Equal parts badass guitar slinger and sweet songstress, Michelle Malone artfully balances her penchant for ripping it through the roof with masterful lyrical introspection and vocals that range from sublime to raucous.
On Malone’s latest album, Day 2, which is set to release on October 5, every facet shines.
She’s joined by the Georgia Gang, an array of killer players that includes Shawn Mullins, Gerry Hansen, Phil Skipper, Tom Ryan, Trish Land, Chuck Leavell, Marty Kearns, Glen Matullo and Randall Bramblett. Day 2 is the kind of album you can listen to over and over again, and I did!
This is Malone’s 11th studio album, and it joins a body of word that includes Grammy nominations for her albums Sugarfoot and Debris as well as numerous other accolades.
Malone has collaborated in the studio and on stage with such artists as John Mayer, SugarLand members Jennifer Nettles, Kristen Hall and Kristian Bush, Indigo Girls, Shawn Mullins, Little Feat, Albert King, ZZ Top, Robert Cray, Rory Block, K.T. Tunstall, Shawn Colvin, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joan Osborne and many more.
As we approach the release of Day 2, Michelle shared her writing process and insight into the making of … .
GUITAR WORLD: You had a writing ritual for this new album, right?
I did, I did. And I found it worked so well for me, so I stuck with it. If I get up first thing in the morning, have a cup of coffee and a guitar and sit down at my kitchen table and start writing before I get a chance to think, then it works best for me. I think my brain tends to get in the way at times. But it worked well because I felt like I could really go a little deeper and be a little more real. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing or the implications of it. Then after I got started, I’d begin to really wake up, and I’d become more aware of what I was doing and saying. Then I’d start to fine-tune the songs.
I like that idea. I’m going to try that myself.
I highly recommend it. I can’t tell you how proud I was at how well it worked. It got me to a point that I felt like I was just a better writer all the way around, you know? I was really happy about it.
I really liked how the album sort of has this balls-to-the-wall side and then a more vulnerable, ballad-y side. I guess that just came from whatever you were feeling that day.
Yeah, quite honestly, that’s always been my M.O. to a degree. I’ve always had this side to me that is introspective, folky at heart. And I’ve always had this sassy, rocker girl side to me that is balls-out. I love to turn my amp up and play guitar like nothin’ else. And then there’s a really special thing that happens to me when I sit down with an acoustic guitar as well. To me it’s the Neil Young school of music. You can easily do both. I don’t see why anyone should have to choose between one or the other. It’s just another form of expression, you know? It’s like the yin and yang.
You seem to kind of have been born into music, but what made you gravitate toward guitar specifically?
My brother had a guitar in the house and, of course, he told me not to touch it. So of course, I did, haha! That’s how it all started. I sang and actually played saxophone in the school band when I was a kid. But while I loved all that, when I found the guitar, it really connected to a part of me that I hadn’t connected to yet as an 11-year-old. So it started there with my rebellious nature doing something of course I was told not to do. It made it all that more alluring.
Has your approach to playing guitar changed over the course of your career?
Absolutely. I didn’t start playing slide until I was recording a record in 2003. Prior to that, I predominantly played a Strat and an acoustic. And then when I started playing slide, I started picking up all these older vintage guitars, like Supros and Hagstroms. They were kind of offbeat guitars. I play the Supro predominantly unless I’m playing my Martin acoustic. And it’s just such a gritty, evil sound. Just like playing the acoustic tends to give you a different sound ... not a different sound, but it creates a different vibe so you write differently and you play differently. It’s the same thing for the Supro. And I play it through a little Supro amp that growls like a mother, so it’s really cool. I use a pickup booster and it just pushes the hell out of that amp. It sounds really good.
Can you give me some more details on the gear you use?
Yeah, I carry a lot of guitars, but I would say my vintage Supro Duotone is what I predominantly play electric slide on. I believe it’s either a ’59 or a ’60. And that thing is incredible. And the same with the amps. I bought the amps to go with the guitars. They’re old Supro amps. The main one had a 6-inch speaker, now I’m using one with an 8-inch. It just has a volume knob and a tone knob and nothing else on it, which I love the simplicity of that. I don’t need a lot of buttons and bells and whistles or anything I like that. I prefer to not have it. But they’re all vintage amps from the late ‘50s to the mid ‘60s. And then I have Martin HD-28, I believe it’s from the early ‘90s. I don’t know why it’s so special but I haven’t been able to replace it. I’ve tried.
