The Popdose Interview: Bill Mallonee
Bill Mallonee is one of America’s greatest living songwriters, and I’m hardly the only one who thinks so. Paste Magazine said as much with a poll in which writers and musicians chose their favorites. Mallonee has released over 50 albums and endeared himself and his music to a fiercely loyal group of fans around the country and the world. Nearly all of those albums are available in their entirety for your listening pleasure at his Bandcamp site. If you like what you hear you can also purchase the albums there. It’s an investment well worth making because Mallonee is one of those artists who is richly deserving of your support. He’s been through it all; the major labels and the indies; big star cameos from people like Emmylou Harris; band recordings with his legendary Vigilantes of Love band and solo efforts. The one constant over a career of more than 20 years has been the extraordinary quality of his work.
These days when Mallonee isn’t recording he’s crisscrossing the country on tour with his wife and musical partner Muriah Rose, winning new fans and delighting his existing fans at every turn. He has just released a new album, Beatitude, and it has already leaped onto my list of the best albums of the year. As you will see from his responses, Mallonee is generous of thought and spirit, and deeply committed to his craft.
It is a lot of work. When I roll over to my Bandcamp site and look at all the albums, it IS kinda overwhelming. I still feel good about all of them. What places I was at, emotionally and spiritually in my life, what themes and styles emerged, the players who gave of their time and talent to each project. Lots of home runs. (I actually own all the records I’ve ever made. That’s VERY unusual for any artist.)
How to explain it all? After 22 years and 50 plus albums, I wish I knew how to dissect your question a bit, Ken, but I don’t. Sometimes it seems like a bit of madness, I suppose. I think I found my voice early on and now I just stay at the wheel. The songs have just kept coming for more than 20 years. As long as I feel I have something to say and a good way of saying it, the songs will get written. I seriously just try not to over-think it when it comes to writing. Dispel all expectations and trust your gut about where a song will go. The whole process is very nurturing for me, so I engage in it a lot. Maybe that’s part of the answer…
My only premise, as a writer, is that I think we’re all living in basically the same skin. Life still feels like a hallowed gift, but one to wrestle with daily. With a certain faith in oneself & some loving encouragement, it can be a good ride. Yes, it’s messy and incongruous. Whether you have some abiding faith or are a skeptic about such things, one still has to make a certain peace with it. Me? I’ve gotten to make my peace with the universe in installments called albums, with a guitar in hand. What a great gig, eh?
I never write nor have i ever written with any particular audience in mind. I have always written to save myself; to make sense of the world. I was looking for reasons to hang on. That may sound grim, but it’s not. It It seems life usually arrives in a daily explosion of mystery and grace. Not all grim and dark. Good writing is an honest struggle and I think the art it yields will be an authentic body of work. The songs keep coming and they still feel exciting…so I keep writing.
As far as the externals go? The laboratory I’ve operated in as an artist? Some of those 22 years were in the old paradigm. That of the old artist signed to a label and they own all aspects of your work sorta thing. As a band, Vigilantes of Love had deals with a few minor labels from 1992-2001. It was a learning curve to be sure. We did meet with some hard worn success in the mid/late 90′s, especially on what was called Triple A radio. (Adult Alternative Album) We’d be in the same chart positions as bands like Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, and the Gin Blossoms, etc. However, I deliberately took myself out of the industry in 2002 after some 15 albums. We trusted the wrong people, time and again; folks of good intentions but just incompetent when it came to breaking a band. Vigilantes of Love had tons of great national ink, but I couldn’t feed my family. Not that deprivation is a bad thing. It’s actually gotten worse. But you have to have some success to keep a band together. Initially, my solo career was more about the inability to keep my friends and fellow musicians employed with some hope for a future. Now (as a troubadour artist) a song, it’s delivery, and a room full of people are the variables that define most of what I do live.
But back then, from my stand-point as an artist who was writing 75 songs a year, recording two albums a year and touring 180 shows a year, band-in-a-van-style, the industry seemed to be run by people who were either charlatans or just plain inept. I bailed out on that paradigm in 2001 after Summershine. That album (now retitled Last Days/Early Mars) was one of our most ambitious albums to date. It was very trippy, power-pop-psychedelia, and hugely radio friendly. The label had no idea what to do with it and I think they were deliberately working against the record’s early great reviews.
