Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Winnowing by Bill Mallonee, interview by Kirk

Artist: Bill Mallonee   (sometimes frontman for the band Vigilantes of Love)
Album: Winnowing
Genre:  Alt Country, or Americana-rock of the dust-bowl hue.
Release: August 22, 2014

Muriah Rose and Bill Mallonee

Quick Spin:  First 10 seconds and my heart is sold.  My whole being is filled with emotive color.

This is one of those albums about which all my efforts to categorize the sound fall apart. Too country for jazz, too ambient for folk, too melodic for rock… Wrong cords for the blues, too genuine, too beautiful for the world in general.  All I can say, is that from those spare opening notes, I am fully drawn in.  I am hearing the very song of the rose dusted desert at sunset, fed by a gladdening stream.

I understand Bill has put out near 60 albums. I own, in some form or other, near half that collection. His works cover the stylistic range from Beatlesque rock and thrashing-acoustic punk to dusty-road folk, and his own special blend of countrified Steinbeck blues. And I must say… this one stands out. It is a special album: Aged, regal, reduced in pace… feeling at once both fresh and golden. 

In commenting on Winnowing the first time thru, I used the world “slow” – but that has all the wrong connotations.

Nothing plodding here.

Think instead of the triumph of the rising moon, the rising the spangle of stars. Like all things Bill, there is certain sadness here, even dallies with pathos and cynicism, but I hear deep tenderness within the weave. 

 Bill himself says it best.

Winnowing is a very personal/religious record for me. Lyrics and sound intertwined. 
 It was inspired by the vast, open places of the high deserts of New Mexico, similar to last year's the more acoustic based "Dolorosa." But, this one was very different.
Winnowing is about things I needed to say. 
It's an Autumn record. The diminishing play of light, the signs of Earth going dormant, and the smell of wood fire suggest, to me anyway, a withdrawal, a strategic "retreat," a tucking in of dreams. And an inventory to be taken of the past.  
The intensity of sun-drenched, barren-blue skies diffuse & give way softer vistas. The light becomes a water-colored light. Even the "desert acoustics" contour the sounds here. It all folds back on itself, this Autumnal experience.
All that was "good, bad or ugly" has left its mark. Doubt/incongruity/loneliness is the modern stigmata.
All that came and passed, all that was birthed or died. Whatever may have disappointed you, broken you, wrecked your faith or established & inspired you. What ever compartments (or coffins) you choose to place such things in there's no doubt that it has changed you.  And, if by grace, it was some hand of God has seemed to pull you through...well, that's what this album is about.

I will be honest. I don’t always get Bill. He speaks a different language. He is a poet with a guitar;  His world -- at least as pertains to things of the spirit --  is less concrete than the world in which I dwell.  I live in dynamic tension between the worlds of hard doctrine and mysticism, Bill seems more at home in the latter.  

When I listen to bills lyrics I cannot always tell how much is confession, how much is observation, or even how much is theater. (Beyond that some of his songs are just so personal that you might have to be Bill to get them.... But should Bill’s songs be a guide, we know that Bill has not only railed against a broken world, he has added to its breaking, and been broken by it.

When I look at the pictures of Bill some ten or twenty years ago. I see a taunt muscled man who could ride a jackhammer, wrestle gators or bend a guitar neck like a sapling. Today I look and see a man who (forgive me for saying this) looks worn to the bone… like he could use a good meal and a warm fire. Indeed, the second song on Winnowing ushers in the Locust Years. I have no doubt that Bill has truly lived much of the dust-bowl, Steinbeckian world to which he relates.

There are times when I could wish that Bill had a fat wallet and a struggle-free life I am wishing that he had been spared moral, emotional, relational and economic confusion.  ( I am guessing at these thing given certain lyrics) But then, perhaps, he would not be winnowed.  

There is a depth and color to Bill's writing that could only come through failure, struggle, anger and disappointment … and the  sometimes unsearchable grace of God which holds damaged pilgrims. But that is enough of me guessing. I should now probably self edit, let me stop and let Bill step in.


Kirk: I’ll start with a softball… Opening notes. What are the instruments? I think I hear a stand-up bass… and something all ghostly and electric… I see your wife plays piano… Are you and wife the primary musicians… and who are the “Darkling Planes?”

Bill: well, here's the album's instrumentation.

"WINNOWING" by: Bill Mallonee and The darkling Planes

(Bill would elsewhere share, the "darkling Planes" is something of an inside joke. It plays off the Dover Beach poem, but there is no band for this album save Bill and Wife.)

