During his June 19 performance at City Winery-New York City, acclaimed singer/songwriter Jesse Malin can’t contain himself to the stage. By the end of the show, he’s venturing out into the crowd, leaping up onto chairs as audience members dance and sing around him. It’s his first large venue concert since pre-pandemic times, and a joyful atmosphere prevails. The energy in the room stays high as he introduces new songs from Sad and Beautiful World, his ninth studio album that’s set for release on September 24 via Wicked Cool Records.
Two weeks later, Malin sits in a booth at 2A, a legendary bar in New York’s East Village neighborhood. Even offstage, his enthusiasm for Sad and Beautiful World is irrepressible. It’s a double album, co-produced by Derek Cruz (Malin’s longtime guitarist) and Geoff Sanoff (a sound engineer who’s worked extensively with Steven Van Zandt and many others). One side is suffused with a mellow, rootsy Americana vibe. The other side lets loose with an edgier rock swagger. This is, Malin says, the perfect balance he’s pursued his entire career.
“When I made my first solo record [The Fine Art of Self Destruction, 2002], I used an acoustic guitar because I wanted people to hear the lyrics,” Malin says, “but as time went on, my rock and roll and punk rock attitude started to appear, and I made a couple of records that, in my opinion, were a little too much of that.” With Sad and Beautiful World, though, “I’m able to incorporate these two sides of my personality and blend them together in a way that’s comfortable,” he says. “I feel I was able, with this record, to house both sides of my personality.”
By necessity, Sad and Beautiful World was made rather sporadically, as Malin and his band navigated COVID-19 restrictions to gather at New York’s Flux Studios (with social distancing, mask-wearing, and other pandemic-related precautions in place). “It wasn’t made in just one smooth shot of days—it was made in pieces,” Malin says.
Despite its fragmented origin, Sad and Beautiful World doesn’t sound disjointed, perhaps because Malin and his band were performing live-streamed shows together from the New York club Bowery Electric (which Malin co-owns) on a near-weekly basis from last summer through this spring. This made their playing incredibly tight—which in turn, Malin says, helped him feel extremely inspired, even as he wrote about going through these harrowing times.
“I don’t write super political records, but I write records that raise questions about things that are around me,” Malin says. “This was a statement of what happened during 2020. It’s not necessarily a COVID record, but what was going on outside in the street with the protests, the riots, the lockdowns, the crime, people dying, and the isolation that we all dealt with.”
Still, this album seems hopeful—and that, Malin says, is deliberate: “I always have to have a sense of humor and a sense of fun. It’s great to fight for things, but at the end of the day, you have to keep a positive outlook, if you can. In my music, there’s always a theme of transcendence and searching for some kind of redemption.”
For these songs, Malin’s songwriting approach involved a combination of patience and diligence. “I let melody lead me, and then lyrics come,” he says. “I spent a lot of nights up, long hours, in bed or at my desk or at the kitchen table, working on the lyrics. I tend to write a lot of verses and then run it by the band and say, ‘Look, I’ve got all these ideas—we have to get rid of a couple of pages here.’”
That collaborative aspect is a crucial part of Malin’s work, even though he’s a solo artist. While he did write several of Sad and Beautiful World’s songs alone on his guitar, he also loves working on material with his trusted inner circle. “Some of the writing was done with Derek Cruz or [keyboardist] Rob Clores, musicians in my band, where I don’t have my guitar and they’re jamming something and I’m singing, and I don’t know where they’re going to go. I’m kind of guiding it in some weird telepathic way, but they’re also guiding me with their changes,” he says.
This album also includes three tracks that Malin co-wrote with Holly Ramos, of L.A.-based band OSO My Brain. “She has great imagery and great ways of saying things,” Malin says. They’ve written songs together since he was in his very first band, Heart Attack, nearly forty years ago.
Now, Malin looks forward to touring to support this album, with dates set this fall in Europe. “Shows are so important,” he says. “That’s the community, us getting together with strangers in a dark room and doing this thing. It doesn’t matter what your religion is, your politics, your favorite sports team—when we all get together, music unites us.”
Main photo by Vivian Wang