Michelle Malone is a rock ‘n’ roll lifer. Hermetically strung to a guitar that serves as the pacemaker of her tour-stressed heart, the Atlanta-born, self-taught multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter was once described as the imaginary progeny of Keith Richards and Patti Smith were they to spend the night together. Even in the absence of providential genetic transmission, Malone has spent the vast majority of the past three decades doing what she loves most: performing and recording her own songs her own way on her own label, kicking music-industry conventional wisdom in the ass, and boldly going where no woman has gone before.
She had to go there – to survive.
“Music, and especially rock and roll, has always been my haven, my solace, my comfort, the place where I went to feel better,” says Malone in a late-September interview, a week or so before she was scheduled to embark on yet another interstate tour.
This time, she would be touring in support of Day 2, her fourteenth album and the tenth since 1992 issued on her own SBS (Strange Bird Songs) label. Co-produced by Shawn Mullins and Gerry Hansen, and recorded at Hansen’s studio in Dacula, Georgia, Day 2 features Phil Skipper, Tom Ryan, Chuck Leavell, Marty Kearns, and Randall Bramblett, among others.
Throughout her fortysomething years, Malone has embraced her contradictions, saved herself more than once, and packed a well-worn songbook with some of the most soulful sonnets, bluesy licks and raucous southern jams known to the human ear. If making music is a therapeutic exercise, Malone is one of the field’s most accomplished practitioners.
“I feel like I fit the stereotype of the rebellious and angry teenager who ran off and started playing rock ’n’ roll, but it wasn’t something I consciously set out to do,” Malone says. “I never had plans to be a professional musician.”
All in the Family
Malone grew up, as they say, surrounded by music. Her mother sang professionally and in the church choir. Her grandmother also sang in the choir, and taught music and Sunday school. Michelle sang in elementary school and in the church youth group, and briefly studied opera in college. By the time she was 11, she was playing guitar and saxophone, both of which she learned on her own.
“We didn’t think about it. It’s just what we did,” Malone says.
Every week, when they were youngsters, Michelle and her younger brother were driven by their mother from their house on Lindbergh Drive near the now defunct Varsity Jr. to Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. There, the siblings were immersed in sacred hymns with lyrical messages about divine grace, earthly sinfulness and spiritual regeneration.
When she was a little older, Malone and a friend performed “Back in the USA” (“…the Chuck Berry song by way of Linda Ronstadt.”) in a church talent show, which was staged in the newly constructed dining hall. A cavernous room filled to capacity with neighbors, friends and parents, to a teenage girl the setting felt for all the world like Carnegie Hall on opening night.
“I was scared shitless,” declares Malone. “But mom had taken me to Sears and we bought these really cool purple satin pants. So I looked good and remembered all the words to the songs.”
Lounging Around Atlanta
“Her mom probably took her to the Sears in Buckhead,” responds Clare Butler with a chuckle, when I tell her about Malone’s talent show garb. “Back then, that’s where they carried all the hipster clothes.”
In 1978, when she was 18, Butler had moved from Albany to Atlanta to attend Georgia State University. Like so many of her peers, she formed a band with a group of friends. In their heyday, the Now Explosion imparted a kitschy, funky, celebratory karma to the deliciously diverse downtown music scene.
One of Butler’s favorite neighborhood haunts was the lounge at the Riviera Hotel on Peachtree Street down the road from the Pershing Point Apartments where she was living. The lounge’s cushy orange globe chairs were part of the draw, but the main attraction was the house band, a jazz trio led by local pianist Hal Buice, which featured an extraordinary vocalist, Karyn Malone.
“Karyn was like someone you would see on the Sonny and Cher show,” recalls Butler. “She was singing these wonderful jazz and blues songs, which I’d never really listened to before, and she introduced me to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and all those great singers.”
Butler was also captivated by Malone’s striking angular beauty and pitch-perfect couture. “She wore really cool jewelry and swanky evening gowns, and had these gorgeous sparkling lamé bell-bottom pants. Later, when I found out she was Michelle’s mother, I realized how much they favor each other.”
When Malone was “around five or six,” her parents separated and eventually were divorced.
“You perceive it as rejection, and abandonment, because you’re a kid and you think the world revolves around you,” Malone says. “Then, as you grow older, that dark belief persists, sometimes just out of habit.”
Following the divorce, Malone saw her father infrequently, mostly during 24-hour weekend visits and on holidays or special occasions. The only period during which she was able to spend any extended time with him was 10 years ago, when her father was succumbing to a protracted, fatal illness. The episode served as inspiration for the heartbreaking ballad on Day 2, “Marlboro Man”:
When I was a kid, I thought my daddy was the Marlboro man
He would pick me up in his Chevy truck to spend Friday nights with him
He was cool and quiet like Clint Eastwood
So the ride always felt awkward
And the silence made me feel like I was alone
A couple of days before he passed away, Malone says, her father confided something to her sister: “He told her that the two hardest things he ever had to do in his life were, one, take his father off of life support, and the other was leaving me standing in the driveway crying when he and my mom decided to separate, which I remember vividly.”
