By Abel Muñoz
In preparation for the release of Mal Blum’s newest EP, Ain’t It Nice, we had the opportunity to chat with them about a wide range of topics. The new EP, which comes out April 15th, has been described as a bridge between indie rock and Americana. Our conversation with Blum was a complete delight and full of laughter as we discussed influences, identity, and of course, the new music.
Could you talk a little bit about some of your musical influences?
I think it really changes album to album, depending on what’s going on in my life. There are definitely times where I’m not even listening to music at all, which is such a weird thing to admit. I think of myself as like an adequate musician, but I am mostly a writer. The thing I’m good at is songwriting. I’m good at words and melody. That’s where I excel. The rest of it, I learned to support that aptitude. So, my influences depend on the time in my life. If you give me a specific timeline, I can tell you more.
Let’s talk about Goodnight Sugarpop, which is one of your earlier albums. Other writers have classified some of your earlier albums as pop-punk and they have mentioned similarities between this album and the work of the Moldy Peaches.
It’s kind of you to call it pop-punk. I think a lot of people would’ve called it folk-punk. I feel like pop-punk is maybe even a step up from folk-punk.
Folk-punk is kind of a dirty word now. I love Kimya Dawson from the Moldy Peaches. She’s an incredible writer and I think she has a wonderful perspective about a lot of different things. So, what I’m saying is she’s a great musician and she’s also a great person. It’s funny because I got a lot of Moldy Peaches comparisons around that time. I had been aware of them just because I was also in New York and I was sort of in this ‘anti-folk’ genre.
When I was 14, I listened to a lot of Ani DiFranco and Blink 182. For some reason I had a big Keb’ Mo phase… I don’t really know where that fits in. But I feel like if you mix the folk of Ani DiFranco with the pop-punk of the Blink 182, you end up with something that sort sounding a little like folk-punk. Through that, I found stalwarts of the anti-folk genre like the Moldy Peaches, Jeffrey Lewis, Daniel Johnston, and Regina Spektor, who was part of it peripherally.
The anti-folk genre sounds like folk music. It’s very weird and absurdist. It kind of sounds like early Bob Dylan.
Let’s talk about your new EP, Ain’t It Nice, which is coming out April 15. Can we talk about its development?
During the pandemic, I was working on different things and my career shifted a little. In terms of my own music, I asked myself “What do I feel like working on?” I was just writing a lot of alt-country songs. I’m not sure why. I think John Prine had just died and I was listening to a lot of his music. I think he’s an incredible songwriter. I was writing a lot of pandemic songs that included themes of isolation, but also songs about yearning for connection.
Then I signed a publishing deal with Terrorbird Media and I got paired up with my new friend Kyle Andrews. My publisher wanted writers to do co-writes, but obviously everybody was stuck at home during the pandemic. As a result, these co-writes were virtual and they paired us up with someone different every day. At the end of the week, everybody had seven songs. At one point, they paired me up with this guy named Kyle and we really got along. We did this alt-country song together and I was like, “I have some other songs like this, do you want to arrange and produce them?” He said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So, we just did it. And then I thought to myself, should I put it out or is it just too different? But then I thought there’s no point in holding onto your art because you’re like, “It doesn’t really fit my brand.” Who gives a shit? Just put it out.
Kyle and I have never met in person. We’ve just collaborated virtually, which is so weird. We’ve worked so intimately on these songs. He thinks about music in a really fun way. He was like, “Do you have any like visual references?”
On the new EP there are a lot of references to travel and rambling. And rambling is a regular theme in country music. Why did you choose that theme when we were all stuck at home?
It’s funny because it is such a country theme. But it’s something that comes up in my music a lot for different reasons.
As a touring artist, all you do is move from place to place. It’s a weird thing because you kind of feel like you’re nowhere, but you’re also everywhere. It’s like this weird duality because you see everything and yet you see nothing. You see the inside of a venue; you see the inside of your van. Then you go to sleep, and you do it the next night and you do it the next night and again. And then there’s all this driving and there’s all this open space. You’re seeing the country from the inside of your vehicle. It’s a strange feeling.
This theme of rambling also functioned in a different way and was associated with my self-loathing, like in Every Time You Go Somewhere (2010). The end of the “San Cristobal” lyric is “…every time you go somewhere, you leave somewhere behind.” That was something I was fixated on. It was this dichotomy inside of myself, where I wanted to run away from myself and yet I was so petrified to change. I lived in New York, and I stayed in New York, but I would just be gone all the time. And it was like trying to run away from myself, but you can’t because ‘wherever you go, there you are,’ as they say.
And then when the pandemic hit there was suddenly this other layer to it. Now you are literally stuck in one place, and I had space from this way of life of constantly travelling and, like, thinking about which parts of it served me and which parts didn’t. I also reflected on “What do I actually want?”
At one point I drove across the country to be with my partner (Gaby Dunn). There is something so important about those solo cross-country drives. I don’t know if you’ve ever done one, but I recommend everyone do it, at least once. A lot of things come up, things you want to deal with and things you don’t.
What can you tell about the title of the lead single, “Stockpiled Guns & TV Dinner,” from you new EP?
