By Martine Ehrenclou
Michele Malone is an award-winning, American blues, roots, rock n’ roll singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer. An Atlanta native, she released her 15th album, Slings & Arrows, to rave reviews. A well-respected and accomplished musician, Malone is an independent artist with an impressive resume which includes performances with Gregg Allman, ZZ Top, Steve Earle, and more. Her songs have appeared in films such as Bam Bam, Celeste, All over Me, Shotgun Jesus, and TV shows such as True Blood, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Brooklyn South. Her songs have also been recorded by Indigo Girls, Antigone Rising, Hannah Thomas and more.
Malone was honored with a Signature guitar slide modeled and named after her by Rocky Mountain Slides. Malone is one badass guitar player, and singer, songwriter. She is currently on tour and was kind enough to make the time to talk with us.
Martine: Slings and Arrows was released on March 2nd. It’s a great album. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Michelle: I try to put out a record basically every two years or so, more or less. And it was time.
Martine: How did Slings & Arrows come about?
Michelle: I started writing. I’m one of those writers that doesn’t have a lot of discipline and I don’t write all the time. But when I know I need to get in the groove, I’ll start writing every day.
Martine: That was one of my questions. What’s your song writing process?
Michelle: I wait till the 11th hour and then I start writing until I get the appropriate amount of songs for the record that I think will work well together. If they’re good songs, then I’ll start booking the studio. Occasionally, I have actually written songs in the studio. One of the things I wanted to do with this record was go in with the new band and the new studio and record it live.
Martine: Can you tell me what that was like?
Michelle: It was actually really exciting because I was able to not be in my head, not worry about perfection, not worry about if it was the right way to record it, the right way to play it. I was able to just perform like I was live and really be in the moment and be in spirit with it. That just made a huge difference. It sounds like I sound live which I finally figured out was the best way I can be.
Martine: There’s so much great energy to Slings & Arrows. It’s really fun and has a rebellious nature to it but it’s also sweet and soulful. It’s unusual to find an album that has so much life throughout all of the songs.
Michelle: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. You don’t know me, but I think maybe you just described my personality. So, maybe I was able to really capture my authentic self on the record and that was my goal.
Martine: You play several instruments, you are a songwriter, singer, guitarist, and you produce.
Michelle: I’m a little manic, okay. I get bored quickly, I like to learn new things and I like to try new things. I think that’s part of why I’ve written in so many genres throughout the course of my career because I wanted to see what it feels like.
Martine: How is the genre different with this album versus your other albums?
Michelle: I wanted to make a record that was more rock, and more in your face, more energetic and have a lot more slide guitar because I haven’t done that in the past couple of records. With this one, I really just wanted to hammer it home. I knew I had to back it up with good songs that we could cut live and write songs that complimented my best tools–the energy and passion that I have in the moment of the performance.
I think one of the things that makes me a little different from most other people is the way I play slide guitar. I don’t think I’m necessarily any better than anyone else. I just think that I have a thing when I do it.
Martine: Can you describe that?
Michelle: No, I just do it. I just get something that sounds good and then I play in the moment. I just play what feels good in the moment. I come from more of a Keith Richard, Neil Young, school of guitar playing. I think it’s okay to play that one note for a really long time.
Martine: Just to shift gears a little bit. You started your own record label, you’re a publisher and you produce. You wear a lot of hats.
Michelle: When I hear that, it sounds exhausting. Like, “Oh, my God! I have so much to do.”
Martine: Do you find all of that invigorating? Are there some challenges?
Michelle: It’s very invigorating when everything is working and going your way. It’s challenging to get the ball rolling. Every few years, you have to get the team together and raise the funds and have the Kickstarter or whatever and get back in the game so to speak.
It’s ironic because it’s a game that I don’t want to play. I don’t want to be a part of the music industry, music business. I want to be a musician who sings and plays the guitar, but it just so happens that I have chosen to also be a record label, be my own publisher, my own producer and things like that. So, whether I like it or not, I’m in it.
When baseball season rolls around, that’s music season. I don’t mean specifically, I’m referring to what I do. We get the team together, we start writing songs as a spring training and then you get in the game and then you put a record out. It happens over the course of the year. Then you go do your thing and before you know it, the season’s over. You go home, and you rest for a few months and then it starts all over, it’s kind of a trip. I’m lucky to have great people who want to help me.
Martine: Love the analogy. You also have a lot of energy.
Michelle: At times. I have a lot of energy when I play guitar. Music just turns me on. It literally flips a switch and I’m like the energizer bunny. But the rest of the time, you probably wouldn’t even recognize me because I’m just slow, methodical and quiet. I guess that’s why I can have so much energy on stage because I’ve saved it up.
Martine: You’re quite the guitar player, can you tell me about your journey with the guitar and how you started playing slide?
Michelle: I played guitar when I was a kid. I stole my brother’s guitar because he told me not to touch it, so I did it anyway as often as possible. He would rail on me and I’d do it again. I just loved it. He wasn’t playing it, and there was just something magical about it for me.
I started that journey when I was 10 or 11. My family is musical, so it wasn’t a foreign thing to me to play music, to play guitar. My mother had all these songbooks with the little chord charts in them. I taught myself to throw on a record and open the book and play Beatles songs or play whatever was popular in the 70s. My mother was a pop singer in the 70s and supported us playing in clubs, singing the hits of the day. I just went through her collection, played her records, played to them. One of the reasons I started writing is because I couldn’t make the guitar sound like all the records, which predominantly were male guitarists. Still are… we’ll keep knocking at that door till it opens.
Martine: There’s a lot of female guitar players out there too.
Michelle: Oh, my God, there’s so many. I feel I have a duty to the 11-year-old girl down the street who just picked up a guitar. I want to be up there doing it for them. I want to do it for the people that need encouragement. I’m so sick of doing it for myself, there’s really no merit in that. There’s no great payoff in that.
