A Songwriter’s Story: Bill Mallonee

Written by A Songwriter's Story, Music

One of America’s great songwriters weighs in on his process

Bill Mallonee

In a Paste Magazine poll of writers and artists, Bill Mallonee was listed at #65 of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters. Mallonee is not only an accomplished songwriter, but a prolific one as well. Since the start of his recording career in 1991, Mallonee has released 58 albums. His latest album, Winnowing, is being released today. You can get a CD or digital download here. There’s going to be vinyl too. You can pre-order the album in that format here. There are free streams of nearly all of his earlier albums at his Bandcamp site.

There is a lot of talk about supporting independent artists these days, and they don’t get any more independent than Bill Mallonee. Please listen to his music, and consider buying the new album and maybe a few of the earlier ones while you’re at it. Popdose invited Mallonee to offer his thoughts on the songwriting process. What follows is his response.

I’ve always believed that life was charged with a certain hallowed-ness, but also a kind of frightening darkness. That’s always been the starting point, for me, something to affirm and something else to stare down.

I recorded my first album, Jugular, in 1991. That was some 23 years ago. A new record gets born today called Winnowing. It’s album #58. I guess that makes me a songwriter. I always liked that phrase, “Built To Last.” Writing is a way of saving myself. It’s a neurotic, prayerful, manic, tender and unsettling enterprise. I love it.

I try and release four or five EPs a year, and one big, full-length studio record.

Here’s my bit of back story, because all of our back stories go into our present in one way or another. Then we’ll sally forth into the songwriting world:

My band, Vigilantes of Love, was signed after SXSW in ’92. We had (for a short time) some support from a minor label. Radio, national press, and SoundScan numbers were always pretty favorable to us. So, the “road” became my school and my teacher. I probably wrote 75-100 songs a year early on. Those first 10 years were defined by a “rinse and repeat method.” We’d release two albums a year and do the perfunctory 200 shows to support them. Then we’d do it all again the next year, and the next, and finally we could muster it no more as a band. I “went solo,” so to speak, and the last 35 or so albums are a cottage industry sorta thing.

It seems to work. All the freedom and none of the label BS. You learn to do what you love with what you have at your disposal. Low-to-the-ground-touring has always put teeth and substance into a writer’s heart and pen. It’s hard, but it shapes you, and makes you more authentic. It puts you in touch with the skin we all live in. (Back story done.)

After all the albums, tours, and probably near 1,500 songs, when it comes to the “how” of songwriting, I really don’t know “how” I do what I do. That answer is not an attempt to be evasive, and it’s not pretentious, I promise. Perhaps, I choose to NOT dissect it and hold it up to the light. Songs are either “lived” or they’re just a dead exercise to me. To dissect it might take the glad/sad/rush of madness it gives me. It always feels new and exciting when I write. I try not to overthink it.

I can, however, offer you some ideas about the interior places my songs come from. I tell younger writers things like “just let it come,” “find your own voice” (not someone else’s), and “don’t overthink it.” I reckon those are pretty good reference points.

Musically, I’m in that wide net called Americana. My albums and themes tend to be “dark,” questioning. A juxtaposition of big, noisy Neil Young-type garage songs interspersed with vulnerable, acoustic, folkier songs. It’s all a search for some faith. You can only tell your own truth, you know?

I’m generally known as a “lyric guy.” My work has mostly been an attempt to save myself; to stare down the dark/sad/incongrouous parts of life and spirit. S’all i know. I don’t write to save anyone else. Life here seems to be such a fractured place of strange, heart-rending beauty and sadness.

I think every song should start, as American bard Robert Frost said about poems: “with a lump in the throat.” It’s always been the “big themes” that attract me. Love, heartache, loss, grief, faith, doubt, loneliness, struggle, death, hope. You know, that stuff. The raw data.

Bill Mallonee - Winnowing

It doesn’t hurt to know your history. The 1920’s through post-WW ll America has always seemed to play a vital part in many of my songs. People really have changed very little o’er the years. What gladdened their spirits, what they struggled with, and what saddened them is still the same. Also, know the “greats,” the folks who excelled in various genres that interest you. We are ALL standing on the shoulders of giants, you know?

Songwriting and performing is RISK … or it’s nothing. Always put something of your “self” in the song. That’s the person, place, and terrain you know the most about. Turn your inside out, but remember: Give it a disguise. If you don’t it’s likely just whining or propaganda. Start with the particulars, the small bits and scraps that make up and define our lives. The “big picture” is usually the conclusion your listeners come to after all is “placed upon the table.” Part of the risk is that you’re inviting folks into that space to see it it rings true with their experience.

I write, I suppose to make some sense of the world within and without for myself. Reviewers and folks have told me that my songs have an “everyman” quality to them. I’m glad for that. Here’s the thing: If the work resonates with others it means we’re all “onto something.” A secret brought to light. A truth that ennobles. A path that becomes clear.  But first, you have to start with what’s under your own skin.

Songwriting is conjuring.

A song is a marriage of music, lyric and (most important!) delivery. Every nuance of a lyric, breath and phrasing changes, and the moment that just passed and sets up the next. It’s amazingly mystical. It’s all about “believability.” The goal is formidable: Have you tapped that thing that goes the deepest in you and given it a nomenclature, a face? Can your audience shake hands with what you just conjured? After that, a song is simply a conversation with the listener. Think about it: They’ve let you into that vulnerable space of their spirit. They’ve allowed you to speak something to them as a fellow traveler. That’s an amazing honor, they extended to you as an artist.

One last thing: Solitude. It’s become indispensable for me as a songwriter. I previously lived in hipster-town, Athens, Ga. for almost 30 years; Great, lovely li’l Southern town. I lived on a steady diet of “tour-static,” till the whole east coast (and beyond) seemed to be a study in driven-ness and anxiety. For me, it was time to realign, escape the prison. We moved to a small cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina for a few months. We now live in a tiny, outpost town in the mountains of northern New Mexico, near the Rio Grande river. The high desert. 300 plus days of sunshine a year. For me, it has been inspiring, revitalizing. We live like hermits in many ways. And yes, we sometimes miss the greater aspects of bustling metro areas. But touring will always reacquaint us with that.

But out here in the spacious high desert the topography, the play of light, sunshine and blue skies have been very refreshing to the spirit. Many albums have surfaced over the last three years we’ve been here. When I pick up a guitar and the ideas roll out almost every time, well, you know something bigger than yourself is near.