Now and then, an album comes along that tells the story of our queer hearts and breaks and remolds them in new ways. Once in a blood red supermoon, we get two such albums on the same day. Are you ready?
Allison Weiss’s New Love and Mal Blum’s You Look A Lot Like Me, both out October 2, offer a magnifying lens with which to peer into our own guts, with music that elevates both artists to new heights and lyrics that offer inlets to self-doubt, depression and heartbreak while also pointing to the way out.
On New Love, Allison has looked to inspirations like The Cure and The Go Gos and fully embraced pop to use it as the tool for revelation it is meant to be. The production gives the album wings, making ample use of complex choral lines that add a sense of breadth to the songs. In 11 tracks, Allison deconstructs the core elements of love and heartbreak and presents a simple summary: “We’ve all got feelings that we can’t explain. We’re all a little bit the same.” She tells the story of a cross-country move on “Golden Coast,” a song that feels like a hectic LA afternoon. And “Who We Are” has the makings of an anthem, with an earnestly inspiring video to match.
Mal has opted for electric guitars on You Look A Lot Like Me to create a tight indie punk record with help from producer Marissa Paternoster of the Screaming Females. Mal uses a failed relationship as a jumping off point to talk about their mental health. In “Split, Splitting,” they sing “Is this how it’s always been? Don’t know what the problem is, people abandoning you without cause/And you think that I won’t, lonely looking, young and vulnerable/I bet you taste like my lowest lows, but I don’t ever want to know/But I do.” Mal takes us with them off the cliff but doesn’t leave us hanging — “Better Than I Was” is a hopeful, realistic song about living with depression on the good days. And the video for “Better Go” shows they have a sense of humor about it all.
These may be the only two albums you need to get you through the fall (though I must also recommend Julia Nunes’ Some Feelings, which Riese had a lot of feelings about). I got a chance to interview Mal and Allison in a joint Google Hangout about their new records, being queer in the music industry, their upcoming joint tour and the weird shit they keep on their desks.
AS: You’re accidentally sharing an album release and purposefully sharing a tour. To what extent have you collaborated professionally in the past?
AW: I like the idea of professional collaboration.
MB: What does that mean?
AW: We’ve played a lot of shows together, I still have stickers with your name on them on my merch table.
MB: I have two of those up in my room! For a couple years we had that annual summer friendship show. And one time, during my last album, I was like “Allison, nothing makes sense, I’m very overwhelmed by everything, and you were like ‘I just want you to be happy Mal! Maybe you could try this thing!'” So that was kind of a professional collaboration.
AW: You came to my apartment in Greenpoint and you told me all of your fears and I said “It’s important that you do what you want to do, and not just do what other people want you to do!”
MB: And I did that also with this tour, I was like “what should I do about this drummer situation?” And you were like “Do this!” And I did!
AW: And sometimes I’ll sit with you outside of a taco shop in LA and say “do you ever feel crazy?” And we’ll have the same feelings.
AS: These albums take a lot of things you’ve done on previous albums and pull them together and take them to the next level. Like Mal, I hear a lot of sounds and emotions you were expressing like on Goodnight Sugarpop, but then it’s a punk record. And Allison, you’ve taken pop to a new place for you. What were you trying to achieve, musically and emotionally with these records?
MB: I wanted to switch to electric guitar sort of permanently. I wanted to make a rock record and a band record, but still have a cohesive sort of narrative. I feel like my friend Marissa who produced it did a good job of stripping it down and making it very compact like a three-piece rock record. I’m happy with how it sounds because it sounds like something that I would listen to.
AS: Do you think the people who listen to you are going to respond to it?
MB: I don’t know how people will feel about it. I’ve had the feeling that maybe people won’t like it who like other stuff that I did, because I used to feel like that — an artist would change their sound and I’d think “aw, that’s not the reason I like you!” but we have to allow people to change their sound and try new things, or their work will get stale. If you’re not inspired, what’s the point? I’m not a pop star, I don’t have to protect my brand, I just have to make music I want to make.
AW: Yes! Where’s that lighter? Light that for yourself.
MB: Actually it’s just matches.
[lights a match]
MB: Allison is it just me or does that song I heard off the album sound like The Cure? Does that offend you?
