Interview with Jesse Malin

Before he took to the stage in The Limelight, Belfast, we caught up with New York songwriter Jesse Malin to talk about his music past, present, and future.

Before his summer show at Belfast's Limelight, Folk and Tumble caught up with Jesse Malin for a chat about his musical journey and new record.

FT:  I suppose the big news is the new album, ‘Sunset Kids’ produced by none other than Lucinda Williams! A bit of a shock for some, but you’ve been friends for a while. How did that come about?

JM:  Yeah, we’d been friends for a while. I started as a fan.  Sometime in the mid-90s, I was in this group, D Generation, and I came to Europe opening for Green Day. In fact, the first place we played in Europe was The Ulster Hall. In the mid-90s I was kind of looking for something else to listen to besides the rock n’ roll/ punk rock that I was engulfed in. So, I happened to hear a Steve Earle record called ‘I Feel Alright’, and there was a duet on the record called ‘You’re Still Standing There’ and this voice just popped out of there on the second verse. I’d never heard a voice like this, and I couldn’t believe it, so I had to dig in there and find more of her stuff, and then I became a fan, and I saw her on tour, and later we met through a few friends in a jazz club in the west village called the Blue Note.

I started talking to her there and we realised that we had some similarities, despite that she was from Arkansas, and I was from Queens, New York. We were both born on the same day, are people that give a shit about the state of the world, and she’s just all heart.  So we developed a friendship for a while and Rolling Stone knew about this and asked us to interview each other for the magazine. During the course of the interview, we were asked about a possible collaboration, and we kind of said, well maybe, but nothing really happened, until we were looking at a producer for the new record, and I mentioned it to my manager, and he liked the idea

FT: So what did Lucinda bring to the table in terms of the sound of the album?

JM: I sent her a bunch of songs and some rough cuts, like I had six verses to ‘Room 13’, and the next day she had it down to three and musically her gut instinct on things was always so strong, in an internal primitive way, it’s like her heart and soul. We could do three versions of the one song in the studio, and then playback in the control room, and see if we got it, and it was always the one that she was dancing to, that we knew, that’s the one! So if the hips were moving, and she was dancing, we knew we had something.

To be with someone who is such a great songwriter is a little scary and nerve-wracking, but also inspiring. She really made me focus on the songs. I gave her about thirty songs. We recorded maybe twenty one, had a final edit of fourteen, and she had a really good instinct of what should be on the record, and helped me tell the story I wanted to tell. She brought an energy and a vibe that was so positive and uplifting. There was just something there… be it magic or voodoo.

FT:  How happy are you with the finished album?

JM:  I’m happy with this one, it feels a little like the first album, ‘The Fine Art of Self-Destruction’.  You can get locked in a persona, be confident, and it’s good to feel a little humble sometimes, and raw and exposed.  I had a lot of loss around it, hence the title, ‘Sunset Kids’. I lost my father while the record was being made, and the engineer on the album, David Bianco, who did a D Generation record with me when I was 25, and my guitar player Todd Youth. There was just a lot of weird stuff going on and sometimes when you have a lot of pain, it helps to have that outlet, to exorcise these demons, and the music is the medicine sometimes.

FT:  A lot of your lyrics are extremely personal, I’m thinking about ‘Broken Radio’ about the death of your mother, coming from a deeply personal experience, and yet they make a strong connection with people. Your experience becomes a universal experience?

JM:  You know you write these things because you need to. With ‘The Fine Art of Self-Destruction’, I just wanted to make a record like that, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I was hoping that maybe I’d have a shot at a new life from being in bands and I didn’t know what to expect but writing a song in your little apartment in New York City with your cat staring at you, and writing it for some girl that you hope will take the song to heart in some way, and then a year later, you’re in Finland, or Russia and England, Ireland, and people are singing these songs back with you…  That’s just a gift that you can’t put a price on, and you can’t predict when that will happen. Or have somebody come talk to you after a show about ‘Christmas’ or ‘Brooklyn’ or ‘Queen of the Underworld’ and say they can relate. ‘Broken Radio’ doesn’t say it’s about a dead person, but people who have lost someone usually know

FT:  They connect?

JM:  Yeah you hope that it can. For me, I can’t write about somebody else unless I can see myself in them. You don’t know if something is any good until you take it on the public stage, and you stand up under the lights and say ‘Hey I’m Jesse,’ like in those twelve steps meetings, just to say something and see how it goes down? It’s like Paul Simon says ‘I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers, still crazy, after all these years’. Songs need to be tested out under the lights, and if they last, they stay in the set. I think this is like my seventh or eighth solo album, but it almost feels like a new chapter.

