Michelle Malone knew exactly what she wanted to do when she started making her new album, “Slings & Arrows.”
“First, I had to convince myself I was going to make another record,” says Malone. “I needed to catalyze myself and be a catalyst for what people needed. I wanted to bring people together. … I had a specific intention to close the gap of the division in this country.”
In an era when anger and frustration seem to be at peak levels in the United States and the world, the intention to “bring people together” may seem a little starry-eyed and naive. However, Malone is neither. The Atlanta-based singer-songwriter has been around the block and then some. In the late ’80s and early 1990s, she was the lead singer-songwriter in the acclaimed rock band Drag the River, and she has since recorded a stack of sometimes gritty and hard-edged solo releases. At the core of those albums, as well as “Slings & Arrows,” is Malone’s expressive voice, smart lyrics and melodies, as well as her own kick-ass guitar playing.
Malone is just pulling out of Nashville after appearing on a satellite radio show hosted by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller when she answers the phone. When asked about how she’s kept her rock ‘n’ roll edge over the past nearly 30 years when music styles have definitely changed, she simply says, “I never cared what anyone else was doing.”
Over three decades, Malone has become a sort of musical staple in the Atlanta area. She’s been collaborator onstage or in the studio with Gregg Allman, The Indigo Girls, Shawn Mullins, Albert King, Charlie Musselwhite, Drivin’ N Cryin’ and many others. While her albums have never been huge sellers, she has earned a dedicated fan base and the respect of fellow musicians.
Her do-it-yourself attitude has served her well. Malone began playing slide guitar in 2003 on the album “Stompin’ Ground” because, she says, “I was in the studio, and I wanted slide guitar and there was no one else around to do it. I just decided to do it because I wanted to hear it on the record.”
Slide guitar has since become one of Malone’s strong suits, gracing the raw and raucous “Sugarfoot” in 2006, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and the 2009 follow-up, “Debris,” which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
Malone says she has made some changes in her music over the years.
“There’s a big difference between 20 years old and 60 years old,” she says. “I’ve lived a whole life. I don’t view the world the same way. At some point it’s no longer about how people see me. It’s about ‘What can I do for you? How can I make you feel better?’ I genuinely want people to feel good.”
A good melody, she says, is a good start. Her new album kicks off with “Just Getting Started,” which sounds almost anthemic in its burst of rock ‘n’ roll energy. The rest of the disc, recorded live in the studio over only five days, is all the more powerful because of its simplicity.
“From having done this for so long, I want things simple,” says Malone. “I want my life to be simple. When I’m writing now, I try to trim the fat and make mean, lean songs. There’s an old adage, ‘Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus!'”
The music business has changed drastically since Malone got her first contract with Drag the River. At that time, she signed with Velvel Records, a new company started by music mogul Walter Yetnikoff. Her early solo albums were recorded for Arista Records and she had the power of major-label promotion backing her. These days, she releases music on her own – and not a lot of people are actually buying music.
“It’s flip-flopped,” says Malone. “Now you make records as a promotional device for the shows. But that’s all right. I’ll sell them a T-shirt instead.”
Regardless, Malone says she’ll always make music.
“I HAVE to write to get it out. Self expression: That’s my art form, recording and playing live. Every couple of years I make a record. I’m not getting rich, but it keeps me interested. … I feel incredibly fortunate to have the life I have. I don’t want or need for much and everything else is icing.”