Moving West and the Truer Art: An Interview with Bill Mallonee

When I was in college there were these places called record stores where people would go to buy music.  I spent a summer working at one in the mall near where I lived.  This was in the mid 90s so that means I played a part in selling a lot of music by Color Me Badd.  I’m still trying to forgive myself.

In the back of the store there was a locker that was usually kept stocked with free music and other promotional items.  One day I picked up a pre-released cassette entitled Blister Soul from a band called The Vigilantes of Love.  It absolutely blew my mind.

When I got back to school I quickly shared this new find with my friend who knew a lot more about music than I did.  His mind was equally blown.  I had never felt such a connection to a songwriter.  When I was listening to The Vigilantes of Love I knew I was listening to greatness.  It was like C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor had their own rock band.

Photo courtesy of Bill Mallonee

A lot has changed since those days both in the music industry and with The Vigilantes of Love.  But that songwriter, Bill Mallonee, is still making good music.  I had a chance to talk with him recently about some of the changes he’s experienced, his new music and a new generation of fans.

Your newest albums are Songs For The Journey & Beyond and The Power and The Glory. Talk about what sets one apart from the other.

Right on. “Songs For the Journey & Beyond” is a home recording. Done neat and pretty on a simple digital 4 track recorder. Pushes a certain minimalism at cha, but it I think that’s a great thing. Makes you think about what’s important in a song. I write about 40 songs a year. Use to be 60 or so. I needed an outlet, so I’ve been releasing Eps under the moniker WPA as a way to push some of these songs into the “broad light of day,” so to speak…It’s the 12th WPA EP in 3 years. A nice clip. Usually each EP has about 6 or 7 songs. They’re a good “barometer” of where I’m at as afar as song-writing goes, what topics are holding my interest. They are 4 track home recordings where Muriah, my wife, and I play all the instruments. Part of the acoustic Americana thing, I guess you’d call it. Lots of guitar harmonies, which is something I explored on “The Power & The Glory.”They’re visceral and intimate, earthy and immediate. Like I said, they tend towards the acoustic/indie-folk side of things, but there are some “noise-y” ones here and there.

On the other hand: “The Power & the Glory” was a huge national release for us. It was album number 44 for me. (All of Mallonee’s solo & VoL’s work is up for listen and/or purchase at: http://www.billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com). That’s a LOT of output over 20 years. P&G may be the best. The record was funded by fans and utilized a full band in a rockin’ studio. It’s firmly in the Americana/Rock genre. It’s gotten some fine reviews, so I’m glad folks are “getting it.” Best one could hope for, you know?

It’s been a while since you’ve made the transition out west from Athens, GA. How has your new environment impacted you as a musician, particularly in song writing.

Ah, sad to say: Athens was never very kind to Vigilantes of Love. The solo life wasn’t much better. But them things are in transition everywhere, aren’t they? We have a small but faithful group of nurturing fans in Athens, so we love playing there. We (VOL) always did far better nationally outside the town. We could never really understand why they didn’t embrace us there. I think VoL was a great “live” band and was constantly garnering good reviews nationally. So yeah, it hurt, because it’s always good to “have home to come home to.” I raised two sons there and worked in the community for over 30 years. I have many friends there, incredible people who are dear to me; Still, since the  “music thing” was ignored, it made it easy to say “so long, farewell” when an opportunity came. You learn to cut bait with negative energies and closed doors, you know?

The Southwest (we’ve lived in New Mexico for 16 months,) with it’s incomparable beauty and stark terrain, it’s vital mix of cultures (Native American, Spanish, and Catholic, to name a few) made it a wonderful place to “make camp.” All of the Southwest that I loved as a kid via western films, books and music, was suddenly available to Muriah & I. So when we had a chance to leave and land in a place that was inspiring, we took it.

I think it has made the songs more unique in terms of topics and themes. My world is very private. The songs have always been very confessional, but you have to skew that a bit. “Tell it slant,” was Emily Dickinson’s way of talking about it.  New Mexico is a fairly poor state, so the cost of living is pretty low in the “outpost” towns. We’ve lived in poverty for the last 5 years. It ain’t easy. I think it’s all the  uncertainty that’s pretty grueling, to be honest.

But, you know, we’re a nation going down the crapper these days. We’ve insulated ourselves by pulling up the drawbridge, but not engaging the system to solve problems. Lack of vision, lack of justice, and failed leadership at every level. Rampant cynicism and distrust. It’s gonna take some time to see just what elements we’ll affirm to “steer our ship” by as a country in the next decade.  We’ve seen it on the road for 6 years now. As a country, we are trying to figure out just what caused us our economy to tank, and why we allowed our government and Wall Street to delude us. It’ll be an interesting next decade.

We’re not alone. People’s ability to make a living doing has been compromised and denied all over this country. These are similar themes that occupied the great writers like John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, and folks like Woody Guthrie. They saw where we’d placed our “faith,” and they saw the toll in human lives. Modern day prophets like Wendall Berry and Jimmy Carter will be proved right in the end. Many of my recent works from say WPA 6 through the current WPA 12 explore such topics. They are very personalized in that they deal in the particulars of the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely and lost.

