow – it’s an incredible thing. It makes you realize how small the world is.”
Malin’s evolution has continued through each of his eight solo albums, but he showed particular depth and skill on his latest release, Sunset Kids, which came out last year. Iconic singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams and her husband Tom Overby produced the album, and Malin credits them for helping him reach his potential. “I respect Lucinda so much. We are friends but I’m such a fan, too. So I knew I had to bring my A-game! But also, they made me feel so comfortable, they were so supportive, and I think that’s important to growing and giving your best.”
“Backstabbers” was actually recorded during the Sunset Kids sessions, “But we felt it was a different sound. We felt that this was part of something else that would be coming next. Which is the record that would be almost finished up if we could get in the studio. But we’re locked up, so it got pushed to early next year.”
Malin says that next album which is coming out via Wicked Cool is titled Lust for Love, though he is cautious about predicting too much more about it this far in advance. “Until it’s all done, you can think a record’s going to be one way, but [then] it offers a surprise element that I always look forward to. I let it talk to me in its own way. I look back and say, ‘That’s what’s happening here!’”
For now, fans can console themselves with “Backstabbers” and its excellent B-side, a heartrending cover of Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You.” Although it is the B-side, the song clearly means a great deal to Malin, who sounds in awe as he describes seeing Petty performing the song in 2017 in L.A. “I’d seen Tom before but this night at the Hollywood Bowl, no one knew it would be his last gig. It was like I was hypnotized by the show. Then they started playing “Crawling Back to You,” and I was standing there alone having such an emotional moment. There was a line, ‘the things I worry about don’t happen anyway,’ and I needed to hear this. The song just connected.”
Malin himself knows how to connect well with audiences, and while he seems to do so with ease, he admits, “Sometimes I still get nervous to go onstage. But I think that being nervous makes you feel like you’re alive. If you have a little bit of jitters, then you’re not too jaded.”
Since this self-isolation mandate began in New York, Malin has been keeping his performing skills sharp with a weekly livestream show (in a spoof of his debut solo album title, this show is called “The Fine Art of Self-Distancing”). He says it’s been an adjustment, entertaining people from his apartment instead of a stage, but he is having fun with it. “It’s inviting all these people over to my house every week to play a lot of songs and try to share what I’m feeling being trapped in the house, and a report from the streets of New York to the world.
“I also do a little Show & Tell segment, like a kiddie show. I show some books and records and movies, things that I’m into that I recommend and suggest that people can order during this time of lockdown.”
For Malin’s next livestream, on April 25, “I’m going to be playing The Fine Art of Self Destruction like I wrote it, just solo acoustic. It’s a record that I wrote in a little apartment on East 3rd Street when I had no money and really wanted to find a career as a songwriter and singer outside of a rock band. So I’ll be telling some backstories of the songs, some things that were going on in my life when I wrote the record, and how it pertains to now.”
Besides helping Malin stay connected to his fans, these livestream shows also provide a means for merch sales, with all proceeds going to his band and crew, as well as the staff at Niagara, Bowery Electric, Berlin, and Dream Baby, the New York venues that he co-owns.
Even though he’s making the best of things now, Malin looks forward to the post-pandemic day when he can resume his normal career. His characteristic optimism shines through again as he speculates on the odds of success for artists. “There’s a lot of survivors in the music business,” he says. “We’re really tenacious and I think that’s going to show during these times – it has already, with people doing stuff from home. But even after this, people are going to find ways to get the music out.
“In the end, I have a pretty positive view of life and I believe in the spirit and energy of the universe and of people. I always talk about PMA, ‘Positive Mental Attitude.’ I think that life will come back. People need to be around people. It might start slow and people might be cautious, but I think nightlife and touring will come back – it’s what we live for. When the time is right and we get out of the cage, I think it’s going to be a big celebration.”