Me? I got out of Dodge. I decided to rely completely on the fans we’d made from years of touring, their word of mouth and their goodwill. And it’s basically worked. It has been incredibly hard in a world where the pond is overstocked. But, the last 12 years have been the most creative time of my life, throughout the last some 35 albums & EPs. I’m proud of the work.
Here’s what I’ve found as far as issues of my faith go: I have been the recipient of grace and love. But the world is broke. Your heart’s gonna break, so don’t be surprised. Grieve all that you lost, or grieve what wasn’t recognized in your life. You’ll get used to waiting, praying; but resurrections are God’s business, it seems. Bear one another’s burdens. Even look for one or two to bear for your friends. Affirm the best in each other. Don’t give your heart to illusions. Stay close to all that’s good in your life, in each other and all that God gives you. Talk to your Heavenly Father through out the day; be aware of just how much heartache there is in the world and in your own skin. Treat all, everyone with respect, mercy and grace.
I like to be careful when discussing this sorta thing. I have no agenda. Like I said above: I write to save myself. Sometimes, that salvation has a shelf-life of just that one day. My point is simply that faith has to be existential, day to day. For me it has been forged in a furnace of experiences. Talk to Christ as you would a friend. Let His Presence, lead and comfort. Wrestle with that friendship. Recognize that Living Presence that hallows and permeates life. Sometimes it seems elusive, even absent. Other times it is overwhelmingly near. I think that Person/Presence is Jesus Christ. But someone else might call him/her something else. The point is that one should risk their life on it; bet the farm on it. But as I said, it’s my reason for getting up in the morning. It’s not my agenda in my art. If it was, that would make art into propaganda and we all know how insulting that is!
As far as religion goes, at the end of the day, I’m more interested where Spirit goes, where it shows up and what is it doing. Manifestations of compassion and grace are signs of Spirit’s presence I believe.
Creatively? Honestly, I usually just pick up a guitar and something shows up. Lyrics and music. All there. Again, I try to never over-think it. I know that sounds all too easy, but seriously, that’s what happens. It’s probably not wise to dissect it too much. It could be one chord arpeggio-ed, one melody, one picking pattern, one little technical movement that kick-starts it. One idea leads to another, and another…and voila! Song’s done. I have written as many as 12 songs in a week, sometimes as many as four a day.
If a song doesn’t surrender in say 15 or 20 minutes, I usually just move on.
I can write anywhere. But generally, writing is a wonderfully solitary experience. We’re now living out here in the desert in northern New Mexico. It is definitely more remote. That enhances the writing, I think.
ALSO: (most important!) Songwriting is a dialogue you have with yourself. Every song is an attempt to find a part of yourself. Lose agendas, drop your guard, away with the filters. I like the songs that let raw experiences and impressions hit you square in the face. Make a place for that in the writing. What I am trying to do is build a world. My songs are, I suppose, a nomenclature I’ve made for myself. That world is drenched in an Americana sound and idiom. But, it is a very PRIVATE world. Again, there’s no audience in mind. There is, rather, the telling of a life with all it’s perceptions, griefs, depressions and joys delivered with the assumption that we’re all living in the same skin. If i can excavate properly, then maybe it’ll resonate with others. So far so good
I write exclusively on guitar. I do play drums, That was my first instrument. I’ll add keys to a song later when recording. Cellos, string quartets, orchestral harps…those sorta things that give it a chamber-pop nuance, when appropriate. But I compose on guitars, both acoustic and electric.
I still love the rush of picking up the guitar, first thing in the morning. Whether it’s forming a new progression, chasing down a new melody and then working the crash of cadences and nuances of lyrics. Whatever it is, it still feels fresh and exciting. You tap into it and ride it. (It’s why I often come up with seven or eight verses for every song.) Given that sort of output, it was one of the reasons I was very eager to get off a label and do my thing independently. (There are pluses and minuses of course).
Acoustic guitars are a Martin D-35 and an old ’69 Gibson J-50. I play electric. Rickenbackers and Telecasters are the choice instruments. Altered tunings? I have developed about three of them I use to keep things lively.
