Out of the High Deserts: An Interview with Critically Acclaimed Songwriter, Bill Mallonee

Winnowing is more like a trip to the confessional…transparent & vulnerable without being sentimental. These songs have elements that are more like prayers & pleas for faith. They’re questionings and wrangling in the dark about the journey.” – Bill Mallonee

Twenty years ago at a music festival in Southern Illinois I was drawn by the noise of an Athens alternative band and their manic, road-worn looking front man who bounced around the stage with desperate energy, punctuating lines with seizure-like movements, rambling with a bit with of Keroacian flare and occasionally even banging his head on the microphone for added drama.  The band had just released Killing Floor and their singer, Bill Mallonee, was belting out hooks and lines that tugged your ear with a Dylan, Springsteen, or Young kind of gravitas…

Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate Bill Mallonee for who he is… simply one of the best songwriters in America.  Paste Magazine named him one of the top 100 living songwriters.  Rolling Stone and Billboard have both raved about his work.

Bill sings on the haunting opening track of his newest album, Winnowing, “To have travelled for these many years knocked on many doors, I got tired of tryin’ to bend an ear; I got tired of keepin’ score.” Although the music critics “get him,” to the frustration of those of us who love him, he has never quite had commercial success.

In my line of work I get the chance to spend time with a lot of writers, musicians, and athletes: people who commit their lives to a singular skill. I’m around folks who must persevere to stay dedicated to a craft. Because of this, I’ve gone from just being a fan of Bill’s music (and his live performances), to becoming a huge admirer of Bill as an artist.

When Stephen Pressfield writes in The War of Art about “professionals” who show up to their art each and every day and embrace it as a discipline, I think of Bill.  When people talk about the resolve it takes to look fear and doubt in the face and keep creating day after day after day, I think of Bill.

Bill told me in a recent e-mail, “Winnowing is definitely a fall record…” And as fall has been slow to make its way south just now marking the edges of our leaves, I have also just now begun to spin his newest record, Winnowing.

In a career of 60 some records, Winnowing is a jewel.  In a world filled with “coming of age” art, Bill has offered us an engaging “coming to terms” record.  It is a driving melody of subtle hooks and minor chords that embraces all of life: the good, the bad, the joy and the grief, the pain and pleasure. Winnowing welcomes the deep pause before winter and leaves listeners with the lasting sensation that: “at the end of the day, everything is going to be alright.”

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with my friend, Bill, about his songwriting, his fantastic new record Winnowing and the current state of things in his little corner of the New Mexico desert.

Matt: You have been such a “nomad” for years and the road seemed to find its way into much of your writing… how did being away from the road for a while (“away” at least for you) inform your writing on Winnowing?

Bill: Yes, you are right. The “road” is a teacher and mentor.  “Out there,” you realize how little safety net is below you. Vigilantes of Love toured something like 180-200 dates a year for almost a decade. When we saw that all the other variables were missing that serve to break a band to a bigger place (like good management, good booking and competent labels) it was time to dial it back.

Sadly, that meant losing a great band. Still, as a solo singer-songwriter, it was like coming full-circle. I started as a troubadour on the cafe circuit.  Post-VoL, it just meant a more wizen songwriter was still at work.

But, Winnowing: It’s a very dark, somber “autumn” sort of record. It’s elegant and very melodic, as well.  Born of solitude… and sure, poverty within and without.

That’s the place it comes from.

The “road,” as a motif still sneaks in because the road is always the metaphor for the journey we’re on. But, to tell the truth, I have felt pretty “invisible” for years; And yes, I know that’s a very common mantra among artists, I’m sure. So much music out there to sample.

(How does an artist get their hand above the surface of the over-stocked pond anymore and say: “Hey! Over here!”)

But, I do think the thing that makes me different is that the songs keep coming (through almost 60 albums, now) And I think they’re getting better. I have more to say and better ways of saying it.