Bill Mallonee: Electric, acoustic & high-string guitars, vocals, bass, drums, organ, piano, harmonica

Muriah Rose: piano, voice, organ, electric piano

String arrangements: Mallonee/Rose

The best way to explore this is to tell you that we live way out in the high deserts of New Mexico, up in the mountains. I cut my musical teeth in Athens, Ga and lived there a long time. But, I got so weary of the stress driven, anxiety diet of the East Coast that I needed a change. The Southwest is still pretty wild and remote in places. Rent is cheap and inspiration is always present. There's a reason so many visual artists & writers moved out here in the 40's, 50's and 60's.

Now, that being said, there's a dearth of utility players, at least where we live, so that alone has stretched me to become a better guitarist, bass player and drummer. Muriah is just a great keyboard player with a great ear for the melodies I gravitate towards, so we've got all we need in terms of a "band." As a played, I go for the "right" part, not the flashy stuff anyway. The whole point of a song is to create a world and then invite people into it. I live for those golden, transcendent moments where lyric and delivery and sound collide.

I write about 50 songs a year, sometimes more. You can't have a guitar in your hands that often and not start to unlock some of it's "secrets." The last few albums, The Power and The Glory (2012,) Amber Waves (2013,) Dolorosa (2013,) and now Winnowing all rely on very melodic and often intricate interplay of guitars. Like I said above: I live for those golden, transcendent moments. That's where the "thin places" show up. I keep it anchored in the Americana realm. That's my soul, my back story.

Kirk: Related…. I am hearing what I call lots of “chimey” notes… cascading rainbows of sound….Beyond that, the pace here is decidedly slower, either brooding or majestic. Were you consciously striving for a different audio vibe on winnowing?

Bill: We're talking the sonic structure of the album?

Well, I try to not over-think anything. Whatever serves the song, you know?
Be direct and simple and know when you've made it too busy or complex.

Yes, Winnowing has lots of guitar interplay & melodic statements re-inforcing the lyrics.

I think it's elegant. It seems to possess a certain folk-rock majesty. I can listen to it now as a listener and less as a composer and say: "Nice! Wow, that's takes me somewhere!"

A "rough-hewn-elegance" is the phrase I'd use to describe it.

Winnowing, to my ears anyway is a lovely balance of sound and lyric. It's a very dark" Autumnal sort of record; a very prayerful sort of record.

You learn to let a certain spaciousness have its say.

Kirk:   I know from the things that I read on Facebook that this album started out with a different title. (Hall Full of mirrors) and now it seems to have at least two other titles…

The Winnowing…. And Dover Beach. What is that all about? (To me the hall of mirrors title seems darker… more carninvalish…. Tell me a little bit of the process behind this album… Its evolution. Did you start with a song or two… how did the end product differ from what you first envisioned?

Bill: Well, for starters it's just "Winnowing," not "THE" Winnowing!

Hall of Mirrors/Room of Woes was the initial working title. We'd hope to employ the Kickstarter folks, but a security breach compromised the fundraising after we'd gone public about a week. we decided to shut it all down and just reach out to the fan base directly, just like we've always done. 

Dover Beach, named after the famed poem by Matthew Arnold was my 2nd choice for a title. It's an amazing poem, so very modern. The song, Dover Beach (Out In The Cold), is the lead off track. It does set a certain tenor of the record, I think. That song's themes and why I wrote it are at the Bandcamp site, so I'll pass on those details here.

But, the longer I worked on the album, the more I realized that it was "bigger" than just that one song. The whole record and collection of songs was becoming the most personal and "confessional" album I'd ever written. And, believe me, I'm known for writing "confessional" lyrics already. "Winnowing" is very immediate, full of the tensions and inner dialogues we all have with ourselves. It's also probably the most "religious" album I've ever released, as well. But religious in the sense of it being something of a "Doubter's Church," or an "A Skeptical Seeker's Prayer."

These (songs) are scraps of all those incongruous and disparate parts that make up our lives and bring before God...

I had 20 plus songs ready for this album. When I go on "writing sprees," there are certain themes & subjects that surface. They just manifest on a consistent basis around a group of songs. That makes the record delightfully "conceptual." That's why making an album for me is like an emotional/philosophic auto-biography. Good therapy, I suppose?

With 20 plus songs, we could have easily made a double album. However, I was doing all the writing, most of the playing/recording, all the engineering and mixing. We're talking 12 hour days for 8-9 weeks straight. I think, after a while, I would have distrusted my ears. Audio burn out. you have to take breaks to hear thing afresh.

SO: We recorded 12 songs and decided to keep it to an even 10. It clocks in just under 50 minutes. That's the perfect ride in this day and age. (We included some of the demos and out-takes, so you can hear just how the songs grew and morphed here and there.)