It’s a line from the song. It’s about apocalypse-prepping and consumerism. In the early pandemic stages, people were trying to buy their way into security. In the second verse of the song, I’m talking about all those herbalism girls that I’ve dated, who were like “I can cure myself and I can help others!” They used this knowledge to feel a sense of security. I don’t fault anybody for the things that make them feel safe.
I think the song was very appropriate for the time we were living in. A lot of us were trying to be self-sufficient. And that probably looked different for different people. Some people were stockpiling guns or TV dinners or herbs. People were looking for ways of trying to survive, whatever might happen. This song also reminded me a lot of Lucinda Williams. One of the big similarities I see between your work and hers is the level of honesty and sincerity. Some of the criticism that Williams has received is that her work is too autobiographical. As a songwriter, how do you feel about writing songs that might be considered confessional or based on lived experience?
For songwriting and for any writing, the more specific you get to your experience, the more universal it becomes to somebody else. A good example is Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner. She’s waiting in the corner at the diner for the man to pour the coffee. And he only fills it halfway. She’s being extremely meticulous and specific, but who hasn’t had that experience, you know what I mean? Or even if you haven’t had that experience, her being so specific also implies her feelings about it, and those feelings are universal. I think the best way to connect to other people is to be particular about the story that you’re telling because it’s your story. And who’s going to tell it better than you.
As I was listening to your new EP, I noticed a ghostly quality to several songs. Can you talk a little about this?
I cannot take credit for that. That’s all Kyle, the production, the arrangement. He comes from the producer world where he’s done a lot of pop stuff, songs for hire for movies and film and commercials. He has a cinematic mind. But I’ve been described as ghostly before. I’ve been on tour with the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale,” an absurdist spooky podcast. Their MC would always describe me as a ‘Victorian ghost boy in modern times.’ I thought that so charming and cute.
I guess when I think about ghosts, I think about the quality of being invisible. Quite a few of the songs you have written are related to not feeling seen which leads us to your next single, “Candy Bars & Men.”
That’s a longstanding theme. I had a song on my last full length, Pity Boy (2019) called “See Me” that was an obvious song about visibility in the most literal sense. I didn’t even think about “Candy Bars & Men” being about visibility in that way, but I could totally see that.
You recently released a wonderful video for this song, and it’s quite sexy.
Thank you. I had never made a sexy music video. I was so nervous. Well, you saw Sky (Fernandes)! I was like, “I can’t take my shirt off next to that guy.” My partner directed it, and they nailed it. That’s exactly like the feeling and the aesthetic that I wanted to evoke with that song.
There are some great lines in that song, like “Just this once, boy, I don’t mind being your secret.”
That’s my favorite line on the whole record. When I wrote that line, I was like, ‘That’s the one.’ I don’t know if everybody has felt like they have been somebody’s secret, somebody in the closet or like “We can be intimate but no one else can know about it.”
But like, sometimes you’re like, “Yeah, I’m willing to accept that. Sure, I’ll be your exception. I’m willing to accept this secrecy and the shamefulness of you being attracted to me.” I think that’s so universal to both the gay experience and the trans experience. It’s like a longing for something and sort of substituting it with something else, you know, isn’t as good for you. And yet, sometimes a candy bar scratches an itch and the same thing with a strange man.
On “Everyone Loves You,” Laura Stevenson makes a guest appearance. How did that come about?
She’s awesome; I’m a huge Laura Stevenson fan. We’ve been on the same record label for several of my projects, but this new EP is self-released. We’ve kind of circled each other peripherally and I’ve opened for her, and we’ve played the festivals. She’s very kind… a good person. She’s also an incredible writer and singer.
No one else’s voices were on the record except mine and Kyles, but my voice dropped while we were making the record and I couldn’t really do the higher vocals anymore. At the beginning of the record, I could. I was like, “Do you think Laura would do it?” I sent her an email and she said, “Absolutely.” And then she sent back a bunch of takes. We mixed it in, and she wouldn’t let me pay her.
Stevenson’s vocals added another layer of depth to a song that already packed a punch. The line “Everyone loves you, but you,” made me very emotional. I felt like you were reading my diary.
That song was an older one. I feel like it has more of a classic country feel than the rest of the record. At that point, I was really into that show “Nashville” and I writing tons of country songs like that.
So, we’re going to take a slight departure from talking to your new EP and talk about genre. As a trans-masculine person, how comfortable do feel in country music or Americana?
If you think about where out trans people have been successful in music, a lot of it is punk, pop or dance. You don’t see that same representation of trans people in country music. Maybe it’s because the fan base is traditionally a lot more conservative, I don’t know.
I can think of a few trans women who have broken through to more mainstream audiences, regardless of genre. I can’t really think of very many trans-masculine people.
Personally, I think Americana has been more accepting and super gay. We’ve always been here. There are so many queer elements to this type of music. We are the people who are the ramblers and the searchers and the people who want this life on the road.
Abel Muñoz (He/Him/His) is originally from Texas and now lives in Nashville. He is passionate about art, but most days he can be found working at a sexual health clinic. He loves 90s country music, especially Linda Ronstandt and George Strait. His ramblings and adventures can be found on various social media platforms (Twitter: @artofspectator, IG: @artofthespectator).