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.
Why did you call it Amber Waves?
It's from the first line of "America, the Beautiful," which was originally a poem by Katharine Lee Bates and adapted to the music of a Samuel Ward. The song is basically a prayer, a humble one. It's also about as patriotic as you can get.
Whether it's Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, Woody Guthrie's songs, Dorothea Lang's photos, or John Steinbeck's vision, such art still seems as challenging, and as radical and relevant as when they were first heard. I finally read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and I read Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time. Both books are sad, wonderful, and truthful works. And [wife] Muriah gave me a pictorial essay chronicling the lives of those living in the Dust Bowl era. That period in our nation's history wasn't that long ago. The spirit of the folks who lived at the edge of destitution and heartache and loss are the stuff of great stories. Their heroism and largeness of vision permeates every act, on every page.
Your liner notes say the new album is about many things, including "the last word Love may get in the face of death and grieving." May get? Are you not certain? You later write that it's about "betting the farm on a Love that is beyond imagining." Again, it sounds like you're not sure, that it's only a gamble—and yet Scripture speaks of the assurance of salvation. And then there are the lyrics to your new song "Into God Knows What." These seem like the musings of a man who might not know his eternal fate.
Again, I'm not a theologian. I don't have an agenda when I step up to a microphone or even when I write a song. My use of the word "may" and the phrase "betting the farm" are simply devices employed to tweak the readers' interest. I do think the Good News ought to be Good News for all—and yes, that means even those who seem to be turning their backs on Him. I'm not sure why God would give up on anyone eternally—and that maybe the line of demarcation for some of your readers. But, some of the church's greatest minds as diverse as Karl Barth and Julian of Norwich said it that way. They spoke of salvific things in the sense of God "getting the last word." They thought such a word to be a whole and integrating one.
I just happen to think that Jesus on the Cross has very wide arms. But our lives are a struggle lived with the incongruity of God both present and seemingly absent. Hopefully, we can acknowledge that aspect of Christianity. It should be a walk, a journey. Sometimes it's a groping in the dark. It's not living in a shiny-happy state of denial. I learned most of this by reading Frederick Buechner. At the end of the day, my hope is in a risen Christ. I think he is very alive and well. We talk a lot.
You've written that life on the road "can be stressful, strange, sad, and maybe the quickest way I know to go broke." Can you give me an example of each?
Really too many to name. Stressful, strange, and sad are rolled up into the ennui of the thing. My history has been about risk, and I try to leave that aspect in the songs. Nothing is neat or tidy in this life. The critics, mostly secular, were effusive about the songs, the albums and the performances, but we [Vigilantes of Love] could never seem to break beyond a cult status. From 1993-2003 I averaged 180 shows a year. You begin to see just how very, very vulnerable you are.VOL was a revolving door of great musicians. But when you're only able to pay your friends subsistence coin, it makes it almost impossible to keep folks on board for more than a couple albums at a time. We'd make a record, get great press, tour hard, and then come back to Athens, Georgia, licking our wounds every year wondering what happened. Add to that the string of fickle labels with non-existent distribution and inept managers, and you've got a recipe for demoralization.
After the first 10 years, I felt alone and betrayed. I had 999 acquaintances, but no real friends.
I just tried to put it all back in the songs. That was pretty much what Roof of the Sky (1998) and Audible Sigh (1999) were all about. I was having a hard time living with the incongruities of work that seemed to be embraced by the critics, but was commercially less-than-what-the-label-wanted. But this was never about the cover of Rolling Stone. It was about a search for some truth, and a language and way of singing about it. There are no guarantees. But, I still feel it's what I'm supposed to be about. I tell folks all the time, "I won't be your next big thing or flavor of the month. But I can sure as hell be your 'tried & true.'"
You've used the word "poverty" to describe your situation. How are your finances these days?
One could wish for a bit of stability, but you know almost no one I know has stability anymore. And if you're an artist there are no guarantees. Who needs art, right? Muriah and I book the shows ourselves, so we're always "on the clock." It is a grind. But I sweat bullets very well.
Sadly, I've had to sell almost all my guitars and most of my gear to pay rent.
You've mentioned how "the road affords one to the lives of folks," and how that has inspired some of the songs. Tell me a specific story or two.
I have many songs about folks who battle addictions, Dust Bowlers, farmers, miners, blue-collar workers, suicide victims, post-traumatic-stress vets, your basic salt-of-the-earth types. I've met them all, face-to-face. They've shared their life stories with me, whether it was battling drug dependency, black lung disease, losing a farm or job, going through a divorce, wrestling with crippling depression, having a PTS episode, or losing a loved one to terminal illness.
I don't just gravitate to the darker/bleaker subjects, but we do hear a lot of these stories after shows. One listens to them with a reverence. Plato said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." The songs that emerge from their courage are a collage of their voices united. Usually, I think I'm more of a private writer who likes making Americana rock records. But, there's this other, more introspective side that must be included or it's not authentic. The "story songs" are harder to write, but man, when they come together, they feel so hallowed and cathartic. The good folks we play for react to that. You've given them words for some of their deepest feelings.
You often speak of grace in your life. What's that look like for you?
I'm not a theologian. Been there, and too much of it, in my experience, seemed to involve hair-splitting obfuscations. The classic theological definition of grace is something along the lines of grace being the unmerited favor of God, and I would include God's love and mercy as part of such unmerited favor. I believe we have the ability to incarnate something of that love and mercy to each other. So, I consider folks who share the stories of their struggles with me to be a grace; I'm humbled by their courage and faith and resiliency. It's like being given a gift, one they are living out each day. It makes me feel stronger.
What's next for you?
More songs, more tours. I hate booking, but it's gotta be done. You're never off the clock. I love the way Amber Waves came out, and it all still feels fresh and alive. Also, I gotta press on. Lord willing, maybe I could make album No. 100 by the time I'm 77.
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