Name: Jesse Malin
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Jesse Malin returns with Sad And Beautiful World, a double album of new songs, on September 24th 2021 via Wicked Cool.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jesse Malin and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official homepage. He is also on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Sometimes the creative inspiration just comes into your mind, into your brain, in a dream, in a trance, you walk in the door from being out in the street and you pick up your guitar or your pen and stuff just flows out of you. Those are the natural moments.
Other times, it might come from watching a film, hearing a great conversation, something that went on, something that somebody said in a restaurant, a stranger, a bar, a friend. Sometimes it’s from hearing other music, hearing a show, hearing a new song.
Things that you hear for the first time sometimes stimulate the brain. Things that you’re unfamiliar with push you to try to do better or inspire you to do something of your own.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Somebody once said to me at a songwriter’s panel at South by Southwest in Texas that the best cure for writer’s block was “ass-in-chair”. Yeah you can buy the clean notebooks, the pens, you can sit down, have your laptop, make time, and it doesn’t always come. But if you set up time to do it, often you will get something.
Every time I go into a place to record something on my phone or tape recorder and make the time and carve it out, I always think that’s bombing and there’s nothing there. When I go back, there’s always something. If you do it often, you set a place where you can accumulate a lot of stuff.
And the editing process is important, there’s always crap that you have to weed out.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Like I said before in the prior question, it’s really about just always taking things in. Joe Strummer once said “No input, no output.” Watching films, reading books. Listening to other music. Music that you’re unfamiliar with. Like I said in the earlier question, having things that hit you for the first time, being out, going for walks, running, exercise, forward motion, getting warmed up, jumping around, physical energy. Something about that travel. Looking out a window in the passenger seat, just watching the world, taking it in, quiet time away from everybody, being an observer, a stranger, a voyeur.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I do believe like Bob Marley said “Lively up yourself”. Doing some working out, getting the heart going, whatever. For me, a New Yorker, like I said walking around town.
I’m not really good at doing creative work when I’m drinking or jacked up on caffeine. I prefer to be jacked up on the inspiration, the art. But doing some pushups, listening to some records, going on that long walk definitely helps. Sometimes going to a movie by yourself or just taking a walk in a strange part of town outside of your comfort zone, like I get to do when I’m on tour.
Always having a pen and a little notebook, I like to write things down old-school style, analog. But if not, I’ll battle it into my phone recorder like any other fool walking down the street.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Beginnings are very hard. Sometimes, I don’t look at it as a beginning, I’ll just write and write lots of ideas and words, many verses. And then sometimes what I thought would be the third verse or the second verse becomes the first verse.
I like putting things into action right away, stories and songs that put you right in a place, a time, a taste, a smell, a mindset. Those are my favorite records – that open up with action. My favorite songs, my favorite stories. You feel like you’re there.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Lyrics - I think the best lyrics inspire you, you can relate to them, you can feel them. Even if it’s about sex, death, sadness, loss, change, escape, celebration, they have to something that when you’re writing them, it’s personal to you that you can relate to.
Sometimes I talk about things or songs or places that I like, things I wanna say, even say verbally out of my mouth that feel and sound good that seem to connect to my lifestyle and what I wanna put forward aesthetically and emotionally. The connection of these words.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Once I get started, it’s a lot of editing.
I just let it go, I write and write and write in a notebook and then I go back and I read the verses aloud and see which ones are the best. I have one concept, an idea in my head, or sometimes none, and I just write and write. I’ll bounce them off other bandmembers, friends, girlfriends, people that would maybe understand that I trust and see which verses they like better. Sing them in front of people, saying stuff in public, aloud, sometimes has a different ring to it.
Getting on the microphone at rehearsal with the band is even more revealing and more of a bullshit detector to what is right and what works and what doesn’t.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Some things are out of my hands, I believe some things come magically like gifts. You pick up an instrument. I’m lead by riffs and melody, mostly melody. And then I’m singing some lyrics that I don’t really always understand, sometimes they make a lot of sense later, sometimes they didn’t - they were placeholders for lyrics that I had been writing in a notebook separately.
Building up during time, travel, daily stuff, dreams, mornings, nights, middle of the nights, waking up, and I’ll try to put the two together. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes it doesn’t and you have to keep working, but the melody and the initial burst just comes from somewhere.
Once I get started, everything seems to just pull forward, but then finishing things can be hard. The initial burst is something that jumps you up, but to go back and cross your T’s, dot your I’s, finish the whole thing – that’s the hard work, that’s the homework. But it’s fun, like a crossword puzzle, and the more you chip at it, the more exciting it feels and it becomes something you enjoy doing. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stress if you’re stuck on something, step away, read, look at other things, listen to other things, look at books. Sometimes I go to the bookstore and walk around and just look at titles. Sometimes I read the first page.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
That is true, sometimes when you’re singing something and you play a weird chord and it leads you in a different direction. Sometimes a drummer might play a beat, sometimes I’ll hear a beat in a club, I’ll record it and it might take me somewhere else.
