Bill Mallonee is a singer songwriter who has been making music for over two decades. Between his time as frontman for Vigilantes of Love and his solo career, he has almost 60 albums chock full of heart-on-his-sleeve passion and soulful Americana. He and I had a great conversation about his upcoming album Winnowing and the intersection between faith and art; much of it was off the record, but here are a few of his words to shed light on the album and his approach to songwriting.
IVM: So your one big studio album this year is Winnowing, which you’re currently in the middle of producing, right? How do you feel it’s turning out, and how does it fit with the rest of your discography?
Bill: Well, it’s an Americana rock album. Very elegant. Big guitars, spacious, very confessional. Very lyric driven. In many ways it’s the most “confessional” album I’ve ever written. It came from some different places. It’ll likely wind up being a double album. One of the songs is called “Dover Beach.” The song’s title is gleaned from the Matthew Arnold poem of the same name, written around 1849. The poem is very somber, elegant and sad. Sad because the poet, with his lover, speak of a world in deep flux, one in which all the anchors and fixed, stationary points of faith, thought and belief are vanishing or already gone.
I read the poem in college. I was amazed by its almost prophetic tenor. It was written at least 75 years before anything Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus published, yet it’s articulation of despair at modern man being unable to find solid ground for constructing philosophic reality is far ahead of its time. This stuff still impacts all aspects of honest art today. Similar themes on a far more personal level predominate on this album, Winnowing. In some ways is a culmination of the 57 albums I’ve made over these past 22 years. Maybe it’s indicative that I’m wrestling with the fact that much of life has passed and now there’s less life in front of me. Inventory of the soul, so to speak. At the end of the day it’s still always about the song. Lyrically, I do think it’s likely the most personal record I’ve ever made about the inner terrain of my faith. It feels like a good set of lyrics and melodies. Like I’ve said elsewhere: I try not to over-think the spirit of what I’m trying to say. Keep it visceral. Don’t lose the edge.
Musically, it continues to explore the beauty of rock guitar. I’ve learned quite a lot over the last 10 years since “going solo” about the guitar’s ability to make big harmonic & melodic statements. It’s all here on Winnowing. I think the album has a rough-hewed grit to it & at the same time a kind of fragile elegance. I’m just incredibly excited about all it’s turning out….
During the weeks of our interview Bill changed the working title from Dover Beach to Winnowing. Here’s his reason:
Bill: It seemed to me as I worked on these songs & as they were recorded that a title that emphasized the deeply personal struggles & themes in the songs would be a better idea. The big issues that dominated Matthew Arnold’s heart in “Dover Beach” were part of his uniquely personal struggle. His poem, as I mentioned above, was a poem of big themes. My own searching, musically and lyrically, for a way to explore similar themes needed something more personal. The title change reflects my way of “owning” that process, as opposed to just standing outside and commenting on someone else’s poetic view.
“Winnowing” is of course the process of separating the good grains from the chaff. There has been something of that kind of process in my life. I’ve tried to hold the truths I was taught “up to the light,” and figure out which ones seemed on the mark and which ones seemed deficit.
Winnowing was the process of coming grips with the big themes in my life…”
IVM: Well, it sounds incredible. I can’t wait to hear it. How was the album funded?
Bill: Winnowing was funded completely by the fans. We’ve funded the last 3 studio albums by directly appealing to fans to simply pre-order the album. We have this small but passionate group of fans because of our relentless touring over some 20 years at a below-the-radar-level. It comes down (I think) to staying in touch with the real world and the real people who live in it. What I do is a very fan-driven thing…They tend to be very articulate & discriminating about what they listen to. So, I do my very best to make whatever album I’m working on better than the last one. In my opinion, they deserve the best I can give. It is very humbling to have such a dedicated, core group of fans.
IVM: Well, thanks for talking with me Bill, I know you’re a busy man. I’ve only just discovered you and your music in the last two years, and it’s been a whirlwind of joy listening to your albums from the Vigilantes of Love to your later solo releases. It’s quite a discography to go through, over fifty albums by now. How do you keep writing new material? Have you seen any significant changes in how you go about writing over the years, or has the process been more or less consistent?
Bill: I’m in the middle of writing, recording and mixing Winnowing. I think it’s like album #58. Without trying to sound obtuse or evasive, I guess I’d have to say that I write because that’s what I do. It’s been pretty consistent for 22 years now. The songs keep coming. New ideas, new themes, new ways of approaching the guitar and the interplay of instruments. That’s one side of the equation and a fun side it is.
What to say? The landscape of the heart is always immense. We’re given this big life full of mystery, grace and sorrow…Maybe later we get a sense that it is very hallowed and very much a gift. And I get the chance to give it some nomenclature. I do that for one person though. I do it for me. That’s what I’ve done though 50 some albums now. Genre-wise? I suppose I’m an Americana artist. Rock, Folk-Rock, Folk, Psychedelic, Chamber-Pop. I kinda let the muse tell the song where to go, you know
IVM: Not obtuse at all; that’s the ever mysterious driving force behind great artists, it’s part of who you are. You say that “the landscape of the heart is always immense.” Who do you try to write your songs for? Does your music speak only for yourself, or rather, do you write songs from your own perspective, or do you try to write stories about slices of life that could be universal, taking up a mantle of responsibility to share with others whatever knowledge you’ve gleaned over your years?
Bill: I have always written to “save myself.” Written to make sense of an incongruous world and universe and an erratic belief that it’s all “going somewhere.” Somewhere bigger and better than the present darkness would otherwise dictate if we just trusted “sensory data.” The whole idea that a musician or an artist “knows more” than others or somehow has some special window into truth is a bit of a joke, to me. But, we are all living in the same skin. And I do think some folks are a bit more sensitive to what’s living beneath their own skin. That “skin” is very similar to everyone’s. Musically & lyrically, I get to explore the nomenclature that is the life beneath my life. So, if I do my work aright, it’ll resonate with a few folks. That’s my gamble, my risk, you know? So, all that to say: When I’m writing, I write you myself & I try and not “over-think” it.
As far as the writing process goes? I edit very little. Honest. There’s a great deal of spontaneity in what I do. There’s always that “something” that may happen only once and therefore ought to be preserved when the “record” button is hit.
I have never written with any type of audience in mind. Nor, I have never written with a particular group of people to “impress,” be they critics, hipster press elites or industry shakers & movers. When I was writing & performing in Vigilantes of Love, by the end of the 90’s we had 15 albums almost 10 years of hard touring under our belts. By then, I was over that need to impress. One just “does what they do” and hopes for the best.
That doesn’t make me “better” than say, someone who just wants to entertain. But, I do believe there a difference between entertainment and something more personal like Art. Most of the industry folks I’ve met had “tin ears.” (That’s my opinion after 20 years of dealing with them. I learned early on I didn’t need their “permission” to be a songwriter. So, as I kept at it, it got easier to ignore their whims & tastes & judgements.
And as far as where it all connects with others?
That’s the real secret: Like I said, I suspect, we are all living in the same fragile, fallen skin, so to speak.
And so, I think that makes all of us very, very close in spirit. Same fears, heartbreaks, joys and hopes. That’s the common ground I walk out on every time I write or perform. I try to not over-spiritualize anything. That can so often alienate. I a song I want to find the point of connection where we’re all human, the holy & hallowed; the sacred & profane.
At the end of the day one just does what one does. If folks connect with it or it resonates with them, then I feel I’ve said what needed to be said.
And, if one is able to scratch out a living at it, so much the better.
You can buy Bill Mallonee’s new album Winnowing at his Bandcamp page.