Run, Run, Run, Run, Runaway
In the course of carving out her cabaret career, Karyn Malone sometimes ventured outside of Atlanta and Georgia, usually taking the children with her. Michelle fondly recalls traveling in the car, staying in hotels, and playing in the pool with her brother. Around 1980, the family’s routine was interrupted when Karyn met the man who would become her second husband. In quick succession, she married, became a born-again Christian and announced her retirement from professional singing.
“When she got saved, everything took a back seat; her belief became more important to her than anything else,” Malone says. “I had different ideas, and I was part of this other way, and it all began to clash.”
To control her teenage daughter’s increasingly tempestuous behavior, Karyn imposed increasingly harsh restrictions on Michelle. The bedroom door was removed from its hinges, and her records and radio were taken away. “Can you imagine her hearing Patti Smith singing, ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’? My mother about blew a gasket.”
When she was 16, Malone ran away from home and headlong into a roiling community of punk rockers, artists, writers, and fellow misfits and malcontents. She ran in the streets, hid in basements and closets, and did “copious amounts of drugs.”
“I’m horrified now about what I put my parents through,” Malone says. “I also put myself through a lot of pain, sorrow and violence. I saw things and experienced things that I should never have been part of.”
Eventually, Malone moved back home and attempted stitching her life back together. After pinballing from high school to high school, she ended up at Kittredge, an open campus school, where she was kicked out a couple of times for drugs before finally coming to her senses.
“I cleaned up and graduated at the top of my class,” Malone says. “I gave the graduation speech.”
New Friends and First Gigs
A couple of years later, Malone got accepted to Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts school for women in Decatur, Georgia, where she studied music and voice. During this period she performed “in public” for the first time at The Strand in Marietta.
“People were just getting up and playing. When I finally found the balls to do it, I played guitar and sang ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ by The Clash.”
Not long after the inauspicious debut, Malone met Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, better known as the Indigo Girls, at a concert at The Dugout near Emory University. “After the show, we went out and ended up at the Majestic,” says Malone. “When they found out that I wrote songs and played guitar, they were sort of angry that I wasn’t playing out. Next thing you know, I’m performing at their shows.”
With her distinctive, incredibly versatile voice, abetted by her rapidly-improving blues-rocking guitar-slinger chops, Malone had little trouble finding approving audiences in the myriad clubs, bars, concert halls, and ad hoc performance spaces, which had popped up around Atlanta during the 1980s and early ‘90s like crabgrass through pavement cracks. At one of them, a blue-collar honky-tonk-turned-alternative-music-showcase on Ponce de Leon Avenue, Malone found something that enchanted her muse in a very special way.
“It was a dive with all these old dudes sitting around getting wasted in the afternoon, but it had a rock ‘n’ roll jukebox and a rock ‘n’ roll vibe,” she says. “It was a proving ground. I learned a lot about performing and capturing an audience there. The Pub was the Indigo Girls’ home. The White Dot felt like mine.”
Drag the Record Deal, Etc.
Although he had played the White Dot numerous times with the Nightporters, Ray Dafrico had never heard of Michelle Malone when Paul Lenz, his bandmate, told him about an opening for a bass player in another band in which he (Lenz) was playing drums. The band was Drag the River, and it was led by a young firebrand female singer/songwriter who, Lenz assured Dafrico, wielded a mean-ass guitar.
“The music was more of a traditional bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll, southern boogie kinda thing,” Dafrico remembers. “I liked the groove, which had a lot of Stones and Faces kind of stuff. I usually played guitar, but I liked how Michelle’s songs were really stripped down, which made playing bass very straightforward and tons of fun.”
In 1987, Malone “released” New Experience, a DIY eightsong cassette on her own Aluminum Jane Records featuring an iteration of Drag the River sans Dafrico. One copy found its way to the desk of the music editor at Creative Loafing.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” says Tony Paris. “It was Friday, and I took the cassette home with a bunch of other ones. When I heard the first chords of ‘Circus, Circus,’ I was floored. It was magical. It just so happened Michelle was playing a solo show at Trackside Tavern the next night, so I went. She was just as much of a knockout then as what I’d heard on the cassette with the band.”
Not long afterwards, Paris became Michelle Malone’s manager, responsible for booking shows and shopping New Experience to record labels. Ultimately, his efforts resulted in a visit to the Little Five Points Pub by Arista Records founder and President Clive Davis (who had worked with Janis Joplin, Patti Smith et. al), which led to Malone signing on the dotted line.
In 1990, Arista released Relentless containing a dozen songs by Malone, two of which were co-written with Sugarland co-founder Kristen Hall. Unfortunately, the album generated neither the level of buzz nor the unit sales that many people had anticipated.
“Clive loved what he heard, but Arista rarely broke an artist with their first album,” Paris says. “It happens with their pop acts, but with someone like Michelle, whose artistic vision and style are more in the realm of serious rock ‘n’ roll, it can take a while longer.”
