For his gorgeous new album Jesse Malin teamed up with southern heroine Lucinda Williams in his native New York.
For his gorgeous new album he teamed up with southern heroine Lucinda Williams in his native New York.
Wedged between a 99-cent pizza joint and a cash-only Italian restaurant in New York’s East Village is an unassuming blacked-out building, its facade strewn with graffiti. At first (and second) glance, you might think it’s abandoned. In reality, it’s the entrance to Flux Studios, and it’s here that at various points of the day and night Jesse Malin, Lucinda Williams and bass player Catherine Popper will turn up to work.
It’s a frigid March morning in 2018, and the project in hand is Malin’s eighth studio album, Sunset Kids. Williams, here as producer, is a good fit. While Malin’s breakthrough album The Fine Art Of Self Destruction (2002) was a Lou Reed-flavoured slice-of-life rock’n’roll melodrama from the heart of a native New Yorker, it still had a rich alt.country seam running through it.
Lucinda Williams suggests their obvious chemistry involves some cosmic interference. “Jesse and I have the same birthday, different year,” says the three-time Grammy winner in her slow Louisiana drawl. “We first met in Nashville at a Charlie Watts gig while I was living there in the late nineties. At the time there was a really strong scene around Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.”
Her 1998 Grammy-winning album was a significant influence on Malin going back to his punk glam years in D Generation. He would later record the track Lucinda as a tribute to her on his 2007 album Glitter In The Gutter.
“I first heard Lucinda after a recommendation by Joey Ramone and listened to her on Steve Earle’s album I Feel Alright,” says Malin, who at 51 still looks like a dead-ringer for a young Robert De Niro in Mean Streets.
“From there I started buying her records and went to see her play in New York. It was the voice, the lyrics and the storytelling in songs like Greenville, Lake Charles and Drunken Angel that got me. To this day Lucinda can’t be categorised because she’s not a traditional country or rock singer, she’s everything from blues and folk to rock’n’roll with this very street attitude.”
It would take another decade before the idea of working together was finally floated when the pair interviewed each other for Rolling Stone. For Malin the notion crystallised after watching Williams open for Tom Petty during his final concert performance at the Hollywood Bowl, just a week before his untimely death.
“That show was the best I ever saw Tom Petty play, he was bananas good,” says Malin. “I always liked the songs but this was so emotional. It was a Monday night and he let Lucinda play for an hour, like so many artists he loved and respected her. I met Lucinda and Tom [Overby, William’s husband, manager, and co-producer] around that same time and that’s when we spoke about her producing the new record. I said: ‘We’re friends, I’ll send you songs, if you don’t like them I have a thick skin, we’ll still be friends. But just don’t make any commitments until you’ve heard the music.’ After that, I didn’t hear anything for a while so I figured they didn’t like it.”
Williams was left “heartbroken” at the news of Petty’s death, he was a friend and had played a significant supportive role in her career. The project she became enthusiastic about in the aftermath was the invitation from Malin.
“He had demos which sounded great,” she says. “When Tom and I got involved we began playing stuff back basically listening and giving feedback on things like tempo and lyrics. I’ve never done this with anyone and it’s been a really positive, interesting experiment, because it takes me out of my own head and lets me listen with new ears. I Iove working with Jesse because he is so supportive. We have this connection and a bond. He is the consummate pro as a musician, this is not a day job; he eats, sleeps and breathes his art.”
We all filter into the compact Manhattan studio, and it’s soon apparent that Malin’s voice is stronger than ever. “He has said himself that a lot of times his voice was not recorded the right way and that it sounded too nasally or thin,” says Williams. “Tom suggested that we lower the key and the voice is now much warmer. Jesse is very open and that’s the beauty of working with him…That’s half of being an artist, getting feedback from others. Everything sounds wonderful when you are sitting at home, but you don’t know if it’s good until you play it for someone. I think this is going to be his best record.”
Malin has worked on over 25 songs for the collection, including a co-write with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. “I co-wrote and put out a song Depression Times for our side project Rodeo Queens, another song Strangers And Thieves is being considered for this record,” he says. “It has these great lyrics about the hardcore punk scene; this world of squats, DIY gigs and fanzines which we both love. I first met Billie when he took D Generation out on the road with Green Day playing places like Belfast and Glasgow Barrowlands, it’s been a long and very good friendship.”
Today’s work-in-progress is Dead On, a midpaced number fuelled by a rolling bassline and stacked with classic Keith Richards crunch. “I’m going to sing a little with Jesse on this track,” says Williams. “Jesse’s such a great rock songwriter, which I would love to know how to do more. I can write ballads all day and in my sleep but he has such a good ear for rock writing with such unique phrasing and melody in every song. He’s still very much the constant New Yorker.”
Another song, Shane, upon which Williams also appears, is a poignant tribute to Shane MacGowan, referencing Malin’s experience performing at The Pogues singer’s 60th birthday celebration in Dublin in 2017. “I was on stage beside Bobby Gillespie, Nick Cave, Bono and Johnny Depp holding this award that the Irish President gave to Shane. I was like: ‘Who am I, Forrest Gump?’ I tried to give the award to Bobby but he wouldn’t take it. I was really glad I got to do it and play That Woman Got Me Drinking, but was a little sad to see Shane in a wheelchair. Before I played he grabbed my hand and sang in my face which was great.”
Today, it’s the current president on Malin’s mind. “We knew Donald Trump when we were kids growing up in New York,” he says. “When D Generation opened for Kiss at Madison Square Garden he had more seats than our parents! We have been laughing at this guy for years with his buildings and TV shows, but watching him become President was very sobering, it shows that people will fall for anything. I’ve always loved artists who speak their mind, outsiders who have something to say like The Clash, Bruce Springsteen or John Lennon… Music shouldn’t just be about dancing and shaking your penis!”
In Sunset Kids, the woman described by Time magazine as “American’s best songwriter” and a musician responsible for some of the most memorable rock albums of the last two decades have combined their forces to create the sound of two artists refusing to be knocked down.
“We both write about real people in heartbreaking situations,” says Malin. “But at the same time we believe that there is light at the end of a pissed up and very dark tunnel.”
Sunset Kids is released on August 20 via Wicked Cool.
“I’ve always loved artists who speak their mind, outsiders who have something to say like The Clash,
Bruce Springsteen or John Lennon.”