It’s not a game, not a hobby. Not a thing I did for a few years after college. I’ve been VERY blessed to have so many fans that still listen to music as if it mattered. These days we live in a “music-as-product-for-a-particular-demographic.” Not my thing.

I do it because I love it; the whole process from “excavation” to the writing, to recording, to bringing it “live.” I write to make sense of the world and “save myself.” Themes get a little dark, sure. Maybe, it’s a way of talking myself through sadness & incongruities of life. Maybe it’s a way of grieving a broken world.  As a songwriter, that’s meant developing a particular “nomenclature” to give voice to it. I suppose that’s all I’ve tried to do.

It’s the only way I know to assess the world without and the world within.

What has been heartening to me is just how much these albums seem to resonate with people over the years.

I get some great feedback from folks. It’s good to be understood.

If the songs are finding homes, then I’m encouraged that I’m saying something aright.

The way I see it is that the poverty & deprivation (spiritual or material) has always been the best cocktail for artists to make authentic work. The needless, superfluous things get scraped away and you get in touch with the real. Not saying it’s always fun under those conditions, but just the sheer volume of songs and albums has to have an explanation and I think that one is the best.

You get born anew; changed into something else by the hardship.

Matt: For your fans who have listened since the Jugular days… is there a song from your vast catalogue that you could point back to and say, “that song would fit right in with where I am on the Winnowing record?”

“Pristine,” from Permafrost would qualify because this is an album of sadness and dark questions.  Locket Full of Moonlight’s last song “Casual Reprise,” as well… and of course, many songs off the WPA series. (I think there are like 21 some EPs now?)

All of those were well recorded on just 4-tracks in small places like a cabin in Appalachia or the high deserts of New Mexico.

The WPA series are mostly acoustic driven with lots of heartache, soul wrangling and immediacy.

Winnowing, however, is a full band album, a very autumnal record. It has a lush, rough-hewn elegance about her, Matt.

Matt: After The Power & the Glory & Amber Waves, Winnowing seems like a bit of change in direction for you.  What went into those two records and how is Winnowing different?

Bill: I think I stopped “making albums” years go. Now, I just let them become more like correspondence; an open book, but in disguise; they’re often clad in really shabby suits, bourbon-on-breath sort of albums.

I am so very proud of those The Power & The Glory & Amber Waves. They’re still very young records, really, only a couple years old.  And they’re big Americana rock albums.  Amber Waves was a Vigilantes of Love reunion, of sorts, with Jake Bradley (bass and guitar) and Kevin Heuer (drums, percussion)

During that time, I was reading a lot of Steinbeck & historians like Studds Terkel. Watching Ken Burns documentaries. The nation was bleeding like crazy from the toxic polarization of two parties that don’t seem to be aware or care about what most people are experiencing in America these days.

In my opinion, those two albums rival anything early VoL ever released, simply because they are what I call “truth with teeth.”

Big guitars, big themes striving to be realized…all drenched in feedback, big chords and hooks.  Sure, plenty of tender moments, as well. But, on those two albums, I was trying to bring the “noisy” side. You’re dealing with a band of friends in a room after the “record” button is pushed. Fun happens.

But, Winnowing is more like a trip to the confessional. The album has a very atmospheric tenor to it. To me, the songs, over the last say 10 years have felt the strongest because they’re honest.

They are transparent & vulnerable without being sentimental. These songs have elements that are more like prayers & pleas for faith. They’re questionings and wrangling in the dark about what’s the journey is about.

For me there are no commercial expectations now… That’s all been given up on, buried and grieved over. That involves a “winnowing” of the spirit, I think.

Matt: Bill, what advice would you give to the young man who wrote Jugular and Killing Floor?

Bill: Another great question! Let’s see…. I would probably tell him 2 things:

First, I would tell him to save some of the words. Relax a bit, so much anxious energy in every song back then. I wrote every song like it would be my last. I think by the time Blister Soul came out (album #4), I’d learned how to “economize” and obscure things a bit.