Meanwhile, Malone was going rounds with her own demons. “The whole scene was making me very uncomfortable in my skin,” she says. “Arista wanted me to be more like Joan Jett—and I think Jett’s great—but I ain’t her.”
Further complicating matters was the vivacious young Atlantan’s enthusiastic embracing of the self-indulgent, self-destructive aspects of the rock ‘n’ roll credo. “I felt like if I continued down that road I was going to die whether it was from substance abuse or just total suicidal despair,” Malone says.
Feeling pressured by the tension and turmoil, Malone unceremoniously broke her Arista contract, choosing to step off a lucrative path to music industry Valhalla in favor of dropping out for a while. One of the factors influencing her decision was that her brother was dying from AIDS. “Instead of trying to be someone I wasn’t, I decided to quit everything and find out who the f— I was,” Malone says.
“Instead of being on the road partying every night, I wanted to be home so I could say goodbye to my brother.” In November 1991, her brother passed away at age 29.
A year later, after finally gathering up the gumption to get back in the game, Malone released For You Not Them, originally on Sister Ruby Records (a mini-label based in Tucker, Georgia), and later reissued on SBS. Since then, Malone has released a series of albums, one every year or two, most, but not all, on her own label.
1994’s Redemption Dream with Band de Soleil was released on Amy Ray’s Daemon Records, while Beneath the Devil Moon (1997) and Lucky to Be Live (1998, 5-song EP) were done for Velvel Records, the quasi-independent label started by Walter Yetnikoff, the controversial former chief of CBS Records, who had convinced Malone that things would be different this time around.
During this period, Malone was focused on staying healthy, running and cycling regularly, and occasionally entering charity athletic events. In the summer of 1998, while performing as part of the Lilith Fair tour, Malone was hospitalized due to problems stemming from a previous surgical procedure. Once again, a brush with the dark side pushed her toward reorienting her priorities.
“In the wake of a couple of surgeries, I got dropped from Velvel, which was a pain in the ass financially, but which also ended up being the best thing that could have happened,” Malone says. “When I got out of the hospital, I felt like a new person with a new lease on life. I had a bunch of new songs written, and decided from then on to put out all my records myself.”
In succession, Malone released Homegrown (1999), Strange Bird Vol. 3 (2000), Hello Out There (2001), Stompin’ Ground (2003), Sugarfoot (2006), and Debris (2009). The albums feature solo acoustic performances, live band recordings, and collaborations with musicians ranging from local heroes Mike Lorant and Sheila Doyle to notable friends like Emily Saliers and higher profile players such as Peter Stroud (Sheryl Crow, Don Henley) and Nick DiDia (Bruce Springsteen, Black Crowes). All of the recordings have garnered a fair share of acclaim for their rootsy Americana, southern boogie, folk-rock blues-country thing—depending on the album and the reviewer.
Photo by Zack Arias
Today is Day 2
Day 2 signals another turning of the page for Malone. Vividly depicted in the album’s 11 songs is the lyrical image of a woman who has reached a rapprochement between the seemingly disparate and not infrequently antagonistic facets of an uncommon life well and truly lived. As she sings in “Other Girls”:
I wish I were like the other girls/With a simple life in a simple world
Marriage, children, picket fence/Speak softly and act demure
But I’m not like the other girls
Other girls wish they were like me/Carefree rock star royalty
Jet set, penthouse, hot chauffeur/Can I get a ticket to that dream
Damn, I wish that girl were me
So if you think your life is not good as another the grass ain’t greener, just a different color…
Along the path leading to Day 2 was a reconciliation between Michelle and her mother, which resulted in The Cocktail Sessions, which was released in 2000 on SBS Records. Recorded “live” at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia, the album features Karyn performing a playlist of jazz and pop standards, which could have been lifted straight from a Saturday evening performance at the Riviera Hotel lounge. One track features mother and daughter teaming up on Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love.”
Roots and Redemption
“She’s definitely in a huge new chapter in her life,” says Mullins, who insisted on not playing anything on Day 2 (although he did contribute backing vocals) because he didn’t want to interfere with what he and co-producer/engineer Gerry Hansen were hearing from the other side of the glass partition in the little recording studio in Dacula. “Listening to and watching her make Day 2, I think it’s clear these songs have been part of a healing process,” he says. “Through her music, I think Michelle has gone through something and come out on the other side, and can now look back and be OK with it.” The best news is that Michelle Malone today is healthier, content, settled and centered, perhaps more than she’s ever been. As always, she still has her music. “It’s carried me through the darkest times, and there have been many times when I felt like it was all I had.” Malone and her partner, Trish Land, recently moved back to Atlanta where, it would seem, the two women are likely to be settin’ on the porch for a nice, long spell—in between criss-crossing the country on tours, of course. “Atlanta’s my home,” Malone says. “I’m here because I want to be here. My roots are here. My people are here. I feel like I’ve been on a retreat, and now I can exhale.”