Bill Mallonee is the epitome of independent. He embodies the spirit of a troubadour; much like the songs he sings embody the very nature of what he is singing about. He is well versed in the ups and downs of the industry (or the lack of industry these days), but he still plays to the people and etches out a home grown fan base one willing listener at a time. Mallonee has been solo ever since disbanding his group, the Vigilantes of Love, back in 2002. To our readers the story is familiar, to the critics Mallonee is acclaimed but commercially overlooked, and to the listeners there is no one who does it better when it comes to the folk/Americana that Bill creates.
I have been a fan since 1992. I can still tell you what song (“Anybody’s Guess”) I heard for the first time on what radio station (WRAS Album 88), and that I waited until the radio jockey came back on so I could hear who the band was that played such a musically intriguing brand of what I could only think was a cross between country and The Clash. I’m not sure the phrase ‘alt-country’ was even out at the time, but there were only a couple of other bands that were even similar. Not only was the music a powerhouse of jangly guitar brilliance, but the lyrics were unlike anything else I had ever heard. There are few that can write as personally as Bill does, yet somehow it relates easily to the ‘everyman’. His music conveys a need to scratch the skin, to peel back the scab and to define the wound in an attempt to redeem the trauma, or as a personal catharsis that needs to be expressed in an attempt to heal himself.
I was fortunate to catch up with Bill again and get the scoop on this latest release, The Power & the Glory. This is the first studio release from Bill since the lower case e.p. came out a couple of years back, but in between we are graced with the impressive WPA volumes that began in 2008 and continue to the present time. Bill has never been one to sit by and just watch the time pass by. He is constantly in the process of writing, releasing or touring and bringing it right to our front door. There is a quality and consistency to everything Mallonee puts out… and his output is stupendous! With 30+ regular releases and 11 of the WPA volumes, Mallonee has written literally hundreds and hundreds of songs. I know that most of the time when an artist puts out a new album, you typically read how this is the best one yet… well, this is the best one yet! There is a musical maturity here that rivals the best in the genre, and this record drips with substance. Thanks for taking the time to read, this is a good, long interview that captures Mallonee at his best. Check links at the bottom of the page for ordering info.
I am curious as to what the inspiration is behind so many of these songs?
Adversities, uncertainty, a sense of futility were factors, I guess; Life’s trials and tribulations and heartbreaks cauterize you, ennoble you, and refine your spirit. Just trying to be heroic and keep on was much of the inspiration. Both of my parents died in the last 4 years. The recession has taken such a toll on so many folk’s lives in this country. I think singer-songwriter types are pretty vulnerable. Muriah and I walked each of them through some sad moments up to the next world. These were intense periods of reflection and inventory for us both.
We moved 5 times in the last two years just to find a more ideal cheap place. All of this was interspersed with touring. We ended up landing in northern New Mexico. It has beautiful terrain and is inspiring with its own mystical spirit; the high desert is very lush, kind of more like Colorado, and it was great for writing a whole new batch of songs.
The anxiety & weariness of just having to keep ramping up with a new “hat trick” to stay ahead of the drama and disaster can strangle you. I was still writing 30-40 songs a year, but the tenor was darker, bleak and more transparent. Most of these were released as 6 song EPs every 4 months in the WPA series. (Works Progress Administration series)
With The Power & the Glory, I had about 50 songs to pick from. It’s a guitar heavy album with lots of harmonies, secondary and tertiary guitar parts and sections. We think the new album is a cool Americana rock record. It’s pretty intense; very accessible, but it’s deceptively dark as far as themes go. Its garage-y & noise-y here and there, lush where it needs to be; it’s very Rickenbacker and 12-string driven. Having to plot the parts ahead of time via the WPA recordings, has given me a deep appreciation for how to arrange songs with interweaving parts and sections.
We were given run of a great studio at St. Francis University in Ft. Wayne, In by Jeff Rogers, who teaches there. So, I started whittling down what songs I’d like to re-cut in a bigger studio with better sound and gear, etc.
