Compared to most musical artists in the Americana genre, Michelle Malone seems like a pair of distressed blue jeans amidst a sea of pantsuits. Unlike the surplus of self-professed rootsy rebels, one listen to this woman from Dixie and you know you’re hearing the real thing. Her new album, Stronger Than You Think, is her strongest effort yet. Malone’s unforced, soulful voice and slide guitar playing take the blues and turn them into supremely-hooky roots rock songs that will make you wanna trash a juke joint and hi-five yourself after crying in your beer!
Malone comes by her independence and eclecticism naturally. “I started singing in church when I was about 4,” says the Atlanta-born Malone, “And my mom, a single parent, supported the family by singing in clubs and bars, doing everything from the hits of the day to jazz and blues standards. So I grew up being exposed to all kinds of music.”
After being an Arista artist and making a record for them produced by Patti Smith guitarist, Lenny Kaye, Malone became a pioneer of the indie movement. She started her own record label, SBS Records, in 1992 and began making her way down an independent musician’s rocky road. She’s now fortified with experience, having already released 13 studio recordings, played 1000’s of shows around the globe, and had songs used in TV shows like True Blood and Dawson’s Creek. For the last year, she’s been a part of the touring band of Kristian Bush, singer for Country supergroup, SugarLand. In between, she’s duetted with Gregg Allman, been backed by keyboard legend, Chuck Leavell and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and played everywhere they allow music. In short, Malone has paid her dues.
Her new record, though, Stronger Than You Think, stands apart from these impressive accomplishments. It has to do with looking around at her friends and contemporaries these past few years and seeing the toll that life can take. Hard times often make for great art, and this new record by Malone is no exception. She made this unforgettable album for her friends, her fans and anyone else who’s struggling or suffering. That’s many of us, and we won’t soon forget this music.
“I didn’t plan for so many of the songs to be about people overcoming obstacles. It happened organically. Part of my inspiration had to do with several friends who have been fighting cancer and other illnesses. Then there are people whose parents are aging and dealing with Alzheimer’s, so the songs are for the caretakers, too. These songs are my attempt to inspire folks dealing with difficulties. I want to empower them to continue to put one foot in front of the other, to keep on keeping on through their obstacles, whatever they are. I want them to know that they’re stronger than they even know.”
God knows, musically, Malone did her job perfectly. Everyone who hears ‘Stronger’ will be delighted. Take the disc’s kickoff kickass tune, Stomping Ground, which Malone calls one of her “favorites.” It’s got an insistent rocking beat, courtesy of drummer and co-producer Gerry Hansen, the right amount of lonesome harmonica and a chorus that just won’t quit. Also, it’s so damn universal. The narrator returns to a place where she use to live, where wonderfully-illicit coming of age acts went down, and it’s changed, flattened, wrecked. Malone’s heart hangs heavy as she sings about a magical spot from adolescence that’s empty-except for memories, but the slamming beat and her defiant voice keep it from being anything but maudlin.
As a self-professed Keith Richards fan, it’s kinda kismet that another satisfying track, My Favorite T-shirt, graces this punchy record. The song, of course, isn’t any more about the T-shirt than Wild Horses is about being a cowboy. It’s an excuse for Malone to let loose with a first-rate rant about an emotionally abusive relationship. As honest as most Americana singers are veiled, this tune uses that T shirt to confess why she stayed. It’s so open and honest, it’ll put you in mind of Chrissie Hynde, another great female truth-teller. Musically, however, it’s all Malone.
This is the 3rd record that Malone has made with producer / drummer Gerry Hansen (Chuck Leavell, Shawn Mullins, Randall Bramblett), and their mind-melding is obvious in the groove. A few of Malone’s other high profile Atlanta friends who dropped by to lend their backing vocals are Amy Ray (Indigo Girls) on I Dont Want To Know, co-written with Malone, and Kristian Bush (Sugarland) on When I Grown Up, also co-written with Malone.
So before she starts touring, what are her final thoughts about her new record? “I write for myself first, because I need to believe in what I’m singing. I wouldn’t aim it at any demographic, even if I knew how. I just write what moves me. I believe if the songs resonate with me, they’ll connect with other folks and bring them joy and strength, as well.”
Tired of all the prissy performers out there? Girls who might as well be twirling parasols and giggling shyly? Just give a listen to the new disc by singular songwriter, inveterate road warrior, Michelle Malone. Maybe you’re feeling a little tired, a little broken, like you can’t take another step. Hearing this soul sister from the South may be just what you need. Plus, she’s got something you’re probably dying for someone to tell you. You Are Stronger Than You Think. And you are.