And you use an Alvarez for writing?
I found this old Alvarez acoustic guitar at a thrift store in Florida on my way home from a beach vacation. It was just a cute little guitar, something I can just bang around at home on. It just has wild amounts of mojo. I’ve written every song on it, I’ve written for I guess the past three years. And I don’t take it out. It doesn’t have a pickup in it. I’ve already dug a hole in the top of it from using a pick because the wood is so soft. It feels so good. It’s like butter.
I also have a couple of Hamer guitars and I love them. They’re dual tone – acoustic and electric, you know, with the switch. It can be acoustic or electric, or both at the same time, it’s got these two jacks. It’s really incredible. They sound really good.
How did you get into playing slide guitar?
I did it out of necessity because there was a song I was recording in the studio and no one else was there but me. So I started recording the slide parts, and then I started playing them out every night and I got better at it. I really started enjoying it, because it opened a whole new world of possibility. I love that. It’s just been really a fun journey.
And I play a lot of slide on the new record, but it feels like a different type of slide. It’s not as reckless and wild as I’ve been playing on previous records. And although I still play that way live, some of these songs, they’re more well thought out songs so I wanted to perform the parts a little more thought out. And just make everything line up well so that it turns a certain vibe when you listen to the record, you know?
I notice you have some really incredible players joining you. Chuck Leavell on keys … so awesome!
Yeah, you hear him and you know it’s him. He’s just an incredible person in general. He’s so personal and so kind and went out of his way to come to the studio to play on these tracks. What a professional! I mean, he listened to the song once, wrote down a chart, sat down and the first take was always great, you know?
Do you have a favorite song on this new album to play live?
I tend to gravitate these days toward the title track. That tracks means a lot to me. That felt like kind of a new era in my writing, which is also why I named the record Day 2, after that track. And then, I love to play “Immigration Game.” I love that kind of acoustic, toe-tappin’, roots vibe. That and “100 Paths,” same type of thing. They both have slide on them, but it’s not just a crazy slide song. It has flavor. I work with different flavors on this record, and I love how everything is moving along on the journey. But yeah, I love those and of course, I love to play “The Auditor.” I’m almost finished with all the audits, it’s been going on for well over a year, so ... Anyway ...
That’s right, it’s like this album is your diary almost.
It absolutely is, I tell ya. It’s been quite the journey, you know? Everything from the death of my father to the death of a friend and the freakin’ audits and you know, even the song like “Other Girls,” you know, that’s just me sittin’ around thinking, “Why am I so different from everybody else? Well, too damn bad because this is just how I am.” And I know everybody feels that way. And so really, we’re not different at all, which is so ironic but there’s that. And then the whole thing about “Wasted On You.” As much as that could be applied to a career, it can be applied to a relationship or whatever. I just figured all these things were very universal themes.
I love the last track, “Shine.” I listened to that like ten times.
That is a very special song and I’m glad you brought that up. Thank you. I love that song and again, it just felt like another breakthrough when I wrote it. And we were gonna hire a pedal steel player. But then one day I’m like, “Well, let me just play with it a little bit.” So we turned up the delay and played with some sound and I just got my Strat out and played with the volume knob, and it just seemed to work really well, you know? I did a bunch of passes and we put them together. That was fun for me ‘cause I had never done a part like that before.
So you’ll be touring soon?
Yeah, I always tour some. I play everything from opening for large acts in large venues to clubs to playing in people’s living rooms for house concerts, so I’ll play anywhere anytime for anybody. I just love to play. It brings me a lot of happiness and joy.
Do you have any advice for other musicians out there?
I would have to say, don’t bother second-guessing yourself. Just go with your gut at all times. Once you get in your head and you start thinking too much about everything, you just need to reboot the system and go to bed. Go to sleep and get up again, because you gotta get out of your head and just trust your gut and your instinct. So don’t second-guess yourself. Other people will do that for you. Be your biggest best advocate and fan. If you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, others will as well.
Find out when Michelle is coming to a town near you michellemalone.com.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.