You have 60+ songs that you have recorded with the WPA’s, how do you whittle that down to the selected tracks that you picked for this record?
Good question. Basically I divided about 40 of the songs into two kinds of albums. The Power & the Glory will be the “noisy” record, more immediate, more rock. I’m so excited about it. It really goes to a lot of places. We think it’s a good ride! So that accounted for maybe 18 of the 40 songs.
But, we actually started on another record during the making of P&G. Not far into it, but when we finish it, that one will be a more acoustic oriented Americana record that is folkier in places. I want to have a good pedal steel player and fiddle player in the room when we finish tracking that album. We’ll want lots of Muriah’s voice and piano on it. It’ll have some very beautiful, lush moments. Oh, it’ll have some rock tracks too, to make it an interesting listen, but I suspect the more story oriented songs will “have their say!” We’ll revisit those tracks early next year and see how they feel since none of them are finished yet.
This question all brings up the idea that I’ve long subscribed to when it comes to recording an album, and it is this: You gotta let the songs lead. I tell younger artists, “don’t be afraid to deconstruct your songs and let them take on another life.” Tom Lewis (ace Athens, GA producer of Mallonee’s & VoL’s Summershine, Room Despair, Fetal Position, and lower case) taught me to let the moment happen as songs were stripped to their basic elements and then built back again. I think that’s how records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot got made. I wanted to make artistically challenging albums of that caliber and I think we succeeded. The players, the band chemistry, and just where one is at emotionally should be “enlisted.” If you can become sensitive to those variables, and the songs are good, there’s the possibility of “birthing” a great album. I think we did that with The Power and the Glory. We dove in; we took our time and let the songs “go where they wanted.”
How did the move to Carolina, and then Santa Fe, factor into the writing for this record?
We talk about this a lot, actually. Most folks know I’ve lived in the Deep South all my life. I joke that I had to join a rock band to escape it! But over the last 10 years I’ve gotten a little weary of the hyper-anxiety charged East Coast/Mid-Atlantic; Life is becoming more impersonal and too driven. It’s all symptomatic of a culture losing its roots, its soul. Santa Fe is a mystical town that’s full of Native American, Catholic, Spanish and cowboy western influences. God speaks in very comforting and profound ways through His creation out here we think. There’s great energy and of course the beauty of the land is unsurpassed. Previously, this part of the southwest was only known to me via Hollywood & the occasional tour that took us through. But I loved it as a kid, and the move here has not disappointed. It’s just a long way to anywhere! “Home” has to be a “sanctuary” for us. With the recession and the moving and touring, we’ve felt like wandering gypsies the last 6 years. This album was a chance to say: “Here’s what that all that uncertainty, adversity, & inspiration brought forth.” From the sound to the themes to the very delivery, it’s all here.
How was the recording process for P&G, with so many obvious advances in technology over the last few years, was there any new recording things that you guys did, what are the bonuses with how the process has advanced since the last studio album you made?
Good question, Steve. We kept it simple, we made this record “the old-fashion way.” Kevin Heuer (drums) and Bert Shoaff (bass) and I would come in every morning, rehearse a new song, do a few run throughs and then hit “record.” It was a great, large room, with good mics and great tones. It’s hard to go wrong in a setting like that. We finished basic tracking in a week with guitar overdubs, vocals and Muriah’s keyboard parts, and then vocals took another week. Then mixing and tidying up here and there.
I think Matt Reifiler, our head engineer (he mastered the album as well), is a studio genius. We also had at least another 5 engineers in these sessions and all were equally capable of handing the board. They were the students connected with the music program at the University. They’d swap in an out at the board as we were recoding over the course of our 8-12 hours days. So the energy was always fresh. All these guys were just great, very “up inside it.” Just seeing their enthusiasm and talking to them brought a huge sense of affirmation to the album.
There is a distinct maturity to the music in my opinion, by that I mean that I can hear how focused the music seems to be, there seems to be a real depth that shines through these songs. Has the songwriting process changed for you at all, or maybe it is just the place you are in life where it seems to me that the music gets better and more well- rounded. Can you elaborate on that?
You know the songwriting process has changed a lot actually. The Power & the Glory is a guitar heavy record, but NOT in the way most people would use that term. Sure there are solos and lead parts, but more importantly are these supportive, secondary parts underpinning the song. The nuances are what make it. I think it’s those parts that make the record distinct. I wanted those parts to really enhance the emotion and spirit of each song, so I worked on them a long time in the over-dubs.
Lyrically I’ve always trusted my gut. Writing songs is part of my faith struggle. I’ve been at this a while, through 40 some albums now. Much of my psychological well-being has been deeply intertwined with writing new songs. I write to try and get handle on this thing called life and its many dimensions. Maybe there’s something that comes with age that just makes it a joy, like riding a bike, you don’t over-think it. There is some real attitude on this album. Songs like “Shakers & Movers” is about corporate avarice; Keep “The Home Fires Burning” is about the mining disaster at the Massey Mine, in Monte Coal, W. Va. (known as the upper Big Bend Mining Disaster.) There’s a lot of sadness, vitriol and hope all over these tunes we think.
A note on the guitars: The evolution of learning how and why such these parts work has me continually excited about music again. Writing the WPA series EPs, I learned how to make a part “count.” In my perfect world, when playing “live,” I’d probably have a band with 3 guitar players in it to cover all the parts. But it’d be cool!
The harmonies between you and Muriah are amazing; she really brought a freshness and a depth to these songs vocally. What part does she play in the songwriting process?
Muriah has a wonderfully memorable voice. It’s always sounded “wiser than her years” to me. I have this “character” voice. I think the “delivery’s just as important as a good lyric. You know it’s a Bill Mallonee song from the first note! Muriah not only has great depth and character in her voice, she has this ability to hear a high and low harmony almost intuitively. Although she was never part of the formal writing process, I always pass the new songs by her while I’m demo-ing them. She’s great at hearing what parts “work” and what parts might be superfluous.
This album was really ‘fan funded’ to some degree, what was it like to do a record in that way? Is it something you might continue to do and look toward as a future option?
Well, first off:
We weren’t sure we’d even get near the projected necessary budget. We kept our “prayers aloft and fingers crossed.” Not only did fans come in on it, they came in fast…I think we hit the budget in 10 days. That was really pretty amazing. That kind of faith in you makes you take it all the more seriously. It’s humbling when you sense people believe in your work.
A record, when done well, involves a good-sounding studio, the players, the engineers, recording time, mix time, mastering, art work and duplication. Those are still time-consuming and can be expensive. We hit home runs all over this one, partially we felt the songs were good and because we were in a great studio setting with the right variables…So a loud “THANK YOU FANS”!
You are always on the road; always seem to be touring…what are the tour plans that are in the works behind this release?
(laughs) The “live” show for us is that intimate, transparent point of contact with folks. That’s where the songs are heard in the best light and understood in the best context and, I like to think, help folks the most.
It’s a cottage industry here! And so the touring is fan-driven, as well. We’ve booked ourselves for 7 years, now. So, whenever we can, we’ll tour more or less a house show circuit, that includes colleges and the occasional Church. We love it. I wish some illustrious booking agent would get a clue and book us. I live too much on the computer. But it’s a cottage industry here, therefore all of what is done, we do ourselves. We’ll play some clubs and cafes to be sure, but mostly, we just “bring it direct to the people.”
Steve, I know it seems like we’re “out there” on the road all the time, but the sad thing is we could always use another 40 shows a year. It’s just been a bleak last 5 years, really. This recession…? Heck, I don’t think we as a nation ever came out of it. Muriah and I were sensing it pretty hard long before it officially “happened.”There are still a lot of folks suffering through these dark times. We clock in with barely 80 shows now. “Break even” would be about 130 shows. It’s why I’ve had to part with many a beloved guitar at the end of every year just to pay the rent.
Today is such a socially connected age that we live in, how can fans really get the word out there about this release? What can we do to move this as much as possible?
You are so right. We are very socially connected. It’s almost overwhelming the amount of raw advert info that comes at each of us. It’s really just kind of numbing at this point. I just don’t “see” it anymore, there’s too much to process. We shouldn’t forget that the internet and the info highway thing is not the same as “community.”
In many ways, we are maybe the loneliest people in history.
From the early years of playing more as a folkie, it was good old fashion word of mouth that carried the day. I’d answer that question by saying: “Hey, book us in for a show. Have us into your home, a cafe you frequent, your church. Let us give you the songs and (we believe) a nurturing evening.”
I’m a lyric guy telling a story, more or less, of broken-ness within and without. How do you “market” that? I really don’t know. I think it comes down to taking it straight to people’s hearts. It goes back to the “live” thing again. Like I said, the “live” show for us is that intimate, transparent point of contact. That’s where the songs are emotionally “heard” the best. And that’s where the indispensable “word of mouth” gets born. Folks take that with them and offer it to their friends. That’s pretty much how we make fans these days.
Social media…? I use it almost as solely as a tool to book shows, and to advert my new releases and my back catalogue, but so does everybody. Again, there’s SO much information coming at you from so many points. As far as the writers go? I think it’s a much overstocked pond. On my cynical days, when I hear some say, “Oh, he’s a singer/songwriter,” I’m tempted to say: “Yeah, well, who isn’t?”
I remind myself that I never got into this for any reason other than to “save myself.” I found a certain grace through my gift. I didn’t pick up a guitar to be a rock star or a folk hero. It was to make a certain sense out of what the world inside me and the world outside seemed to be about. I learned God was pursuing me even when I’d run from Him. It has taught me that life itself is the most precious gift. It’s a broken world. Yes, and we are part of that fractured-ness, but Life is still a gift and one charged with “the Power and the Glory.” Hopefully that comes across in my work, NOT as agenda, mind you, but as a sobering revelation and a passion. That’s still the “rasion d’etre.”
One thing that really struck me was where you said, “I remind myself that I never got into this for any reason other than to “save myself.” And I found a certain grace through my gift.” Being this far down that road, what are some of the things that still surprise you about the industry and the gift of the music that you bring?
That’s a hard question, really. Dunno how to speak of the industry. The “industry” has never really noticed me. We (Vigilantes of Love) flirted with it and it with us on two occasions, maybe.
The first time was after Blister Soul showed up in 1995. I think a video on MTV might have sprung VoL. MTV was still playing real music and the REM-ish “Real Down Town” was killing at AAA radio. The label just wouldn’t go for it. So we just continued to tour doing our lil’ 180 shows a year, playing to 40-100 folks a night. That won’t break any band. True all the experiences went back into the songs and made them authentic and real, but after 5 years, it’s a formula for demoralization… still we stayed at the wheel.
The 2nd flirtation was after Audible Sigh came out. That “live” band was so good! The record was breaking in the UK, and Lord knows when Buddy Miller (Audible Sigh’s producer) likes something it oughta be noticed, but again, the label was just half-assed about promoting it. C’est la Vie, right?
Still, I’m glad for all the negative experiences and adversity, all the dark terrain. It all went into the heart and came out in the songs. With current pop music, I still listen to the “next big things.” But honestly, I’m not overly impressed with most of what’s considered “cool,” or “hip” right now. I’m always glad when it’s working for some folks though. I see lots of bands/artists making one good album…and then the 2nd and 3rd albums are kinda flat. I dunno why that is.
Being a folk artist is also kind of like a social commentator to a great extent. I have had a long held belief that folk and punk rock are the two forms of music left that really has the ability to change the world…what are your thoughts about that?
Yep, total agreement! Folks and Punk are wonderful friends at the party. Had they been alive at the same time, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and the Clash would have started a super-group. The plight and suffering of the common man has always needed someone to represent them, someone to “be their voice.” That’s one of the reasons why Jesus is popular. He understood the oppressive nature of religion in His day and he was trying to get people to free themselves of a legalism that was without compassion and religious rules without heart; he wanted people free to enjoy and be loved of God. He wanted the rich to realize how enslaved their souls were to the idols of power and wealth.
