“There’s really no reason in the world for someone not to make their own records,” Michelle Malone declares with feeling.
The Atlanta-based performer has been making music professionally for more than 10 years; her first album, New Experience (independently released in 1988) was sprinkled with the star clout of REM’s Bill Berry. And her latest CD, Homegrown, is also, well, homegrown: This bold, rootsy disc is the first fruit of Malone’s new record company, SBS.
But major-label frustration marred the decade linking these two efforts. Her second album, Relentless, was released by Arista in 1990 — but it didn’t take long for the singer to miss the feel of the reins in her hands. And apart from the loss of creative control, “major labels in general are set up, frankly, to screw the artist,” she states. “Everybody and their brother gets paid before the artist does. If your record makes a half million, you could still come out [owing] the record company, and not make a cent. And even though, nine times out of 10, the artist isn’t really in it for the money, the artist does have to make a living, you know? That’s something that’s always been frustrating to me.”
Today, Malone has banished all corporate monsters from her lair — even eschewing the indie-label world in which she immersed herself in the mid-’90s — and permanently installed the do-it-yourself approach. What’s more, she ardently champions those artists who’ve seen the same light.
“I hope [artists producing their own records] is more than a trend; I hope that it [becomes] the norm,” she states. “It’s so easy and inexpensive now to record CDs and get them out to the buying public. … I don’t really see any reason for me to be on another indie label, because they can’t do anything for me I can’t do myself. I am [my own] indie label.”
The name of her new CD refers to the way the record was created, she says: “It just felt like such a grassroots record, what with my friends being on it, helping me record it, and doing [the writing and producing] myself.”
But many of Homegrown’s deeper themes also echo the title. It wasn’t an intentional thing, Malone insists. “I try not to go into the studio with any preconceived notions of the record’s outcome,” she relates. “I think it ends up with you having to force it if you’re too aware of what you’re trying to create, [rather than] what the music wants you to create.” Nevertheless, physical and emotional evocations of “home” bob continually to the surface on this disc, dressed in Malone’s deft soprano and strong, indulgent melodies.
In “Avalon,” she suffers eloquently from that perennial folksinger malady, the I-can’t-take-another-negative-news-story lament: “There’s terror on the front page news/And tragedy on channel two/And faces saying I have to buy something to make me happy/ … I don’t understand how any one of us could expect to feel grounded/I don’t need the madness/Makes me want to pack and head straight for the mountains/Or the canyon or the sea/’Cause I would rather be bombarded by the sky, if it was falling/Seek the refuge of an island/Create my own free country.”
The disc’s standout single, however, is its title track. The setting is the singer’s old college apartment; in this context, Malone conveys the restless despair engendered by time’s heartless passage: “How many times can I promise myself that everything turns out for the best?/How many years can a woman pretend she deserves just what she gets?/But this is home/ … Where I’ve learned from my mistakes/ This is home/ … Where my dreams began to fade.”
A music writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer once said of Malone, “[She’s] an astonishingly electric performer — simply one of the best performers I’ve ever seen.” And while Homegrown is a markedly slow-tempo work, fearless live performances have decorated Malone’s reputation for the entirety of her career.
An outspoken environmental activist, Malone recently completed an eight-week cross-country bicycle ride sponsored by Earth Challenge, a group committed to environmental wellness through what she calls “individual and community empowerment.” But she emphasizes that no political overtones will ever flavor her songs. “I don’t really see a place for that in my music; I like to live by example, not preach to people.”
About one practical issue, however, Malone had quite a bit to say: “I understand that [Black Mountain Music Festival organizers] are [planning] several more festivals, and I’d like to put the word out to other artists that [if they are going to play an upcoming festival], they should probably get cash up front.” Malone maintains that she was paid with a bad check for her performance at the last Black Mountain Festival. (When contacted, festival producer Cynthia White said that Malone would be paid with a certified check this week.)