Michelle Malone photo credit by Jolie Loren
Michelle Malone Goes Unplugged In a First Volume of Fan Favorites
Michelle Malone has recently followed her 2022 album, 1977, with the release of Fan Favorites, Vol. 1 Unplugged via her own SBS Records, which represents a significant step in expanding the library of available recordings from Malone. Those who tuned into her many livestream performances during 2020 and 2021 took part in the genesis of this collection as Michelle Malone took requests, played whole albums, and randomly selected songs for the acoustic treatment. What the experience made her more aware of was what songs, particularly, were most resonant with fans during that time.
Picking twelve of the most popular songs from this period, and also drawing on the experience of her past live performances of the tracks, Malone went into the studio with guitarist Doug Kees and played simplified, stripped-down versions of the songs. Very little was subsequently altered for the release. What we find are not just differences resulting from simplification, but different choices being made in interpreting these tracks born from the intervening years of performances and life experiences. I spoke with Michelle Malone about her side-project Canyonland, which plays the music of Laurel Canyon, and about the journey into these unplugged tracks. She also hinted at a few future projects for us.
Americana Highways: I saw some posts about “Canyonland” shows that you’ve been doing. Is that a recurring event that you’re involved with?
Michelle Malone: We play about once a month somewhere around Georgia and it’s really fun. It was birthed in October of 2021 and I’d always wanted a band with a lot of harmonies. I was livestreaming so much in 2020 and 2021 that I was running out of content. I’d do a whole album or I’d do requests, or songs pulled from a hat. One day I decided to do a Laurel Canyon show and I loved it so much. The audience loved it and I was reinvigorated to try to find some more people to do it with me. Lo, and behold, there they were! It’s a great band. We do the 70s Laurel Canyon hits like Linda Ronstadt, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and all that stuff. It’s silly, because I feel like I’m doing my career backwards. I’ve never had a cover band before! And I missed out on all the fun.
AH: Yes, why leave that on the table? I’m sure the collaboration is a nice change, too.
MM: It’s also a nice change for it not to be all about me. It’s not about me, and my songs, and me, me, me, me, me! That kind of gets tired after 30-some years. It’s a nice break.
AH: Was the livestreaming and connecting with fans part of the inception of recording the Fan Favorites Unplugged?
MM: Absolutely. I put out a greatest hits album called 20/20. I enjoyed it but it was the actual recordings. Then, after streaming, and learning all the songs that people always requested, that was the catalyst, and the impetus for us to go into the studio and put those down the way that I’d been playing them. Doug Kees and I play almost exclusively together, either in the band, or in Canyonland, or in Hot Toddies, which is my Christmas band. We’re sympatico in that way, so we went into a studio and sat down in front of two guitar mics and a vocal mic, and cut these songs. I think it’s really interesting to hear the difference between the band recordings and these because they are so naked and live. It’s pretty real.
AH: Listening to them and comparing them to the original studio recordings really shows different things happening. For some of these songs, you’ve probably been playing these songs acoustic for a long time, because you play some acoustic and some electric shows. That’s a long lifespan for these songs to develop. Different choices come out.
MM: Yes, they morph and change, which is interesting for me. There are also some bonus tracks that I’ve put on that are not on the CD. We put them on the digital download stuff. I think they are pretty cool, especially “Matador,” since it changed so much. I really like the changes. They are organic and add to the experience. I love the way that Doug plays the guitar and brings to the table, whether acoustic or electric. For “Matador,” for some reason, I dropped the key a whole step, and it inspired this version. I just love it.
AH: I feel like one of the differences about these songs is mood. They aren’t a huge departure from the original versions, but there’s often a new area of mood that’s explored that feels surprising. To pull one out of the hat, “Avalon” feels very different unplugged, probably because it doesn’t have the same poppy pace. But for that reason, the attention goes to the vocals. There’s more of a feeling of longing and also an addressing of conflicts between hopes and realities.
MM: It’s a slight thing that a lot of people wouldn’t catch. I agree with you, especially since we know everything that was going on in 2020. The song is from 1999 and I still play it live, because it’s so relevant. No more than ever. That is not lost on me. The song “Strength for Two” also changes a lot because of how Doug plays it. I think what he played at the time was a lot more emotional, in a different way.
AH: One of these songs that feels very emotional is “Dimming Soul.” Just from an outside perspective, I might have been wary of picking that song for an unplugged version because of the challenges that it poses. There must have been a lot of weight on vocal interpretation for that one.
