Interview By Angela Kinzie | Photo by Alan Snodgrass
In the mid ‘90s, New York singer-songwriter Jesse Malin heard a voice he didn’t recognize surface on “You’re Still Standing There,” a track from Steve Earle’s 1996 album, I Feel Alright, which he had just bought.
“I was stunned. I was so excited,” Malin says.
The voice he heard was that of Lucinda Williams. A longstanding icon of Americana and folk rock, Williams most recently produced Malin’s first solo release in four years, Sunset Kids, out Aug. 30 via Wicked Cool, The Orchard, and Velvet Elk.
“I used to have these daily conversations with Joey Ramone, believe it or not,” Malin remembers. “He’d call up or I’d call him, and we’d say, ‘What are you listening to?’”
“I said, ‘I just heard this woman, Lucinda Williams, and she’s so great!’” he recalls. “I went to some shows, and she was so badass but so personable, telling stories about her songs, and her band had such a vibe, an edge. I realized this was labeled as roots music, Americana, whatever box people put things in, but she was just as rock ’n’ roll as anybody, like a female Keith Richards or a Chrissie Hynde with some kind of Southern twang. […] I remember going to see her the first time in Los Angeles. I took Donita Sparks from L7. [Lucinda’s] just a badass, tough woman who has a lot to say. She walks it like she talks it.”
“Now, we’re opening everything up, not trying to look at gender and just take things for what they are, and that’s how it should’ve always been,” Malin continues, “but when I was a kid, some of the female stuff—we would listen to Janis Joplin, she blows everybody away, listen to X-Ray Spex, in the punk scene, Poly Styrene. Women have always been a strong part of it, and I think that there’s a really important balance that cock rock, dare I say, kinda lost for a while.”
On collaborating with Williams, Malin states, “It was an honor, a pleasure, and just something really surprisingly great about working with her.”
With occasional pedal steel and acoustic guitars accenting Sunset Kids, Malin explores some familiar territory, but also some that is uncharted for the 40-year punk rock veteran. Extremely friendly and eager to chat, he explains what he perceives to be the connection between punk, folk, and Americana.
“I think it’s about telling stories,” he says. “Punk rock was always about lyrics. Joe Strummer, they used to call him Woody, so there you go, like Woody Guthrie. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, I mean, those are protest songs; those are angry songs. Even Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry—punk rock. It’s just the attitude; it’s the message. Even in country, they’ve always been great storytellers. Great detail. For me, I got into the singer-songwriter thing probably as a kid, hearing Elton John, Jim Croce on the radio, and then Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska [from 1982], Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello. To me, anything from my favorite really intense punk bands, from the Dead Kennedys to whatever, it’s really the story that’s being told at the core. I think someone like Frank Turner, who’s out there right now, Chuck Ragan, a lot of those folks I think really get that across.”
Creating Sunset Kids served as both a distraction and catharsis for Malin, who experienced copious amounts of personal loss over the past year, which dominates the title, subject, and recording of the album.
“All of my life, when there was pain or anger or fear, to go to a guitar or turn up someone else’s music really loud, it felt like a big, warm blanket—you know, saying, ‘It’s OK, I’ve been there too,’ [knowing] other people have lived through this,” Malin says.
“Weirdly enough, the first conversation about this record was right after Lucinda opened for Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers,” he continues. “Turned out, it was Tom Petty’s last gig. It was in L.A., at Sunset. Then, I started making the record with one of Lucinda’s engineers, David Bianco. [He] also did Tom Petty’s Wildflowers [from 1994] and, funny enough, went full circle back to my band D Generation. David was a big part of the early days of Sunset Kids, and he passed in the making of the record [on June 20, 2018], which was a real shock to all of us. Not to be so morbid, because it’s part of life. Everybody does it, but it’s still never easy. Then, my dad passed, and then, my guitar player for many years who was in D Generation and my solo stuff, Todd Youth, a wonderful guitarist, way too young, […] died a month after my dad passed. There were a few other friends. It was just a really intense year. When I was walking in L.A., the title came. I saw the sign, and I just thought, you know, we made this record on both coasts, and it’s kind of a nod to music being a way to keep the spirit of those you love who have touched your lives and have passed, just keeping it alive—just a little dedication to those people.”
“Shining Down,” the most obvious track to embrace mortality, is “straight-up autobiographical about my family,” Malin offers. “The things you get, things you lose. […] Life is for the living, but these angels are up there. These people who have touched you, they’re still in your heart and soul and your blood and music, and that’s just the story of a few chapters of my life. I like singing about a lot of dark stuff, but as a kid in the hardcore scene, we got used to that PMA, positive mental attitude. I think my mom had it, and a lot of people had that kind of life, [that] ‘Every day is the first day of the rest of your life’ kind of thing.”
“So, as much as I write about things that are depressing or hard or whatever, it’s meant to be some kind of exorcism and be positive,” he concludes. “‘Shining Down’ is keeping the light on somewhere.”