Different tunings make your mind and your ear work differently. When I first got a capo on an acoustic guitar, I wrote many songs because I heard the guitar differently. It created my voice to sing in a different way. I also like singing at soundchecks and different rooms and hearing my voice, coming in off the street in some venue I’ve never been and hearing the way it sounds through the PA off those walls in that place. Sometimes I get a song out of it. If I just come right in, I have to capture it on my phone or some recording device because sometimes it’s gone and I can’t remember them.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
With the digital age, yes there’s a lot of opportunity for many voice notes. Many minutes of recording. It was like that on cassette tapes too. It’s editing for me, I record, I let it go, I let the thing bleed, the creative process. I just riff and sing and then I go back, I send it to myself on the computer, take out the recorder of the phone and I grab the bits that I like and then I work on them and see how they fit together. It’s a pain in the neck, the editing process but it’s part of enjoying the freeform part of the writing - that you just let it go, knowing that you’ll find what’s there, maybe there’s something. Usually there is, even if it’s small.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Sometimes it’s good to let things lie. I’ve had songs not ready to be born for ten years.
On my new record, “Tall Black Horses” was a song I had ten years ago but we tried it many times and it wasn’t ready yet.
On “Sunset Kids”, my previous album, I had a song called “Promises” which I tried to make work on my second album, “The Heat”, my third record, “Glitter in the Gutter”, fourth record “Love it to Life” and probably on a couple others.
But finally Derek, my guitar player, said let’s do it, now’s the time. And it came to life in Los Angeles on the “Sunset Kids” record, but it wasn’t ready. I don’t throw these songs away, if I feel they’re good I’ll try them again, but sometimes you do have to step away. Sometimes you have to step away from new songs, you never know. Sometimes the perspective is good, sometimes I have a drink and listen to stuff at a distance.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I feel that records have a sound to them. A lot of my records, starting from my first album, “The Fine Art of Self Destruction”, the sound dictates the feeling and the mood.
Sometimes a great recording of a record, you might not even love the song but it’s from the 50’s or 60’s or 70’s and has a great sound and it makes you feel good just on the sounds that the artist got or the producer got alone. And those sounds are part of the magic and mojo.
A great song can come through bad production on a shitty demo, you can hear it and see it of course. But I feel that the sounds and the playing and the different production that you get, the mix, can create part of the atmosphere. When done right, it’s part of the song, at least that’s records as opposed to live. And making records is kind of the best way I get music out and the way I grew up listening to them, so certain sounds of records are implanted in my brain and affect me.
And bad production can make you think that the record is terrible and the song is bad, it does happen. Some of my favorite records are produced good and there’s probably a few that I would have liked a lot more if they sounded like the artist’s earlier, nastier work.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Right before releasing a record to the world, there’s a lot of questioning, second-guessing and fear and it’s about letting go. But a popular artist once told me, an artist more popular than most that I know: get it right because once it’s out in the world it’s out there forever. Well some people spend 3 years and all the money they have cause they have a lot, but somewhere in between I think it’s important to feel that you believe in it and you can sign off on it and it’s gonna be there forever. And there is a feeling once it’s done like you gave birth and sometimes it feels very good and satisfying and sometimes there’s an emptiness. And sometimes I feel like I just wanna start writing again and not think about it, and just start off on the next project and don’t look back. It’s hard to do because you put so much into these things.
My new record, “Sad and Beautiful World”, was written during the Covid pandemic (most of it) and it’s a double record – a Roots Rock side and a Rock side as I call it, Roots Rock Radicals. But one more song-driven, one more musical, physical, nighttime driven. And putting it out as it comes, yeah you start to think about wow, all the ways you can do it differently and you just have to let go. And letting go is important, something in any part of life, I guess.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Sometimes it’s hard to express things in conversations verbally. Sometimes it’s hard to express them in regular writing, just writing a text or writing a letter or writing an email or writing even fiction or non-fiction. But in a song, there’s a freedom in the melody and the lyrics and that kind of poetry, especially in rock n’ roll, where words can create motions and feelings and not be specific or that literal - but they convey that emotion, sex, freedom, anger, craziness, peace. They can all come. So as a form of poetry, in a street, dirt, slang, that’s loose and free and it’s really about how it sounds and how it feels as much as how it’s said and what the words literally mean.