It is fitting that Bill Mallonee's 50th album would be released on the same day that one of the worst storms in U.S. history was pummeling its coastline. From sea to shining, churning sea, Mallonee's travels across America for the last few decades have been those of a man seeking to calm the storm of his own thoughts about faith, life, and the human condition.
So it's fitting that he would call the new album Amber Waves, a nod not just to America the beautiful, but also to an America that is divided, contentious, worried about the next four years and beyond.
"We feel a certain powerlessness," says Mallonee, the former frontman for Vigilantes of Love. "We fight to keep cynicism at bay. The times are uncertain, volatile.Trust in our systems and in our leaders (both religious or political) has all but vanished. We are polarized at every turn. Our hearts feel weary, confused, hardening. Every aspect of what we call the American experience, including the experiment called 'democracy,' seems up for grabs. That's some of the levels Amber Waves works on."
Even the liner notes include an unintentional nod to the storm that now hammers the Atlantic shores: "Our hopes imaginations drift upon a tempest-sea where the battle to become truly human is played out. And on many (most?) days, our courage to hope and imagine are often felt to be drowning."
We talked to Mallonee, 57, about the new album, his long career, and what he calls living in with "the incongruities of faith and life."
So, fifty albums! Does it feel like it?
I actually haven't thought about it much. Too much fun making the album, and I had the wildly talented Jake Bradley and Kevin Heuer (both ex-Vigilantes of Love) back in the studio on this one—our first time back together in eight years. It felt like we just stepped out of the van, lots of good energy.
Sure, I guess 50 albums is a lot. The first one, Jugular, droppped in 1991. There have been lots of stylistic approaches, but the same love of Americana/heartland rock & roll. Writing, recording, and touring is just what I do. One thing led to another and lo and behold, here's album No. 50. The whole creative process and passion that goes into songwriting and singing still feels fresh and new. The songs keep coming, so they get written and albums get made. I've always felt I've grown from album to album. New things to say new ways to say it.
But that's an average of more than two albums per year. How do you account for such prolific output?
Three things, I think. The first is that ever since I was a kid, I think I was in touch with a certain wounded-ness within me. After you walk around feeling weird for years you start to develop a nomenclature to describe it. For me, it came out in lyrics, in songs.
The other two would be the road and poverty. Both have been teachers; they're very demanding instructors. I've learned more from the times of deprivation and by being a troubadour than from any other source. I've been on the road almost continually for 22 years, mostly just trying to make ends meet.
I've never written with a particular audience in mind, Christian or otherwise. I wrote to make sense of what seemed like a very fragile world—the one within mostly, and sometimes the one without. Sure, I had my influences like Neil Young, Dylan, and Springsteen, but after that it was more about just trying to be authentic. I turned off the radio in '95, and just sorta gave myself to finding my own voice. A good artist starts to name his or her vision, to do it your way and make not apologies. There's something liberating with just getting comfortable in your own skin.