Jesse Malin's tribute to Lucinda Williams, the eponymous "Lucinda" off his 2007 album Glitter in the Gutter, remains a high point of any Malin gig, whether he's working a stage in Nashville or in the East Village.
"This song was written about a singer from Louisiana," he often says to introduce the song, "who they call a country singer, but she's a rock & roll singer to me."
On the surface, the drawling Louisianan steeped in American roots music and the scrappy, fast-talking New Yorker with the punk-rock past may not have much in common, but a shared love of miscreants, misfits, the misunderstood and the mysteries of everyday lives binds them across the Mason-Dixon line.
Malin became a major Williams fan after hearing her vocals on a Steve Earle album and on the recommendation of the late Joey Ramone. Williams discovered Malin while he was touring with Ryan Adams and they met in the early 2000s at the Blue Note during a Charlie Watts concert.
The two, who share influences like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, have gone on to play at several benefit shows together, including Petty Fest in San Francisco, and recently broke bread after Malin performed an acoustic set at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. Says Williams with a laugh, "I got so inspired, I got my notebook out of my purse, and started writing some stuff at my favorite desk – at the bar."
Williams was so enamored of Malin's newly-released, Joseph Arthur-produced EP – the lean and muscular Meet Me at the End of the World, which moves from the slouchy, Stones-y rhythms and street-poet patter of the title track to the politically-tinged "Fox News Funk" – that she hopped on the phone with the D Generation frontman and Rolling Stone Country for a wide-ranging chat about their approach to songwriting, politics, Canadian electro dynamo Peaches, and a possible future collaboration.
Where do you think your common ground lies?
Lucinda Williams: I'm always impressed, as we get to know each other more and more, how much we do have in common, even more so today when I was listening to the new songs on the EP. There was just some great writing there.
Jesse Malin: It's in the atmosphere. When I first went to see Lu play, she said, "All these songs are about real people." Just the little bit that she said in the intro, I could tell that these songs were the truth and they were about people that had lived hard and that had lived outside of society trying to get by. I think Lucinda's always able to see the humanity in people and sometimes even the darker side and find the beauty in it.
Williams: And that's what you do. That's why I see you growing as a songwriter and I'm still growing. Everyone should continue to grow no matter how old you are. That's what keeps me going.
You're both so detailed in your songwriting and with your word choice. Do you do a lot of editing and refining of ideas or do they just come out fully formed?
Malin: Some songs you're lucky, they just pour out. Other times, you know, I carry notebooks, I still write with a pen, I've been doing some putting notes into somewhere on my phone. I learned how to do it. But I still like the physical act of writing.
Williams: Me too.
Malin: I collect things that I hear people say. And I collect things that I might hear on TV. I used to put them down on bar napkins and stuff, or my hand, and I still do that.
Williams: I do too!
Malin: I carry all these words around in a notebook and I build up a lot of stuff. And then, when I have a song idea, I start working on that song in a composition notebook. You gotta give yourself those long hours where there's no phones.
Williams: That's exactly what I do. I just keep all of this stuff in a folder, like all the cocktail napkins and all of that. And then, when I get in that zone, like you're talking about, I might spend like ten days straight barely even getting dressed. Just getting up, from the first thing and starting the writing, until like 10 o'clock at night. And then [husband and manager Tom Overby] kind of gently knocks on the door and goes, "Honey, are you getting hungry?" [Laughs.]
Another thing you have in common is that neither of you fits neatly into any genre. Do labels matter to you?
Williams: Tom gets real frustrated when I still get referred to as "country." And, I love country music, but, I mean, you can't use the term anymore, in a way. If you say "country" you have to clarify yourself.
Malin: That's for the writers and the critics to come up with all those labels. You know, for us, we're always taking in stuff. I'm influenced by early Elton John records that had great lyrics that were very pointed and dark. And then, you know, the lyrics of Paul Westerberg and Joe Strummer and the Bad Brains. There's just a ton of stuff I like from all places, from Sam Cooke to Gogol Bordello. To me, it's just music. Bands like the Beatles and the Clash and other people have been able to evolve and show that there's no rules.
Williams: Yeah. And it's really more like an attitude than what chord structure you're playing. You've heard people say it: Hank Williams was as much of a punk artist as anybody else. Yeah. He was a country artist, but he had this kind of chew it up and spit it out attitude.
"Anybody who says politics and music don't mix is, that's just in your face stupid." – Lucinda Williams
Might you two ever collaborate?
Williams: Well, that's a good question. First of all, Tom and I, earlier he was looking at our upcoming tour and saying when we could get Jesse to open up some dates here.
Malin: Wow! That would be fun.
Williams: But the point is that we need to do some shows together. And we need to record together.
Malin: We'll do like Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. [Laughs.]
Williams: Peaches and Herb. [Laughs] Except not that Peaches. You know Peaches?
Malin: She's badass. Yeah. She's great.
You both supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential race. How do you think politics figures into songwriting today?
Williams: Anybody who says politics and music don't mix is, that's just in your face stupid.
Malin: You walk out your door and it's political. You're dealing with it. You need gas in your car, you need food, everything is always just class-related, and rock music has always had an awareness of class and separation in the downtrodden.
Williams: Well, everything is political.
Malin: But the music is what brings us together, and we need it right now. We need each other. We need to stand together, and support each other, and give the message, which is really love. I mean, to me, "Meet Me at the End of the World" as a record is about survival. And you have to live your life like it could be the last day.