AW: No it doesn’t offend me, actually I would cite them as a reference for some of the sounds on the new record. Now the song you’re talking about, “Back To Me,” I was listening to a lot of Go Gos when I wrote that song. Is it my turn now? Fuck it, I’m going! I love everything that you said Mal, because I feel like I 1,000 percent relate to it with the record I made. I also made a record that sounds like the music I listen to. It’s kind of weird to realize the records I’ve made in the past aren’t my main choice for listening genre. My goal with this record was just to write a bunch of pop songs. Previous records for me have very specifically been inspired by events in my life that have happened. This was more, I have a lot of feelings about relationships and human beings and how they love each other, and I wanted to write really fun pop songs that were about that. It might sound sugary, but it’s not. There’s one song about how there’s no good way to break up with someone. I love pop music because sometimes it’s the saddest music. My favorite reference is Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” because on the surface you’re like “what a sweet love song” but then you listen to the words and
MB: IT’S CREEPY
AW: It’s so fucking sad and creepy. She’s like “I love this person and they’re going to come back” but they’re NEVER COMING BACK.
MB: That line where she’s like “you can’t escape me?” Chills. Like, I don’t know Mariah! I feel like I put a good boundary down, I think that we’re done!
AW: I like that you’re seeing it from the other person’s perspective. When I listen to it, I am Mariah—
MB: I am Mariah!
AW: and I am thinking that my lover is always going to care about me.
AS: You’ve both been making music for so long and both come out in different ways since starting your careers. How do you feel about your older songs now? How have the ways you experience the world changed, and how has that affected your music?
AW: The first couple records were when the world thought I was a straight person. I came out in 2010 and started making music as a queer person, but nothing changed. Everything I felt when I was dating boys was real and the songs I wrote were real. Maybe the reason they’re able to, I still relate to them and feel like they’re important, is I’m not super into using pronouns in my music because I want anyone listening to be able to relate. I mean, Bob Dylan and The Beatles use pronouns and people relate to them. But I like to keep things pretty universal. And you know, I used to be a teenager and now I’m an adult who goes to therapy and kind of has my shit together. I look back and I was a teenager feeling so many things and I had to say all of it. Now I think a little more about what I want to say before I put it into a song.
MB: I used to have a less introspective view of things when I was writing songs. I did write a lot of breakup songs. But with this album, it’s mostly just about my own mental health stuff and an introspective look inwards. In terms of like personal transformation, my narrative is different than Allison’s. When I started putting out music I was very queer queer queer, but my gender has changed a little bit, fluctuated over the course of like four years. I don’t think that it has changed my songwriting, but it is interesting to listen back to older songs and see I put things in that I didn’t know I was putting in. I’ll hear a line and realize it was about feeling abject in my body or not feeling close to people in my life because I felt a barrier.
AW: There are 3-4 songs from my past where when I sing them now I’m like “oh this is the part about how I am definitely gay and am afraid to tell people.” And my parents were like “oh what a great song about a boy!”
MB: Wait sorry I just want to know if I’m going to meet Allison’s parents on tour.
AW: Yes, absolutely. I think we’re going to their house after the Atlanta show. We can have a bonfire.
AS: What do you think is unique about being a queer artist, both in terms of how fans perceive you and navigating the music industry?
MB: The industry is a microcosm of the world, so it’s quick to dismiss any marginalized folks trying to say anything. Queer artists get that a lot even if the work they are making isn’t inherently queer. Like, I don’t know that there is anything inherently queer about the work Allison and I make. This is the first album I did with a label, so it’s the first album I am doing with a distributor and a real publicist and where the music industry is involved in a way it hasn’t been before. I was nervous about how that would work, particularly surrounding pronouns and stuff. I’ve been using singular they pronouns, and I know a lot of people who use those pronouns in real life don’t use them in the press, but I was like, “fuck it, I’m gonna do this.” Every bit of press that has come out so far has not used any pronouns, which is so cool, I didn’t think that would happen.
AW: What would the world be like if music journalists never used any pronouns? Because as a female identified person, so many articles get written about me where people call me a songstress. The adjectives people use are different.
MB: I was reading this thing that was using Ani DiFranco’s press, it was really old, and it pointed out the ways that journalists would add qualifiers in way they never do with men.
AW: Like, people always call me quirky and nerdy, but I think all dudes in music are quirky and nerdy and it never gets mentioned.
AS: Unless they’re like, Rivers Cuomo level.
AW: Which I don’t think I am!
MB: I see artists like Mary Lambert and it does feel like things are changing.
AW: When you think about the people in the world who have made it easier to just, like, live, we’re doing that for people who want to make music. It’s important to be outspoken about the things we believe in. Some people say like “Don’t talk about politics, just make music!” But I have thousands of people reading what I say on the internet, and I’m going to use it.