As far as the slide goes, I was in the studio recording my record, Stoppin’ Ground I think it was 2003. There’s a song that I had just written called, “Lafayette.” I felt that needed a slide part, but there was no one there but me. I grabbed this cool old Harmony guitar that the studio had. I think there was a glass slide there, and I just started hacking away at it. That’s how I started playing slide guitar. I wasn’t good at it, but then I toured for the record and we played the song every damn night. I learned more and more as I went along.
Martine: You were honored with a slide Signature model that was named after you by Rocky Mountain Slides. Can you tell me how that came about?
Michelle: There’s this great slide maker in Colorado. He makes them himself in his house. It’s really amazing. I started using his slides first and then he offered to make me a slide to spec and then it became, “Oh, let me make you a Signature slide and we’ll sell that too.” He’s just a wonderful person and I really enjoy working one-on-one with other artists like that, and he just loves to do it. I’m quite certain he’s not getting rich off of it. We’re all just doing what we love to do and supporting each other, and I love that.
Martine: You started a scholarship fund for young women. Can you tell me about that?
Michelle: We actually started the scholarship in the name of a friend of ours who had died of cancer and she was 39. She was a big part of the community and her husband played in my band. It just seems like the right thing to do to honor her, but also, I’ve always wanted to help girls go to college because I was helped.
Honestly, throughout my whole life I’ve had so many people step up and help me. I feel a huge responsibility to continue to give back, not because I’m so great, or I want to make a name, or leave something behind, it’s just because I owe the community.
I’m just a conduit really. I bring people together with music, and this was something I could do so we just started raising funds for the scholarship. I think we’ve given three scholarships since then. We helped one girl all the way through college, helped her get her masters and she’s about to graduate. She didn’t have anyone to rely on. Her family was just not there for her. Her mother was a drug addict and she was a brilliant woman. You could not just keep her down and she’s still that way. Now that she’s gotten through college, she wants to help others and wants to be a part of the scholarship program.
Martine: Pay it forward. That’s wonderful.
Michelle: And then there were two other girls, one of them I believe had been sleeping in her car going to school. There’s so many people that need help and they’re just kids. They’re just trying to go to school, they’re just trying to find a place to sleep, it’s ridiculous. I have a giant heart for these things. I’ve been homeless, and I was out of school for several years before I went back and graduated. I went to college because I had scholarships and grants and help. It’s just part of the process. You get to a point where you can help others.
As far as being a producer, I’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge at this point because I’ve been doing it so long. I want people to use me, I want them to learn what I’ve learned. I’m happy to help them and produce more records because I think I can help people get their authentic self-down on tape or whatever it is.
Martine: Are you talking about you producing another artist?
Martine: And that’s something that you do also?
Michelle: I have on occasion. I’ve just learned so much and I know there’s folks who are so talented and such great song writers and performers. But they might get hooked up in the wrong studio with the wrong producer and the wrong musicians and make a record that they don’t even like because they thought is what they were supposed to do. Frankly, I’m not concerned with what everyone else is doing.
Martine: Sounds like you’re concerned with authenticity.
Michelle: That’s really what we’re here for, to be ourselves. I think that’s all we have to offer is ourselves, and if you’re offering yourself as someone else then that’s not really authentic.
Martine: True enough. I think some record companies try to pigeonhole artists. The artists can get frustrated by that process and just abandon the label and start their own thing.
Michelle: And that’s why I’m independent. The same thing happened to me. It’s very frustrating when you want to make the music you so feel called to make and not the music that someone else wants you to make. It’s a great thing if those two things intersect. That’s magic, but if they happen to end up on different sides of the desk, so to speak, then you’re going to be conflicted. I learned early on that if I can’t look myself in the mirror and like who I see and what I’m doing, then I’m going to really unhappy. So, I really just did it out of self-preservation.
Martine: Was it easy enough to break away from your label?
Michelle: Yes, it was. I said that I needed to get out of the deal or I was going to die. I was on a downward spiral, the trajectory of just killing myself slowly because I was so unhappy, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I’m sure many other reasons as well, but that was the main impetus. I just called them, then I called my manager, and then I called everyone in the band. Everyone hated me for 10 years.
Martine: That’s a long time to have a bunch of people hate you.
Michelle: I’m not trying to make friends unnecessarily. I’m trying to do what’s right for me in that respect. I guess I could have stayed with it, and who knows what would have happened. But it was a bad feeling when you turn in two sets of demos and your label tells you that they don’t like any of them, but they want you to be more like Joan Jett.
I love Joan Jett as much as any other red blooded American woman who grew up in the 70s and 80s. But that wasn’t what I did. She’s great, I played with her. But listen, I can’t do that. I’m not capable of that, but Lord knows I tried and it just made me feel like a fake and an imposter.
Martine: It sounds like you made the best decision.
Michelle: Yes, thank you. I’m proud of that decision. I had to be honest with myself about it and not just go for the golden carrot, the dangling golden carrot.
Martine: As tempting as that can be for some.
Michelle: The music business isn’t just based on dreams and this romantic idea of winning the lottery, frankly. Most people just get put through the machinery and spit out the other end. There are very few people who end up winning, get the winning ticket. I did what I have to do, but we’re all friends again.
Martine: Can you tell me what you like most about playing live?
Michelle: I love feeding off the audience. I love the give and take that you have with an audience. It’s this energy that swirls around. It’s like a giant tornado and I’m in the eye of it, and it’s swirling around gathering up energy and spinning it back out. It’s so exciting.
Martine: That’s a great image. I think that’s all of my questions for today. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Michelle: Thank you.
For more information on Michelle Malone and Slings & Arrows: