I’ve spent the better part of the last year writing about the nomadic way of life. The forthcoming Holy Nomad (September release) is a book about the heartache we experience living static lives trapped in “cells” of grief and isolation, bound by materialism, status or religion…but the real life we can find by emerging from life’s dark prisons… by learning to meet the steady and lasting joy only discovered on the journey.
I always listen to music when I write. As I stumbled across the keyboard on my recent project, I found myself hitting the repeat button to hear one particular gem of an Americana rock record called The Power and the Glory quite often.
Aftera brief hiatus from blogging, I thought it fitting to begin this season at the website by posting a wonderful interview with the man who put together that engaging little collection of sound… a friend of mine who writes quite prolifically about people and their journeys.
Bill Mallonee is an Athens, Ga. Americana artist with 40 plus albums, spanning a 20 year career. He was voted by Paste Music Magazine as #65 in their prestigious “Top 100 Living Songwriters” poll. He fronted the band Vigilantes of Love from 1991-2001. Rolling Stone wrote that, “Bill Mallonee… [has] remained fascinated with the shadowy emotional toils and struggles inherent in the American experience, compelling, insightful, [he] continues to probe through Americana rock and roll proving that sometimes the only story worth telling is that of the journey.”
We spoke just days before he prepared to release last fall’s triumphant return to full-band recording titled The Power & the Glory. In the time since this interview, I had the opportunity to see him stop through my town and play a benefit concert in a beautiful abandoned cathedral on the banks of the Ohio River and he has currently just finished studio work on a follow up recording titled Amber Waves (forthcoming).
As always, Bill shares his journey as a songwriter with an easy transparency and a self-deprecating sense of humor that almost belies the wisdom embedded in his words. The thousands of you who have discovered the beauty of Bill’s art will find this interview to be a wonderful look into the life of the songwriter we cherish… and for those who do not know Bill yet… I hope you will check out his music and share the joy, the pain, and the humanity that comes through so clearly in the raspy lyrics, gritty guitars, and hopeful desperation of a voice carving out his lasting place in Americana music.
Matt: Last fall was your first time in the studio in a while with a full band and the enthusiasm really comes through on the record. What is that like for you to come together with that group after doing a couple years of solo work?
Bill: Well, the first you’ll notice about The Power & the Glory is that it is very much a rock album. I went into the sessions with probably 40-50 songs. We took a swing at about 21 of them…not bad for two weeks of recording. We left a week for mixing and chasing a few other ideas. All in all it was great energy. I think that came across in the recording…a lil’ joy and attitude on every track.
Matt: That’s true, the first thing I noticed on The Power & the Glory were the guitars — some really rich sound and memorable riffs. I suppose your fans pick up your records first and foremost because of your writing and I think your playing gets overlooked a bit, but definitely not on this one. How has the process of writing a song changed over the years? I would imagine as you try to bend lyrics to music or music to lyrics, one has to give? How does that work with you?
Bill: You’re the first writer to notice this, Matt, so thank you. I have spent the last 4 years really exploring the guitar and its possibilities in song. Of course, I’ve never backed off the lyrics either, in fact I think I write a better song lyrically now. Maybe something to do with age? Life experiences? The songs just feel more authentic.
As far as guitar goes, I’m totally self-taught. So the things I stumble upon excite me a great deal. By beginning to hear just how wild and beautiful secondary and tertiary guitar parts could be, a new way of approaching each song started to take shape. That’s really what part of the WPA EP series was about. They are still Americana songs, lyric centered, but now they have this new way of letting guitar “speak.”
Learning the guitar’spossibilitiesjust fed on itself and inspired me further. For me the “song,” with a good set of lyrics has what it’s always “been about.” I’m a transparent, inside-out kind of writer. When Vigilantes broke up in 2001, I went out as the troubadour guy, with acoustic guitar and rack harmonica, which I play pretty well. About two years later, I started exploring (teaching myself, really) just what a song might sound like with 3-4 “supportive” parts in it. Most folks think in terms of rhythm part and then a “lead guitar” added. And that’s a lovely and valid way to do it. VoL worked that way for years. But without a full band, I had to come up with my own parts and ways of “envisioning” a song; What I found by playing melodic lines beneath the vocals lines, using guitar harmonies, motifs and such, was that it conjured all these things that only be described as beautiful and wild emotions. Transcendent nuances, if you will. It was quite a discovery for me. That’s what shows up frequently on The Power & the Glory.
As far as affecting the songwriting process, it means that I carve out some room for these other instruments to “have their say.”
The interesting thing about the approach, to me anyway, is that it is adaptable to a noisy, ‘garagey’ song or one that’s more lush and acoustic… Having Muriah’s great harmony and keyboard playing offers even more “colors” to play with. We learned the songs in the studio, ran them down a few times, and then pushed “record.” It makes the record feel pretty immediate, like a band in a room doing its thing; but it also has this mature quality as well.
I think that’s cool.
Matt: What was it like to reunite with Kevin and some old VOL’ers on The Power & the Glory?
Bill: Kevin plays drums like no one I’ve ever met. Amazing player and he’s song focused. He’s right up there with the best rock drummers like Max Weinberg, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Kenny Arnoff, Ken Coomer. His drum “vocabulary,”as far as what makes a great part, is superb. What he brings to the sessions is this infectious joy and energy and sureness. As a songwriter, you KNOW that however the song emerges, that it’s gonna be a great ride. Kevin brings all of that and he has on many of my albums. We enlisted a new bass player on this one. Bert Shoaff is all of 19. He’s already got a great feel for this material. He and Kevin immediately locked in…It was pretty great to watch their chemistry as a rhythm section.
Matt: Paste Magazine’s top 100 song-writers, amazing critical reviews each time you put out music, but this hasn’t always translated into commercial success (which you have been very transparent and open about). At this point in your career, how has that disappointment impacted your views on art?
Bill: I never started writing and singing songs to gain fame and fortune. And that is still the case. I never felt I deserved anything. I wrote to make sense of what I felt was a fractured and shifting world inside of me. That “world” needed a voice. I gave it one. I’ve been doing that now through 40 albums over these 20 years. That’s a lot of “voicing. I write because I want a reason to have faith, and to believe that all of life, including each of our very personal stories, is a hallowed thing, a gift from God.
Truth be told: I have never written or recorded with a particular audience in mind. I’ve made the music that “saves” me for that moment. As you’ve pointed out, the “static” that I think felt for a spell was that in spite of the wonderful ink from the press, it never translated into anything remotely like stability. When you hit your 50’s and realize that there’ll never be medical help, a home, or the ability to help others monetarily… well, it can make for some “sweating bullets” kind of nights.
C’est La Vie, they say…God is good. You learn to walk with what you’re given. I’m able to live the artist life, to tour and perform with Muriah. To be able to spend all of one’s days with one’s sweetheart is a joy and a grace.
The songs keep coming, fans keep listening and the body of work keeps getting bigger. I’m happy about that. So, I’ve made a certain peace with the poverty now.
“Didn’t they tell there are no guarantees when you wish upon a star?Didn’t they tell you there no guarantees when you picked up that guitar?” is a couplet in a recent song I wrote…
Matt: The Power & the Glory, from the writing to the playing, sounds seasoned and rich. It has an immediate appeal, but you can almost hear that there is something behind it all that has been brewing a while. What does the record mean to you now that it has had some time to ‘set sail’?
Bill: I think waking up and coming to grips with the fact that it’s ok to be a human being, flawed and prone to failure, is probably the biggest “behind the scenes” factor. I worked out all those ideas in songs. I released 12 EP’s over the last 1/2 years under the WPA moniker. They were the little 6 song installments, like “journals,” of getting lost and getting found. There’s another whole record of more traditional Americana songs that we started on while recording The Power & the Glory. They’re more reflective and plaintive than what’s on this album. So we’ll try and finish those up and release them next year.
Matt: Love the Kerouac tune (“From the Beats Down to the Buddha”). Tell me a little bit about your love for the poet and how he has influenced your work.
Bill: Kerouac was French-Canadian. Born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, a textile town that had fallen on hard times post-WW II. Against the backdrop of such vanished economic growth and dreams, Jack began formulating his ideas as a writer. In his early 20’s he became enamored with the idea of raw experience and hyper-subjectivism leading his new found literary style. Written in journalistic fashion, and garnished with elements of be-bop jazz, he soon developed a style of writing that was deeply personal, immediate, sensual, and even religious. In fact Jack was dubbed the “father of the beat generation.”
But he always saw himself primarily as a religious writer. He was well aware of his shortcomings and sins which were flagrant and self-destructive. Not an “exemplary” individual in many ways. Still one will find in books like Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, and Tritessa, profound insight into the plight of man and his deepest longings for communion and transcendence. One will also find a child-like tenderness that reveals his ‘woundedness’.
I have to caution folks: he’s not for everybody. His early work is (I believe) mired in far too much abandon and lacks a certain clarity of purpose that later surfaced as he chronicled his life. His serious flirtation with Buddhism was later abandoned for a return to his Catholic roots. His work is permeated with a deep sadness because he felt much of his work and vision was misunderstood. That’s often the curse of a real artist.
Matt: How has the move from Georgia to New Mexico changed your world? How has it affected your music?
Bill: East coast and the Deep South have become much more of anxiety driven part of the country. Athens, Georgia, my “home town” for almost 40 years, is a different place, as well. New Mexico is a place of intense beauty and profound history. The basic elements of the land and its diverse peoples have made it a place where great art and spirit collide. Native American culture, Spanish culture and Catholicism along with a good old fashion Western “true grit” co-exist together… A heady brew. We live in the high desert which is lush with vegetation in a small farming community north of Santa Fe, back in the mountains. It’s been great having the 300 plus days of sunshine and dry climate. I tell folks you can “slum it” in New Mexico pretty well. You see a lot of poverty, but a lot of courage. There is a lot of spirit (and spiritualities) leading people’s lives.
Musically, I’ve written about 100 songs in the last 3 years. The songs just keep coming, and they still feel good. So, living there has been inspiring sanctuary to work on the songs and my guitar playing that went on to The Power & the Glory. It’s galvanized a certain approach that I take towards doing the Americana thing. I feel pretty one with it these days.
Matt: The record sounds great from start to finish, but there are two songs that struck me immediately. Which track is your “sexiest girl” on the record right now?
Bill: I’d have to say “Carolina, Carolina,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” The album closer, “Wide Awake with Orphan Eyes,” a song about my oldest son Josh, is also a favorite.
Matt: I found it interesting that the first lines of The Power and the Glory reference time. You started late in rock ‘n roll, but how has your perspective toward what you do changed since you started out?
Bill: I probably tried too hard in the early days of Vigilantes of Love….Hipster/Athens, Ga., Christian-folk-poet, you know! That’s a LOT to live up to! (lol!)
But, I’ve always been hungry, always been thirsty, and that’s the best thing an artist can be. You find your own voice, not someone else’s. I think I was a good lyricist back then. But it’s far more effortless now. You learn to hear the Spirit behind the stories that fall to you. I think I learned how to tell my own story, as well. So much of today’s stuff sounds a little “paint by numbers” to me. Good intentions, to be sure, but if one lacks experiences, what else are you gonna write about?
I’ve received two gifts in life: One was the road. The road and poverty has been a crucible that my thing was born in. That’s one of the “gifts” I received: Being shut up in a van for 180 shows a year, cutting a record or two, and then going out on tour after tour with very few resources and getting the crap kicked out of us. Those vistas of such a life that emerge, from within and without, all went back into the songs.
The other gift I received was the incredible amount of goodwill and nurture from fans and friends. That “gift” is what got this record made and it continues to fill me with a great deal of passion for the work I do.
If you would like to know more about Bill and his upcoming record Amber Waves or purchase The Power & the Glory, you can check him out at: http://volsounds.com/