MM: That’s the understatement of the year! [Laughs] I don’t often play that song because it’s too taxing, not just physically, but emotionally. I love the song, but it’s hard to properly perform it in such a way that it comes across like it does on a record. I’d shied away from it for years. But it’s one of those songs that people request all the time, so I put it on the record. It is called Fan Favorites, right? I have some responsibility to them.
AH: Something about the original recording that you bring across in the unplugged version is how dynamic it is. For working within a certain set of limitations, a lot happens there. I can see how tiring that performance would be.
MM: I don’t always nail it live, honestly, because it is very difficult to capture it in an appropriate and emotional way. I try to just do it when I feel like I can do it right, and deliver. I like to deliver. I’ve also played it solo a lot but not as a duo before. When that record came out, Devil Moon, I toured solo, which was crazy. I should have been touring with a band, but it didn’t work out that way, so I learned all those songs solo. I learned how to get them across that way. But over time, people change, and I’ve changed tremendously since 1997. The music changes, as well, since you perform through a filter of your life.
AH: When you’re performing, are you aware of feeling like you have to go back to the original time the song was written to access it, or is it more about what the song means to you now?
MM: A lot of times when I’m singing older songs, I wonder what that kid was thinking or going through, that 20-year-old, or 25-year-old, or 30-year-old. A lot of times I can relate, but a lot of times I can’t, however I can still wrap my head around the song from where I am now. It’s different because I’m not who I used to be. I don’t think anyone is. The whole purpose of life is to grow, and change, and become.
I hope people appreciate that, though it is sometimes difficult for us to accept when our favorite musicians or bands change. I’m so stuck on Pretenders I and II, for example, and I was less interested in anything that happened after that. I think it’s because that’s what I liked when I discovered them. That’s home-base, so to speak.
AH: The other side of this is the live experience, which is sort of a win-win for everyone because the artist gets to interpret things differently and the audience gets to have a different experience than they’ve had before.
MM: That’s right! And the performer and the audience are exchanging energy in the process. Their energy changes whenever the performer’s does. It’s a beautiful, symbiotic thing. Music, in general, is healing and transforming, but live music is so important. To be that in that energy really can transform you in a really powerful way.
AH: I totally agree with you about that. When you were able to get back to playing after time off during the pandemic, did you notice anything different about what the audience was looking for?
MM: It’s interesting. I kept playing, in one way or another, throughout. People would hire me to do these “Four Packs,” where I’d play four songs, locally, in their yards. Then, I started back at a venue or two, that summer, and people were masked and distanced, but they were tender and tentative. I thought it was really important to play what they wanted to hear and ask them what that was. I wanted to play the songs that were most requested, too, because that seemed to be comforting to people.
AH: I was really blown away by the level of emotion being expressed during that time, both my the performers and the audience. The distance between them seemed even further broken down than it had been in the past. It was really sweet.
MM: There was a lot more awareness of these emotions and I think people were a lot more open-hearted because of these emotions that we’d all been through together. I think it’s carrying over, to a degree, for a lot of people. Though there’s still a lot of division which I don’t see as necessary. I think music rises above all the ways in which people can be divided and brings them together. If music is vibrating at a high enough frequency, it will do amazing things for people, if they let it.
AH: One of your bonus tracks is “Songbird” and I’m really glad you included that. How did you decide to play that version?
MM: I love Christine McVie, I always have. I was gutted when she passed. I had been playing “Songbird” in Canyonland and it was just sort of a natural thing for me to do. There’s a live Canyonland record that came out after that, but when we went to do the bonus tracks here, I decide not to put it on the Canyonland record. Instead, I decided to re-record it in a very intimate, emotional way. It’s not only an homage to Christine McVie, but what an amazing song! It’s so emotive and so loving. I’m glad I got the opportunity to put it on this record.
AH: There are still some things in that song that are unusual to hear in a song. It’s a very interestingly written song.
MM: I agree! I was recently listening to a big Fleetwood Mac recording, with demos, and studio recordings, of those songs. I heard a version of “Songbird” on that where I was still hearing things that I’d never heard before. I loved that. I recently found the two-inch tapes from my album Home Grown, actually. I had them baked and digitized and I think I’m going to go remix it, maybe do some bonus tracks. I may put that out next year, because it will be the 25th anniversary of the album, which is really freaking hard to believe.
Maybe I’ll be inspired by things that bands like Fleetwood Mac have done in terms of finding new ways to present albums and also put them out on vinyl. We’ll see! I’ve also been writing with Dean Dillon a lot, and we’re getting some amazing songs. I’m really excited to go and record my next record, and it might be this summer, though that’s loose right now.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Michelle Malone! Music lovers can find more information on her music and tour dates here: https://www.michellemalone.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Michelle Malone Fan Favorites, Vol 1 Unplugged