FT:  You have started to answer another question I was going to ask, and that was about how you felt making that first solo album, that you’re celebrating in The Limelight, Belfast. Can you remember your feelings making it and on release? Were you excited? Were you nervous?

JM:  I was nervous to be myself. I had always been in bands and you hide in a gang and there’s a great feeling about being in a band you grew up with.  My previous band D Generation was a real band whether you like the music or not. We really had a thing as friends and family. It’s a love/hate intensity that you can’t buy or take an ad out to get. But I used to write most of the songs, or a lot of them, but I would always think that I was writing for other people. When it was time to write my first solo record, it was liberating to just be able to sing about what I needed to do, and just look at myself, and my whole life, and go back to your childhood, and why things didn’t work out here and there.

You know I had been making music with other people since I was twelve years old so the first record as me, first record under my own name, and it seemed kind of adult, and once I did it, it was kind of liberating, cause as Lemmy says‘In the end you are on your own, and there’s no one can stop you being alone’. At the time it all these bands The Thrills, The Kills, The Strokes, so at the time to be just Jesse Malin was, you know, you’re out there.

FT:  You’ve mentioned some of the New York Bands, The Strokes, The Hold Steady, Willie Nile. Even Springsteen, maybe a little outside in New Jersey, but is there a New York vibe or sound? That hi-intensity good time rock?

JM:  Yeah, Well I love New Jersey, but I’m definitely a Queens, New York person and Manhattan. It’s funny when I was into Bruce Springsteen, I was into loud rock bands, and my father liked it, but then I heard ‘Nebraska’, and I thought, well this guy’s a millionaire, and he’s writing these very real songs, stripped down, stark, honest, has a message it’s kind of political in a quiet way that has a lot of strength to it.  So Nebraska got me in, and then along came ‘Born in the USA’, and a lot of my friends hated that, they thought it was Rambo on steroids. I told them to look at the lyrics, so it was very uncool to like Bruce Springsteen, and then it became cool. I think the world caught up to it, and young artists and hipsters, and everybody realised, well this guy’s one of the good guys. This guy can be popular, but also real and that’s the experience I got from working with him. I think The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady are bands that are great examples of having a bunch of influences that change and they are two of my favourite ‘newer’ writers.

FT:  I had the good fortune of interviewing Alejandro Escovedo recently, and I know you played with him in the past and are due to play with again soon?

JM:  Yeah, We’ve supported each other over the years, and he’s playing at our record release in New York on September 14th, He’s very sweet.

FT:  We spoke about the Political situation in your country, and he makes no bones about his hatred of the present incumbent of the White House. Alejandro suggested that had Trump been in office, when his father crossed the Mexican border, He would not be around himself, and has called Trump out on his racist policies. On the other hand, you have someone like Little Steven, whom you again have played with, and been interviewed by, an artist who has a back catalogue of political songs, who has said, people are feed up of politics, it’s time to just revel in the music. And his new album, is a party album, revelling in a history of rock and roll. I’m sure it’s just a phase, but where do you stand with regard politics and where your country is at present?

JM:  I can’t speak for those two gentlemen, but I think you have to have a sense of humour with your message, I think the groups I liked growing up always did. I think you can say, don’t mix music and politics, but you walk out your door and life is political. You need to get gas and food and you need to pay rent and put some pants on. That’s politics and economics.

So you know the really good music that I first listened to Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie – even when I listen to Elton John, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, its very class conscious that song you know about being a kept person in some rich man’s world. I think it’s always been there. I think it’s how you do it. You don’t want to preachy… or you can be preachy, that’s fine… but I think that’s there’s a message, and if you’re into music or writing or art I always figure that I give my audience this faith in them, that you are outside the box, you are a little left of centre, and in that can come anything, and if people don’t speak up, then you have situations can arise that are capable of horrible things.

We have lost so many freedoms with cell phones, computers, cameras, and the internet and they know everything we do, our favourite artist, our favourite restaurant. It’s very Orwellian. I think there are issues that need addressed. I’m a victim too. I’m on my cell phone but I like to live in the moment and get out and meet real people. These times are going by very fast and things are very disposable and human connection and heartbeat is very important.

FT:  What next then for Jesse Malin?

JM:  Well we’ve made the record and we’re going to be on the road for a good part of the year, and I’ll start writing again.  I have a couple more records in my head I want to do sonically and musically, and I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book. But that’s dangerous territory, I don’t want it to be, you know ‘and then I met Iggy Pop’. I want to try and find a way to make it funny. I write these blogs occasionally but I’m really excited to get out and play these songs in front of people

FT:  Jesse it’s been a real treat to talk to you. Good luck with the new album, and all your other endeavours.

JM:  Great questions, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Jesse’s new album, ‘Sunset Kids’ is out on 30th August 2019 on Wicked Cool Records.