So, way back on March 27th, I took my mom to see Melissa Ferrick play at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, and what really turned out to be the highlight of the evening wasn't seeing Melissa live for the first time in forever (even though that was stellar and both my mom and I really enjoyed it), it was seeing, and meeting, Mal Blum and her partner in crime, Simon Olsen, who were supporting Melissa that night.
Do you believe in serendipity? Because I do. The first time I saw Mal Blum was in the video for her song "Ode to Kulele" (which you can watch in a moment if you continue reading) on Logo's Click List, almost a year prior to the show. I was totally charmed then, and actually wrote her name down so that I could look for more of her music, but I ended up using the paper as a place marker in the book that I was reading at the time, which I put down the next day, and didn't pick up again until the day of the show (it was Natalie Goldberg's Thunder and Lightning, if you were wondering - I'm really behind on my reading). Anyway, I opened the book, the paper came fluttering out, and on it was the name of the artist who would be opening for Melissa Ferrick that night. See? Serendipity.
Mal and Simon put on such a fantastic show. Her songs are cleverly arranged, incredibly well written and so sincere that you want to make her tell you all of the stories behind them. My favorites of the evening (though it's difficult to choose) were the delightful "My Name is Earthworm," which in this case included a sampling of Beyoncé's "Diva," and their cover of the Bob Dylan sketched, Old Crow Medicine Show recorded "Wagon Wheel".
After the show, I picked up an EP, For Making Art (which is completely fantastic), and chatted to Mal, Simon, and their friend Julie for a bit (I even introduced them to my mom, who was very mom-like and gave them advice about taking care of themselves). I wanted to talk more about Mal's music and find out more about her, which I did, via email (the result of which is that I am even more enchanted, and I fully expect you to be, too). Read on for more about Mal's music, what's happening next (graduating from SUNY Purchase, for one!) what she is passionate about, and how she pretends not to be awkward at dance parties:
How did you get started playing music, and how would you describe your sound?
Piano lessons at age 10. They didn't go so well, my teacher told me that I had ADD. Not exactly untrue, but a bit discouraging at the time! I took up the trumpet in school soon after that. When I was 14 my dad had brought home a guitar. He hurt his back playing it, so I took it and that was that.
I never know how to describe my sound. This is what I came up with, tentatively:
"Heartfelt acoustic song writing that has a sense of humor and a folk sensibility but gets mad at you when you try to brand it "singer/songwriter" music or make it play in a coffee shop. Music your kid brother would maybe make if he could talk about his feelings."
What have you been listening to lately?
Most recently, the new Dark Dark Dark EP (Bright Bright Bright)! I heart heart heart Dark Dark Dark. I finally got the last Mountain Goats album (The Life of the World to Come) last week too, so that's on right now while I'm typing this.
Also, for some reason, driving late at night it always without fail turns into us (Simon & I) listening to either Ani Difranco or Melissa Ferrick's entire discography. Or sometimes Regina Spektor. It depends on our moods.
What do you like to do for fun (outside of music)?
I like to cook! I like going to class (no more of this after next week), reading, exploring, cuddling, sometimes I go to dance parties and pretend not to be awkward. That's always a fun game.
Tell us about something that you feel really passionate about.
Gender, in every sense of the word (the study of gender, presentation/manifestation of gender, feminist interpretation of gender, etc. etc.). Also, youth empowerment, travel, queer activism... I used to be really passionate about constitutional law for some reason, but not as much anymore.
I read in an interview on The Queerist that you volunteered at Willie Mae Rock n Roll Camp for Girls last summer. What was that experience like for you?
Willie Mae Rock Camp (WMRC) is amazing! It's such a unique community of volunteers and campers. Everybody is supportive of each other so it's a really rewarding volunteer experience to be involved in. Also, I have to say, words can't really describe how heartwarming it is to see your band of 11 year olds play in front of hundreds of people and go "Thank you Bowery Ballroom, goodnight!" I think I'm applying to volunteer again this summer.
What has been your most memorable experience with music so far, either as a fan or an artist?
