Michelle Malone Works It Out
By Jerry Grillo
Watch Michelle Malone on stage, feel the rhythmic wave wash over the crowd, the tangible electric surge of rock and badass blues and sensual, sweaty soul, and it’s difficult to imagine the shy, guarded woman she used to be.
“I was afraid of people, couldn’t trust anyone,” she says. “I was by myself, on my own a lot growing up, felt like I was in survival mode probably for the first 40 years of my life.“I guess I’ve lightened up a little bit in recent years. I’m more comfortable now making new friends, and I think that suits me very well.”
But even in her wary youth, playing and writing musicalways was her liberation, and the stage became her safe place, her second home.“It’s where I go to work everything out, everything I was going through, as long as I can remember,” says Malone, who will be performing at the sixth annual Sautee Jamboree (Sept. 23-24) on the outdoor stage of the Sautee Center. “I know for me, writing has always been cathartic, something to help me work through whatever emotions, whatever situation I was going through at the time. If I didn’t have that, I’d probably be in nuthouse by now.”
Instead, she spends a lot of time on the road, between her home in Atlanta and the distant dots on the map, performing an extensive and diverse playlist compiled over the past two decades. She stays so busy it’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since the release of her last CD, the emotionally riveting Debris, which she calls “mostly a breakup record.“It’s something that occurred years ago, but I never got around to writing about it until Debris,” Malone adds.
After the breakup that inspired Debris, she first had to record the high-spirited Sugarfoot album. She really had to.“You know, I was so sick and tired of being bummed out and losing friends, I needed to write happy songs that I would enjoy playing every night, to make me feel good, sassier, more sexual and fun,” Malone says. “I tend to see the glass half full before I go wallowing in the negative. Helps my perspective.”
So she went toward the light for Sugarfoot, then re-examined an unraveling relationship in Debris. Both were released on her own SBS Records label, and both made the Grammy Award ballot (one for best ‘Contemporary Blues,’ the other for ‘Best Americana’).Malone’s had plenty of bests since her first album, New Experience, was released in 1988 – best acoustic guitarist (three times, from Atlanta’s Creative Loafing), best female vocalist (five times, ditto); best studio and live albums of the year (Atlanta magazine).
She’s got a gold record and a platinum record hanging on her wall for “Don’t Want to Know,’ a song she co-wrote with Amy Ray for the Indigo Girls. Her songs have been heard in movies and TV shows, and one tune, “The Gathering,” was the namesake for the popular fantasy card game, Magic: The Gathering.Debris was her 10th release, and over a 23-year stretch of miles and notes, Malone has crafted a discerning fanbase, a reputation as one of the bottleneck slide guitarists and harmonica players, and has collaborated with Albert King, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, the Indigo Girls, John Mayer, SugarLand, Shawn Mullins, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, ZZ Top and Joan Osborne, among others – almost as many different artists as there styles of music, which suits Malone’s aesthetic.
“After playing for more than two decades, I’m sort of a chameleon. My music has grown and changed with me, my interests change, and frankly, I love all kinds of music and want to play all kinds of music and write all kinds of music and sing all kinds of music,” Malone says.“I don’t limit myself. I’m probably shooting myself in the foot as far as marketing goes, but what the hell – I’m not a marketing genius; music is my priority, so it’s important to me that I can look myself in the mirror and respect what I see.”Malone says she isn’t writing much lately, it’s something she has to make herself do. But she’s touring consistently and on the morning after returning from a gig in Alaska, her voice is hoarse and tired.
“Alaska kicked my ass,” she says. She’s come down with some wretched bug, “but you try to pay attention to the good things happening. Like, it was a crappy motel that cost about $200, but the people were so appreciative of the music. They all bought CDs and tee shirts, they all came out, and I met three of four men from Norway who begged me to play more.”What those Norwegian guys didn’t know is, all Malone has ever wanted to do is play. As a kid who played sax in the middle school band, she was a self-described “big dork who loved jazz.”
Her grandfather played upright bass, turned her on to Miles Davis, Coltrane, the good stuff. Then she found her brother’s guitar and discovered Led Zeppelin. Her grandmother was a music teacher. And her mother, Karen Malone, was a professional singer.“I dug through her records, and I was heavily influenced by the female singers that she listened to, Bonnie Rait, Linda Rondstadt, Billie Holiday. There was a lot of great music in my housegrowing up,” says Malone, whose mother sang in the church choir.
She’d see her mother’s picture in the Atlanta papers, advertising one gig or another.“I thought she was famous. She looked like Cher, and I didn’t understand why she didn’t have her own TV show,” Malone says. “She dressed cool, wore these pants with patches and halter tops and big earrings, big evening gowns with shiny things all over them.“I’m pretty sure it’s why I got into wild clothes when I first started singing. I guess it was my birthright.”
Malone, who doesn’t do shiny any more, will instead bring a visceral and soulful live performance back to the Sautee stage this Saturday. She closed the event last year. This time, as one of 12 performances at the two-day music festival, she’ll warm up the Saturday night crowd for Jamboree headliner Wet Willie and their ageless lead singer Jimmy Hall. Like Hall, Malone stays in good shape – physically and vocally – by working it all out on a stage. It wasn’t always that way.“I’m genetically blessed. My mother is in her 60s and she still looks amazing,” she says. “I used to run marathons and bike across country. I don’t really do that any more. Now I sit in a van and drive from gig to gig, and I’ve been giving myself a hard time about needing to go back to the gym.“But the more I gig, the better shape I’m in. That’s my exercise.”
For more information on the full lineup or tickets to see Michelle Malone at the Sautee Jamboree, visit http://www.snca.org/performingarts/jamboree2011.html or call 706-878-3300.