We live in a western socio-economic world. In free democracies one’s rights as a human being are legislated and supposedly protected. Your dignity as a human is protected. Historically that has never been the case. People, rich and poor, need to wake up & “fess up” to the horrors of an unchecked, market-driven capitalism. We should know by now because men’s hearts are inclined to evil, that an unchecked capitalism breeds greed. With its emphasis on the “short-view” and “biggest bang for the buck” using people to achieve such quick ends is almost a guaranteed result. It has resulted in dehumanizing workers and more recently, poisoning planets. It’s ALL a part of capitalism’s sad legacy.
My faith in Christ and His words, my love of American history and the belief that our democracy is indeed a grand experiment, is why I have tended to try and “be a voice” for those oppressed by the rich and wealthy. I wrote an EP of coal miner songs (Coal Dust Soul) two years back after the Massey Mine disaster at Upper Big Branch in Monte Coal, W. VA; The stories that came out of that sounded as fresh as anything during the clashes Unions had with corporations in the 20’s and 30’s. Another recent EP dealt with the new recession and the loss of jobs and people’s growing loss of faith in their leaders and government. (Drifter Songs)
I still think such sentiments, when made vocal in songs, has the power to effect change. I (we), all of us, need to be set free of our idols and our fears, and then we’ll be on the road to bringing about the Kingdom of God, incarnating His love. We become empowered when we see that we are all in this together and that when one person suffers we ALL suffer as well…
If you had to come up with the most pressing issues that you have as an artist right now, what are they just in case someone reading has a contact…manager, promoter, etc?
We’ve run this as a low-to-the-ground-cottage-industry for almost 10 years, now. We’re asking fans and friends to “talk it up.” We think this album is the results of their efforts and goodwill. Word of mouth is still the best…having a good booking agent would certainly help. I think I could use some good management, someone with some vision. If you go over to my bandcamp site, you’ll notice that I actually own ALL of that work…That’s 40 plus albums. Very few artists have that kind of output, much less own their own work. The catalogue is chocked full of songs that I have no doubt would be good tunes in movies, documentaries, etc. I have no idea how to get inside publisher world and have such songs placed.
What are your favorite tracks of this album and why?
LOL! Hard to say… I’m pretty heavy handed on my self-editing so it’s all there for a reason, right down to details. I suppose the wide open rockers like “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “The Ghosts That I Run With,” and “Shakers & Movers,” rank pretty high. Those are very Neil Young/Crazy Horse live. The themes on those songs are what we just talked about in the question about social commentary. But the more hooky, pop stuff like “Just To Feel the Heat,” “Good to Sleep with the Angels,” “Bring You Around, “and “Wide Awake with Orphan Eyes” feel pretty glorious, too. It’s really hard to say. “Ever Born Into This World,” is the most Americana track and it’s almost like a hymn; The Power & Glory? Its 12 songs and they all bring something good, we think!
I know you read, what are you reading right now? Do you have any recommendations for music, art or literature?
I’ve have been reading a good bit this summer since it was a slow one after we made the record; I wrote some more songs and knocked out a few reads; Current reading list is: “Luther’s Writings” edited by John Dillenberger, and “Luther’s Theology” by Oswald Bayer. I just finished “Kerouac” by Paul Mayer, “The Christ of the Celts” by Phillip Newell, and a bio on the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda by Adam Feinstein (amazing poet). Neruda was quite likely the finest poet of the 20th century. Favorite revisit: Ronald Rolheiser’s “The Holy Longing.” It’s soberest, non-nonsense book of spirituality I’ve ever read.
Anything else you want to share?
Muriah is working on a Christmas EP right now. It sounds fabulous! All the songs are these beautiful, old Christmas hymns that she’s arranged her way. She’s playing and singing all the parts;
Seriously, if anybody made it this far in the interview…then God bless ’em!