Ah, that's a tough one. As a fan, there have been a couple. Big shows I went to when I was younger. I snuck out of my friend's house to go to Siren Fest (at Coney Island) when I was fifteen and that was sort of magical. The year Har Mar superstar, Blonde Redhead, Northern State and Fiery Furnaces played. I remember basically everything. Also, that was the year I saw Ani Difranco play live for the first time. Actually, come to think of it, I played my own first show that year! Fifteen was a big year for me, it seems.
What was it like touring with Melissa Ferrick? She's such a legend.
Everything I hoped for and more! Melissa has been super supportive of us since day one of opening for her so that has been amazing. Every time we tour with her I feel like I learn more, and she's been fantastic about exposing us to her fan base and these venues she has a great relationship with- it's really such a privilege to be involved in that.
Plus, I have to say, Melissa Ferrick is really fun to hang out with. She definitely looks out for us a little bit but you can joke around with her too. It's a good mix. Like, right before our set in Tampa she was giving us licensing advice and stretching out my guitar strings for me but also totally laughing at me for writing and rewriting our set list a million times. I think it's basically incredible that she supports independent artists the way that she does....kind of like The Ruckus!
Do you have any good tour stories?
Oh my gosh, yes. So many. One in particular. We (Julie, Simon and I) were driving 16 hours back from Nashville and the radio started issuing tornado warnings. So, we're freaking out and pulling over every 5 minutes and everybody in Tennessee is acting like we're crazy because we're running around going "Excuse me, have you heard the tornado warnings?? We're not from around here, what is the emergency tornado evacuation protocol??" Eventually we hide in the back of this grocery store because we figure a grocery store is a good place to be in a disaster. And we take this video. Watching it back now we did look completely insane...the "tornado" was actually 200 miles away.
Watch our faces, the fear is REAL!
What is your favorite song to play live, and why?
"My Name is Earthworm," I like the different sections and the raps we sometimes throw into the bridge. Or "Baltimore" with the full band, because it gets the audience involved and it's fun to sing...and I get to play piano at the end sometimes. [Check out a video of Mal and Simon performing "My Name is Earthworm at Skippers here!]
Which two songs are you most proud of as a songwriter? Can you take us through what they're about and what the songwriting process was like for you?
Wow, good question! I'm kind of proud of this song "San Cristobal" that's going to be the first song on the new album. When I wrote it I had been listening to the acoustic section of the Kill Rock Stars catalog and I think that made for a much stronger narrative than those of the songs I had been writing before. It's about somebody traveling far away and that weird transitional time of coming back home after having been away. I wrote it before I studied abroad for the summer but it ended up being applicable after I got home too.
Another song I'm proud of is this brand new song that isn't even going to be on the new album because it's too new. It's called "The Difference," I wrote it on piano and Simon just added a banjo part. It's about pursuing something that you're not even sure that you want because of your ego. Like, examining the point where there's a difference between your interest and your pride, or if there is even one at all.
As far as the process- with guitar, it's more likely that I'll sit down and start messing around and a song will kind of just come about eventually. With piano, it's definitely more of a conscious effort and I'm more aware of chord progressions, melody, etc. Often I think of songs while driving in my car and then put them to music later.
How do you feel that your music has evolved over time?
Well, I think it started out like most music starts out in that it took itself way too seriously and imitated other music. Then it settled into itself a bit and developed its own sound but hid behind its humor for awhile. Nowadays I think it's struck a good balance between funny and serious, and knowing what it sounds like but trying on new "hats" or "characters." My music is definitely maturing but I think it will always contain some elements of genuine...for lack of a better word: goofiness. Kind of like me. Right now I see it as essentially graduating college and getting ready to use the things it learned to figure out how it wants to approach the next thing coming. Also kind of like me!
So what's next for you?
I have a new album coming out in June. The art is almost done and it's getting mastered next week! Hopefully it will be done for our show at The Sidewalk Cafe in NYC on June 18th, but we're aiming for a June 1st digital release. I'm self-releasing it for now. We're shooting a new music video for a track called "Baltimore" soon, so that will be out this summer. Looking around for different management options because I'm incredibly unmanaged in every sense of the word. Right, also, I really am graduating college in just over a week, that wasn't a metaphor! Whoa!
Thanks for talking to The Ruckus!
Thank you!!! And thank you SO much for the support! I <3 The Ruckus!
Photos by Denise Tanton (mid-interview), and Emily Bunin (header)