Second, and, because so much of my work was initially championed by some of the contemporary Christian market, I would tell him to “BEWARE!” those folks who want to own him and propagate his music for their limited theological enterprises.

“Beware,” I would tell him, because such folks are listening to only part of what you’re doing and missing the rest. I would tell him to not be afraid to point out their narrow views of man and God. I would tell him to point out such people’s tendency to love something closer to “agendas” instead of art.

That’s what I would say to “young Bill.”

For the record: I’m a believer. Not my doing. It’s a shaky, stumbling faith with sometimes a “shelf-life” of just that one-day. But, that’s all you have to get through is one day at a time. I depend on the Good Lord’s work & grace.  It’s just not my agenda as an artist to “get you saved,” or to “edify you,” when I pick up a guitar or step up to a mic.  That happens when good art is made anyway. I’m trying to achieve honesty when it comes to knowing one’s self and making the songs that arise from that.

Matt: What did this record teach you about yourself?

Bill: I think this album taught me to risk. Sure, I’ve been doing that for years, but this album felt like a crystallization of that, a focusing on certain themes. It taught me that after almost all the ideas and “truths” that were taught me, almost all things I’d built and based my life on were “up for grabs.”

That’s a scary place to be, of course. To hold such things up to the light and see where the concepts you lived by were perhaps flawed.

This is the most “confessional” album I’ve ever done. It’s autobiography to the core, but it wanders in and out of the 1st person. The “truths” it touches are grittier that way.

Sometimes, they come by “one removed.” I think this record taught me how to doubt and believe all at once; to rejoice and grieve at the same time; And to wait, even if the waiting produces more doubts and incongruities.

These songs have helped me make a bit of peace with that invisibility and sadness I spoke of, the stuff that plagues us all. Don’t give up. Go deeper. The album helped me see that I’m not alone.

Years ago Muriah turned me on to the writings of the mystic, Julian of Norwich.

So many wonderful quotes, but here’s the one she’s the most famous for: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

That’s what I’ve learned over these last years culminating in Winnowing.

Matt: People don’t often talk about how art changes us… how has your songwriter journey changed you these last few years?

Bill: Well, you learn that there are no guarantees for anyone, anywhere. The wounded-ness and grief we all bear are the ‘stigmata” of our humanity.

I think a good artist gives the listener a “nomenclature” to accept life with. My songs are something like little homilies I preach to myself, you know? Or little prayers I utter to someone I hope is listening.

The songs are made up of characters I meet, events I know of and lyrics that are like a conversation with myself. I try to do this artistically (not polemically with agendas).

The well could never dry for inspiration, could it? Life is joy and a sense of wonder; It is grieving, sadness, and darkness. It’s addictions and broken relationships.  And it is about a hope and love we sense, but can scarcely describe.

If I “do my job well,” it’ll resonate with others because we are all living in similar skin, I believe.

Matt: If there were an artist, writer or musician whose work had some influence on you as you worked through Winnowing who would it be?

Bill: Far as writers go, I’d cite Frederick Buechner. He’s a national treasure. Always a joy to read. But really, the biggest influences were the journey we’ve been taking AND the place where we live.

Muriah and I have had to embrace a certain hermit-like existence out here in the high deserts of New Mexico. Just the “alone-ness” of being out here; we’re way off the beaten path: big, wide-open blue skies, 300 days of sunshine a year, vistas of aching beauty… how the wind that whispers about all who have passed this way before.

And the stars…oh my, the stars…






4 thoughts on “Out of the High Deserts: An Interview with Critically Acclaimed Songwriter, Bill Mallonee

  1. Matt,
    I wanted to say THANK YOU for the kind words & particularly the insight that prompted your great questions…You made it easy, sir!

    Wishing you God’s richest blessings on your great work & writing career.

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