Born in Atlanta, GA; daughter of a gospel singer. Education: Attended Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Addresses: Record company--Strange Bird Songs (SBS), Decatur, GA.
Over the course of seven critically acclaimed albums, veteran singer, songwriter, and guitarist Michelle Malone has proven her command of folk, blues, rock, and country. An exponent of aggressive, 1960s-based rock, whose vocal models include Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, the Atlanta native amassed her ardent following on the club circuit and has toured with the Indigo Girls, Dave Matthews Band, and the Patti Smith group, among others. Previously signed off and on to major labels, including Arista and Velvel, Malone, unwilling to compromise her soul as a songwriter and performer regardless of mainstream trends, is once again an independent artist who records on her own Decatur, Georgia-based Strange Bird Songs (SBS) label. Ultimately, Malone, who released her self-made album Home Grown in November of 1999, views her status as a truly independent musician as one of the most satisfying phases of her career. "I find it very gratifying to put out my own records, because the fulfillment for me comes from the heart of the music, not the paycheck," she explained, as quoted by Larry Flick of Billboard magazine. "On Home Grown, I wanted to focus on my soul, not my career."
Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Michelle Malone began singing in church at the age of four and spent her summers on tour with her mother, a pop singer turned gospel vocalist. "As far as music goes, my mother was a big influence," said Malone, as quoted on her official website. "But the rest of the childhood thing I had to create for myself. I pretty much had to find my own way, and my own roots." In addition to gospel, Malone developed a love for blues, jazz, and rock, among other styles. As a young girl, her favorite singers included Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, and later on, Patti Smith, Tina Turner, and Neil Young.
From singing, Malone progressed to playing a variety of instruments. A self-taught musician, Malone, by the age of ten, had learned to play both saxophone and guitar without the help of formal training. Although she specializes in electric and acoustic guitar on record, Malone also plays mandolin, dulcimer, harmonica, saxophone, piano, and drums. As a teen, Malone began devoting time to her own songwriting, developing a folk-rock style that inevitably included regional elements. "The South has a lot of soul. I think Southerners are very in touch with their roots," she commented. "Musically the blues are from the South. I don't sit around playing Robert Johnson blues songs, but there is an element of that in my singing. Maybe that's just from hearing Southern voices my whole life."
While attending Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Malone befriended the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who encouraged her to pursue a career in music. Malone soon quit school and honed her skills in local clubs. Her first official release was New Experience in 1987, an eight-song cassette issued on her own Aluminum Jane Records. In 1988, Aluminum reissued New Experience as a full-length album, adding four new tracks and deleting one from the original tape. After forming a backing band called Drag the River and signing a recording contract with Arista Records, Malone returned in 1990 with her second album. Relentless contained new versions of three songs from her debut, plus nine new songs. In 1991, Arista issued a promotional CD and video entitled Building Fires Over Atlanta, featuring five live tracks from a concert Malone performed at the Cotton Club in Atlanta.
Falling out with Arista, Malone dissolved Drag the River and returned to independent solo work, releasing a set of 13 all-new songs, For You Not Them, in 1992. Originally issued on Sister Ruby Records, the album was later reissued on Malone's SBS label. The following year, Malone signed with Daemon Records, which reissued New Experience, augmented with five live studio tracks, on CD. Playboy magazine listed the set as one of the top five releases of 1993. Also in November of that year, Malone released a jazz-inspired seasonal album entitled A Swingin' Christmas in the Attic, recorded live at the Eddies Attic club in Decatur, Georgia.
Malone assimilated another group, Band de Soleil, to record the acclaimed Redemption Dream, which includes the songs "Black River" and "Shadow on the Wall." Released in 1994, the effort scored rave reviews. Guitar Shop called Malone "one of the most distinctive new artists to emerge in the '90s.... The material is raw, soulful, and blue-rooted with strong songs and arrangements." The following year, Malone struck out on her own again with the release of Strange Bird, an authorized bootleg tape with songs recorded live at Eddies Attic and tracks from other live venues and studio sessions. In 1997, Strange Bird Volume 2, another bootleg, was released.