Sojourn included one of your songs, “Knocking at Your Door”, on their latest Christmas album, “A Child Is Born“. What’s it like seeing a new generation of influential musicians honoring your music in that way?

 “Knockin’ At Your Door,” is really kinda a protest song, but since it borrows heavily from much of Isaiah’s images and vision, it qualifies as a Christmas song. Those dreams and texts are very much a part of the Church’s advent and Christmas readings. We’ve released 2 Christmas albums over the years with many Incarnational type songs that I’ve written. One is “Yonder Shines the Infant Light,” and the other is called “Wonderland.” We thought Sojourn did a great job covering it.

You’ve always been one to go against the grain in the music industry and that seems to be a big reason why so many fans are drawn to you. Talk about the industry now and how, if at all, artists like yourself can find their place.

I wish I knew “what” the industry was any more. To be honest I hear a lot of  paint-by-numbers-sorta stuff out there. And I think there’s an easy explanation for that: It’s what happens when all you can do is play your home town and listen to someone else’s records. You get “knock-offs” by the scores.

I think, in may ways, VoL were lucky. For 10 years straight, there was the ability to tour 6 months a year behind a national release. We had little or no safety net beneath us. It “seasoned” us. Here’s what happened: A particular view of this country and it’s people and their spirit began to integrate itself very naturally in the “bloodstream,” so to speak. But also a particular way of seeing ourselves emerged as well. It went into my songs, and hopefully it made them authentic, more “real deal,” or at least closer to such a standard.

Although VoL had no resources to afford the big PR firms, the great distribution conduits or the “right” connections, we did have great word of mouth on the band. That’s the only reason it went on as long as we were able to muster. We “dropped through the cracks.” And a lot of folks saw it that way, as well, so I don’t think this is some bitter statement. I was there, watching it unfold over 10 years. We seemed “doomed” to be a well-respected, cult band. It makes for some transparent and sober song writing…but inside, after 10 years, it was killing us…

Now, the “digital age” has made it possible for anyone with a 5 chord vocabulary, a guitar, a capo and a Mac with plug-ins to record an album, profile it on the social networks and promote oneself as a “legit” artist. So be it. There’s no turning back.

But there’s a down side:

(I understand I’m a “minority” on this point.) To me it simply means “the pond” is incredibly overstocked with “artists” who are merely imitating what their favorite flavor-of-the-month is. It may not mean any of them have anything to say OR (more importantly) a way of saying it that’s authentic and unique. I know that sounds harsh, but it I think it needs to be said. It’s “all good.” (Maybe my years in a van or car and 40 plus albums at the indie level earned me at least the right to cast a “dissenting” vote?).

When people have come to the place where giving music away for free is considered “marketing,” it shows just how far music has been “devalued.” “Free” doesn’t make it better or more authentic. Too much of anything trivializes it and that’s the place we’ve come to. Sure, these days music is just “commodity” that is to be consumed. Good art and good artists really have to work hard and consistently (and pray for good old fashion “luck!”) when it comes to getting heard these days.

So, I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all solution. In my case, I believed hard work, 100’s of good songs, relentless touring and authenticity were a worthy treasure to offer. Given the dynamics that govern the music biz these days, that’s not enough. That’s the way I see it, anyway. Still, I try to put all of the trial and tribulation back into the art, into the songs, so while I don’t welcome another industry “sucker-punch,” I’m determined to make music my way on own my terms…and infuse it with those experiences.

One of the great things about your music has been your ability to mix deep theological truths with honest introspection and moving stories. What’s the secret to excelling at this kind of writing without turning every song into a sermon?

I don’t think there’s a formula. The first thing, I think, is to have no agenda.  Always, always: come with no agenda. I don’t write to ‘save you,” edify you or make you (or anyone else) feel good. I simply write to “save myself.” By that I mean, I write to shake, move, chastize, inspire, and awaken my Self. My theory is that if I do what I do with some transparency and no artifice then it will indeed “resonate” with almost anyone. So, no, I don’t play to or coddle the “pop Church’s” notion of art or aesthetics. I just try not to think too much about it at all. It’d kill the song I wanna write if I did so. It’s just unnatural.

Muriah & I are often amused by the manifestations of the fact that the Church doesn’t seem to believe that God’s Spirit is part of the Trinity. They don’t see Him as this tender Presence, wooing every soul that’s been created. We act as if God needs some serious help in His ability to reach folks. So when it comes to religious truth, the Church dumbs it down, sanitizes it, “spiffy-ups” the Good News.

We fail to truly “know ourselves” and to take our place as part of fallen humanity. Somehow that’s a form of lying to ourselves, I think. My view, anyway.

Today it seems the Church’s “artists” are more or less rewarded for producing what amounts to propaganda. Yes, it’s “propaganda” I’ve staked my life on. The tomb was empty on the first Easter morning. But often, such truth is so “glammed-up” and “pop-i-fied,” that it rings false. “No one’s buying,” so to speak. Real art, more than likely, places ourselves in real life. It does so in full identification with our brokenness, our wounded-nesss, recognizing our needs, our failures, life’s incongruities and inconsistencies. I think if the person of faith would realize that he or she is not so very different from everyone else (whether they be people of faith, doubt or even hostile to the idea), then I think a “truer” art would emerge.

You can find out more about Bill’s music at http://billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com/.