Jesse Malin began his career when he was only twelve years old, fronting the band Heart Attack in New York City’s hardcore punk scene in the 1980s. Four decades later, he has established himself as a successful singer-songwriter who has released eight critically acclaimed solo albums, and has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, and Billie Joe Armstrong, among many others. Taking a break from a recording session for his ninth studio album, Malin offers insights into his songwriting process that he hopes aspiring writers will find helpful.
“It’s really the sincerity of writing about things that you feel passionate about and telling those stories. Sometimes people tell you, ‘Write about what you know,’” Malin says, but he has an addendum to that: “Write about what you love. Sometimes in a song, I’ll put in a reference to something I love —a street, a movie, a person’s name – because it feels good to sing it.”
This approach allows Malin to write prolifically. “Sometimes I have seven verses for a song that needs three, but some of those lines might end up in another song,” he says. “That sounds like cannibalism of your own material, but I think it builds a thread on a record, or a style, where the characters are talking to each other.”
Like many artists, Malin is constantly scanning his environment and gathering notes about things he sees and hears that he might later turn into lyrics—but he says it’s equally important to take time to disconnect from the world and focus inwardly, as well: “Wake up in the morning, and before you turn your gadgets on, sit down and spend a half hour or an hour and just write. Do that every day, and it will build up.”
Malin also recommends flexibility when writing. “I’ll pick up an instrument and just sing whatever comes to me free-form, letting the melody flow. Sometimes the lyrics are placeholders. Sometimes they’re some kind of Rorschach test to figure out what I’m really trying to say. And some of those placeholder lyrics turn out to be really true and real,” he says.
“Be honest, be fearless, be open,” Malin says. “Other people are going to be able to relate if it’s sincere and it’s real because we’re human and we share certain emotions.”
Check out Jesse Malin’s “The Fine Art of Self-Distancing” shows here.
Photo by Vivian Wang