Michelle Malone,
An interview by Jen Kopf
(November 1996)

Take away Michelle Malone's music, take away her ability to power a guitar and bend her voice.

Take away a solo career that has her opening for the likes of the Indigo Girls, and take away Band de Soleil, her rewarding, ongoing collaboration with other musicians.

What in the world would this 29-year-old musician do?

"I don't know," she says from a New York City recording studio. "If I wasn't in a band, at least I'd have to be able to continue to write. I can't afford real therapy."

But wait, she muses. Maybe there is something else.

"I wouldn't mind farming. Organic farming. Maybe raise some goats, like, having my own line of goat cheese."

Then Malone laughs. With the spotlight of having a new label's debut release, and with a talent that's garnering more and more critical acclaim, it's not likely that she'll have the time to take a look at any farms up for sale.

Still, it would be nice if musical talent led to some financial success -- those farms and goats can be awfully expensive.

Speaking from a recording session in New York, Malone's voice is raspy and more than a little weary. She's been in and out of the studio for the past few weeks, recording demos between gigs.

Her next CD with the two members of Band de Soleil, Bird on Fire, was the first release of indie label Velvel Records. It's a vote of confidence from the director of Velvel, former CBS Records CEO Walter Yetnikoff.

Like many female singers, Malone has been compared by critics to whatever strong female voice is topping the charts that week. Suffice it to say her music is strong, magnetic guitar rock with a bluesy southern sound that's touched with folk emotions.

"I sucked in all the influences over the years," Malone says now, "but when I write, I make a concerted effort not to listen to music. I don't want to be affected by it."

And her taste in music while growing up, "I don't think, has a lot to do with the music I make now. But that's just me."

That would include some pretty wide-ranging stuff.

As masterful as she now is on the guitar, that wasn't the instrument Malone picked up first when she was a girl in Atlanta.

"I started on the saxophone -- like Lisa Simpson," Malone says, laughing again. "I cut my teeth on jazz. Then I digressed from Miles Davis to Led Zepplin."

There's not much evidence of either of those sounds in Malone's music now, except for her penchant for in-your-face directness. That goes whether Malone's fronting Band de Soleil or on stage on her own.

Soloing "is and isn't" the same as performing with the band, she says. "It's all still me and my songs. Solo's the same thing toned down a few notches is all. ... The solo thing is more dynamic and kind of ... an emotional rollercoaster. The difference between the two is that I don't have as much responsibility (solo). I just show up with my guitar, and I've done it enough that I'm confident I can do it, and do it pretty well, I think."

If her time onstage is when Malone lets it all hang out, writing songs is no less wringing for her.

"Writing is all self-centered, self-serving therapy," she says. "It's how I get through my life."

Sometimes the process is a real struggle, but other times, like "In the Weeds" off Bird on Fire, it just all pours out.

"It was really just when I had a minute just sitting there on the living room floor," Malone says. "(The song) wrote itself; I really didn't have much to do with it at all. It was pretty moving. I think I actually -- it was such a release to get it out of me I cried. God, it was such a relief."

The pace of her on-again, off-again tour doesn't bother Malone.

"If I have time off, after about two weeks I start to get nervous." Instead, she says, her least favorite part of touring is "sleeping in a new, weird place every night."

And "you don't really know (if it's a good place to stay) until you get there." Someone who plays more than 250 gigs a year, hopscotching all over the map, has a pretty good idea of what makes a good hotel: "You know, clean sheets."

Pondering the issue, she riffs about "the worst hotel.

"The other night, I stayed in a place that you'd normally think would be halfway decent. But I kept getting this scary vibe, like someone had been killed there," she says, only half joking. "The wallpaper was coming off the walls, the bed was sagging in the middle, there was one channel on the TV, a rotary phone. Plus, there was this scary smell."

"It was," she proclaims, "just the worst."

Still, not bad enough to make her even contemplate giving up a career that's sort of evolving -- slowly, according to the money charts, like gangbusters when it comes to critical acclaim.

"I went to school (the all-women Agnes Scott College in Georgia) to become a doctor for awhile. But I got disenchanted pretty quickly, I just lost faith in that whole thing."

She left college, and signed first with Arista Records, then inked a music-publishing deal with Sony Music. Neither allowed her to expand her audience as much as she would have liked, in the way she would have liked.

There were two independent releases, For You Not Them and New Experience. Daemon Records, run by Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, released Band de Soleil's Redemption Dream.

Now, with her electric stage presence and the new Band de Soleil release, she's on the verge again.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

Buy Beneath the Devil Moon from Amazon.com.

Buy Redemption Dream from Amazon.com.