I suppose I’ve written about 1200-1500 songs. I’ll divulge a li’l secret here: Of course not all of them saw the light of day in the form of a formal recording, but I guarantee they were all written to completion and then recorded on some very old boom box I had. There exist literally 100′s of cassette tapes with those songs. Some songs made it onto to more formal recordings. Some will be forever lost.
The process? Some of it is trusting one’s gut. But here’s the thing: That also assumes that you’ve schooled your instincts, you know? I turned off the radio in the mid-90′s and really haven’t turned it on since. Call it a self-imposed deprivation. I find I don’t edit my processes or what comes of it very much at all. (I was a drummer for years before picking up guitar. In my experience drummers are quite often the best at things like arrangements and stops and starts in a song.)
Muriah saw some show recently on savants. After seeing it, she wondered if there might not be some element of that in the way my brain works, in the way I write. I dunno, really. I love the nuances of feeling that emerge while I’m engaged in it. It feels like some wholeness being gained. It feels very salvific, sometimes even cleansing. It’s all very personal. My songs are a very privatized nomenclature I’ve made for myself and drenched in the Americana mindset. No. it’s not a trance state or anything like that, but there is definitely a certain place I go to to bring a song to birth.
I use to write on tours a lot when it was a full band. These days, with just Muriah and I doing the folk-duo thing, I get to lay back as we travel, look at the scenery and talk with the missus. Then, when I get home, it’s not uncommon to write six or seven songs in a week.
That’s why I started doing the shorter WPA releases. (stands for Works Progress Administration). I release about four EPs a year. Each has about five to seven songs. They are recorded here at our home in the desert, lovingly on four-track. I write too many songs to hammer out each one of them in a studio with full band, although I would LOVE for each one of them to be given that kind of attention. BUT: On the plus side: The intimate quality and immediacy of the WPA EPs series (There are at least 18 EPs now) is something many fans have said they prefer over the bigger sounding studio albums. All good I say!
You have said that the people in the songs on Beatitude are all people who you know and that they’re people who are “just holding on.” Talk about how you encountered some of these people and what inspired you to translate their hopes, dreams, desires, heartbreaks, and failures into song.
Beatitude is a kind of a tip of the iceberg record. We play a lot of house shows, Ken. It’s usually in this context of intimate concerts that we’ve been able to hear befriend fans, hear their stories. We like we’ve been honored to be allowed get inside their burdens, struggles, and joys. Most of our fans are well aware of our own struggles as well. We recognize each other. The recent economic downturns and the subsequent upheavals that many of these individuals and their families have experienced is hard to ignore. Their heroism, their courage and their faith, in the face of their losses and deprivation is nothing short of inspiring. I’ve written songs in the past about those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or addictive disease issues. These songs, on Beatitude are something of a journalistic report, but also a homily. I wanted to present these gritty stories in a hallowed way, that was believable. Beatitude was pretty much destined to be lyric-centered, acoustic-driven, with pedal steel and piano.
“Cowboy Song” finds you trying to cope with the loss of a loved one, and found me fighting back tears the first time I heard it. I was struck by the fact that the person who inspired it would be happy to be paid such a fine tribute, wherever they are. The song also features some lovely harmony singing by Muriah Rose and beautiful pedal steel work provided by Bill Pratt. Tell me about that song.
“Cowboy Song” is a eulogy of sorts. Muriah and I have lost many friends over the years, many by accident. Cowboy songs are an old genre of songs unto themselves. Themes were the stuff of what we’ve come to call “High & Lonesome” music. They were mournful songs about death, love, grief, hard work, love of nature, and faith in God. I needed to write a song that was a grieving song for my friends, but affirming the continuation of their spirits. I’m glad you liked the components. Ms. Rose’s voice always lends vulnerability to any song. Her phrasing is just amazing, and Bill Pratt’s pedal steel is some of the best in the country. It’s an honor to have them on the record.
“Bread and Circuses” addresses the current immigration debate, the decline of the working class, and end of American hegemony. The classic VOL sound is a large part of the song’s appeal. Was there any particular incident or news story that inspired the song?
