Versatile Michelle Malone just as comfortable touring with ZZ Top as with Indigo Girls


By Steve Newton

I wasn’t expecting to uncover any local angles as I scanned the liner notes to Georgia singer-songwriter Michelle Malone’s latest CD, Beneath the Devil Moon, so I was surprised to find that it was mixed here at Armoury Studios on Pine Street. The passionate tunesmith’s Vancouver connection actually goes a little further, as she was also part of the Lilith Fair tour that was founded by local Juno Awards cleaner-upper Sarah McLachlan.

Contacted at her home in Atlanta, Malone doesn’t recall how her stint on the much-lauded Lilith tour came about (“I guess it’s an agent thing or a management thing, however any of that stuff works”), but she does know that it was the “camaraderie” of the event that most impressed her. And she really enjoyed getting close to the legendary Emmylou Harris.

“She was like the matriarchal figure on the bill,” says Malone, “and her show completely blew everyone else off the stage. Every time she got onstage we were standing in the wings, watchin’, and we all loved it. It was amazing.”

Malone sounds pretty amazing herself on Devil Moon, which sees the 30-year-old artist skilfully delivering songs ranging from punchy roots-rock to Latin jazz, from folksy pop to gospel. She’s been making records for 10 years and singing for as long as she can remember. As a child, she spent summers on the road with her mom, a professional vocalist, and those early experiences were crucial in paving the way for her current vocation.

And just being from the South helped, too.

“I think that the South is really the heart of the country as far as energy goes,” she says, “so that’s why there’s so much good heartfelt, soulful, and emotional music comin’ out of this area. That’s my theory on it, anyway.”

As well as singing up a storm, Malone—who opens for Chris Whitley at the Starfish Room on Sunday (March 29)—also picks a pretty mean guitar. “She has a gift for riff, melody, and lyrics,” declares Guitar Shop magazine, which touts her as “one of the most distinctive new artists to emerge in the ’90s”.

Malone handles acoustic, electric, and slide guitar on Devil Moon, and though she cites Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Keith Richards as influential on the six-string front, her playing style never mirrors theirs. “I have a lot of influences, guitar-wise and vocally,” she says, “but I’m more influenced by people just emotionally than wanting to emulate them.”

One guitar great conspicuously absent from Malone’s list of heavyweights is Billy Gibbons, who might have rated a mention, since she and her previous band, Drag the River, once replaced the Black Crowes on a ZZ Top summer tour—after Chris Robinson and company were dumped for dissing ZZ’s corporate sponsor from the stage. The macho bluster of “Tush” is certainly a far cry from the ethereal emanations of Lilith Fair.

“I’ve always been kind of a versatile player,” states the self-confident Malone, “and I’ve been able to let that talent shine through different avenues, whether it’s tourin’ with ZZ Top or someone like the Indigo Girls. So when you’ve been doing it for a while, you get a lotta different opportunities. I’ve even opened for Ellen DeGeneres for several weeks.”

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