In 1996, Malone signed with a new label, Velvel Records, and released her next album, Beneath the Devil Moon, in 1997. She produced four tracks herself, including "My Green Thumb," "Grace," "The Edge," and "All My Lifetime," and co-produced seven with David Ryan Harris. "I've known Michelle about 12 years, and she's always been inspiring me," Ryan said about working with Malone, as quoted on the artist's website. "There's a lot of maturity on this record. Some people can perform and not give anything of themselves. Every now and then you see someone like Michelle, who gives so much it blows you away."
In 1998, while in the midst of promoting her new album, performing with the Lilith Fair tour, and training for a marathon, Malone suddenly fell ill due to life-threatening complications from a previous surgery and ended up in the hospital. In addition to almost losing her life, Malone, like many musicians, did not have health insurance, and the bills forced her to file for bankruptcy. But in the wake of the hardships, this "second chance at life" gave Malone a new focus--one more concerned with family and friends and less concerned about ego and career. "I think going through all the surgeries put things in perspective for me," she explained to Shannon Frye of Flagpole magazine. "The benefits, the cards, the financial help--they just made my heart grow so big."
During her recovery, Malone decided to pursue music on her own terms. Recorded over a period of two weeks and featuring local musicians Michael Lorant and Sheila Doyle, as well as a guest appearance by friend Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, Malone's own Homegrown was released on November 23, 1999, to critical praise. "One only needs to delve several cuts into Homegrown before concluding that this set is infinitely better than much of the female-driven rock currently embraced by the masses," wrote Billboard's Michael Paoletta. Standouts on the album include the easy-paced "Strength for Two" and the infectious, rock-edged "Avalon."
When not writing or performing her music, Malone enjoys athletic activities, especially running. "I like running. I like running races," said Malone on her website, who in 1997 competed in the Paris Marathon to raise money for the Leukemia Society. "It's a real challenge. It's very different from what I'm used to doing." Just before the release of Homegrown, Malone had recently returned from an eight-week cross-country bicycle tour organized by Earth Challenge, a nonprofit environmental organization. An organizer for and active participant in a number of other charitable endeavors, the musician says, "I want to do the right thing for the people who inspire me."
by Laura Hightower
Michelle Malone's Career
Began singing in church choirs at age four and taught herself to play guitar and saxophone by age ten; spent summers as a child on tour with her mother; released first full-length album, New Experience, 1988; signed with Arista Records, released Relentless, 1990; left Arista and released For You Not Them, 1992; signed with Daemon Records, 1993; released Redemption Dream, 1994; signed with Velvel Records, 1996; released Beneath the Devil Moon, 1997; recovered from life-threatening complications from a past surgery, released Homegrown on her own Strange Bird Songs label, 1999.
- Selected discography
- New Experience , Aluminum Jane, 1988; reissued, Daemon, 1993.
- Relentless , Arista, 1990.
- Building Fires Over Atlanta , Arista, 1991.
- For You Not Them , Sister Ruby, 1992.
- A Swingin' Christmas in the Attic , 1993; reissued, SBS, 1996.
- Redemption Dream , Daemon, 1994.
- Strange Bird (bootleg tape), SBS, 1995.
- Strange Bird Volume 2 (bootleg tape), SBS, 1997.
- Beneath the Devil Moon , Velvel, 1997.
- Lucky to Be Live (five-song EP), Velvel, 1999.
- Homegrown , SBS, 1999.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 23, 1997; August 26, 1999.
- Atlanta Sideshow, September 1999.
- Billboard, August 9, 1997; February 21, 1998; November 6, 1999; January 8, 2000.
- Guitar Shop, April 1995.
- Just Out, May 1999.
- Philadelphia Gay News, July 1, 1997.
- Playboy, February 1994.
- Washington Post, December 11, 1998.
- Flagpole Magazine Online, http://www.flagpole.com (September 24, 2000).
- Michelle Malone Official Website, http://www.michellemalone.com (September 24, 2000).