Grimmest song on the record, but you’d never know it. It’s presentation is so indie-pop. The term was coined by the Roman poet Juvenal. The phrase is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary public service, but through diversions and distractions. It was a terse, cynical description of what a country on the skids and lacking integrity anesthetizes itself with. Full stomachs and mindless entertainment, hence Bread and Circuses.
I wrote it because I think it’s a sadly/beautiful description of “where we’re at” in the good ol’ USA. “Bread & Circuses” is full of that classic REM/Athens jangle-y sound that became some of Vigilantes of Love’s signature sound. I’ve been working on my guitar playing for years now, so i’m comfortable with executing the 12 string and secondary parts on albums. So the song has that instantaneous sing-a-long quality. But, lyrically, it is pretty dark…lots of teeth.
Oh, Lord! VoL is painfully hard to talk about. Such a wonderful band. What to say? It was a band whose musical legacy still sounds fresh and challenging. Ten years and near 20 albums. All of the albums were written about in glowing terms. The band was a “revolving door” or sorts, but never in all my comparing of notes with other artists have I once heard a story that remotely competes with the sad breaks the band got. Ten years in a van at 180-200 shows a year. At the end, it was time to quit banging our heads against a door that wasn’t going to open to us. My favorite incarnation of the band was Kevin Heuer, Jake Bardley, and Kenny Hutson, often referred to as the Audible Sigh (note: an album produced by Buddy Miller and featuring Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals) band. I think they might have been one of the best Americana bands on the planet on any given night. We believed in each other and could play under any conditions and bring it.
Here’s the sad statement, but I’m going to make it: I think the band was repeatedly harmed by managers, labels, and booking agents who did not have a clue. They misrepresented themselves and their abilities to us and we fell for it. We were more than willing to hand off the reins to those who said they could further what we were doing. We knew we had great songs. We knew we had made great records, and we knew we had great chemistry on stage. But there are only so many hours in the day. Every good band needs nurture…and we just never found it when it came to building a super-structure around ourselves. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I can get bitter about all of that on occasion. Who knows? Perhaps a shred of success would have staved off some of the current poverty. But, i think the albums and the legacy still speak well. Perhaps we’d have gone on to make more great albums.
Of course the other side of that is that one’s soul deprivation is the best thing for making authentic art. I’m glad for the acquaintance with that sort deprivation. I could have never written the songs I’ve written were it not for such deprivation. VoL was such an incredible band. We were all friends. We all worked so hard together, making such great art, in my opinion. Yep, hard to talk about.
Speaking of recording, I assume that you work on a limited budget and yet the final product never sounds that way. How do you manage to record efficiently and still manage to make such a good sounding record?
I’m not an engineer. I do think I’m a good producer. Those are really, very much, two different things. Find the right players and get good at conveying a nomenclature to those players that defines the song and it’s spirit…and I think you’ll get great results. For me, the ability to play better guitar, more definitive supportive parts and arrangements has been reinvigorating to me musically. With time, and some trial and error, you get an idea of what it is you’re trying to convey in your art. With the last three studio albums, The Power & the Glory, Amber Waves, and now Beatitude, a beautiful chemistry was reinstated by having Vigilantes of Love back together. I think it shows in the songs, Ken.
After 51 albums you’re still out there crisscrossing the country on what seems like an endless tour. Do you still enjoy being on the road, and do you envision a day when you’ll just kick back, satisfied that you’ve done enough?
Ah, you gotta love what you do. I love all aspects of this cottage industry. And i still love seeing the country, bring the songs. Sure, the travel can get mundane and very tiring. I love playing live, doing shows, but we also tour just to stay alive. If I’m recording 40-50 songs a year, I’m gonna want you, the audience, to hear them live. As I said above: i am still excited about the songs that keep coming. Touring is a huge part of our living, but to be honest, it is getting harder.
Music has been regulated to a commodity. The problem, at least for me (I do all of our booking) is that the value of live performance and what takes place in such an intimate environment, is becoming less valued. Bottom line? I will tour as much as I can to keep my work in front of people. Those folks are my deepest, bestest resource. I owe them. The day to day? I’m always thinking about the new songs I’ll record next, how to deliver them. That’s a constant for me!
Bill Mallonee – “Rural Route” (from Beatitude)
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