Kirk: Have you ever found that the album you end up with is an entirely different product than what you had in mind?

Bill:   No. Honestly, no.

Sure, there are always wonderful surprises to be found along the way of making an album. In the case of Winnowing, there are a few guitar loops that stand out and led as transitions into the next song. That reinforces the conceptual aspect of the record. But, because I write in these massive sprees of say 10-25 songs at a time and those songs all tend to be "sisters and brothers" with similar "looks," I generally have a good idea of "how" they'll translate once I hit "record." The recording becomes their "family portrait," you see?

Kirk: In looking at the poem Dover Beach it starts out with a note of beauty, then gives way to certain melancholy as Arnold describes the din of the retreating tide…

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves drawback, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

I have listened to enough of your music to know the spirit of Lamentation is essential to your works. Do you ever feel that you are a spokesman for “eternal sadness?”

Bill: Good question. Well, here's the thing: I'd like to think I'm just saying what we all already know and feel. I'm just giving it some nomenclature.

I write with no audience in mind. I've kept at this writing thing almost solely to "save myself." That is, i am trying to make sense of the world, it's hallowed-ness, it's hellish-ness, it's transcendent joys and heart-rending griefs. How can all of those co-exist in one place? And it's not just existing "out there" in the world.

No, it goes a step further: How can all of these exist within our solitary spirits?

That's the raw data of our lives.  Yes, I try and cope with it all with a faith that sometimes seems to have a shelf-life of just that day. But, it's enough. enough to affirm the good, the golden and the Love of God, even when He seems absent.

So, while i would adamantly shun the "spokesperson for eternal sadness" moniker, I DO have the deep "suspicion," let's say, that we are ALL living in similar skin, with similar souls and similar spirits. We are all made out of the same clay. Our dreams, our hurts, our joys, our tears, our struggles and failures.  And so, I try to address such things, by slight removes, in my songs.

And for me? When you can sing about such things and make some sense of it, it doesn't get any better than that.


Final thoughts

I just realized I didn't say much about the particular songs. By contrast to most radio fare these songs run long… five to six minutes average..(That’s five to six minutes of audio bliss. Think of each song as a short story or play. Even a moving painting. I might say more,

And only screw it up if I did.  Best bet. Listen for yourself. winnowing is a a banquet for the ears that will start repeat play in your head.  (I am now hearing a fragment of Now You Know... over and over and over  again.  

I have other questions, waiting in the wings… that I might like to ask Bill down the road. (Arnold's Poem Dover Beach not only alludes to the din of a world at war and the singular saving power of romance; it also suggests a certain loss of faith.  So I want to ask if Bill if he relates to that part of the poem, and if so in what manner..."  I want to find out more about his life before God as it stands right now, and about the interface of faith, artistry, and doubt  -- but frankly, I feel too immature as a writer (or too limited as a Facebook friend)  to ask those questions rightly.   Maybe later.

In the meantime it is simply hard to fathom a more giving album. My mind is awash with smoke and vibrant autumnal colors. 

Thank you Bill. From the bottom of our stained and broken hearts.  You have poured yourself out like an offering.   May that which is noble and eternal in in your songs be separated from that which is chaff, and given back as a grain offering to Him who gave you voice.


Sometimes it is hard to put down the pen.   I would be slow to call any one of Bill's albums his best...There are many bests, and many betters.  But I do know that Winnowing will join "Audible Sigh" as the album of Bill or the Vigilantes, that I most recommend to others.   And now, after multiple listens, what is the one thing that stands out?  

The Voice.  

Whispering, yearning, reaching, basking, trembling or cracking .... the voice.


  1. Kirk, I enjoyed this review. Alas I can't buy the album yet, but will do so when it emerges in the UK in September. In the meantime do you recommend a particular starter for a new listener to Mallonee?

    1. Alistair, I do not know if you can do a Band Camp download now, but I can tell you that for a current work, this IS my favorite, but for me, two releases stand out from yesteryear: I simply Adore VOL's "Audible Sigh." (Americana hue, with a duet with Emmy Lou Harris you you can hear here: http://billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com/track/resplendent-w-emmylou-harris
      and For a little more Energy: Blister Soul. I do not know if you can dowload this, but if you can may I also recommend the "last Days, Early Mars free download, with its distinctive British-pop tilt. http://billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com/album/free-download-last-days-early-mars In short, you can sample a wide range of Bills music on Bandcamp, and he always appreciates a download or CD purchase.

  2. Ps. I forgot to mention Amber Waves. Exceptional. It seems to have a bit in common (on a sonic level) with the Power and the Glory, but I find it just a little more melodic.

  3. Good summary of Bill and his work - he is a brave man