Happy Mal Blum EP day, everyone! Ain’t It Nice is out today, Blum’s latest since November 2020, and hearing it is like the warmth of a Sweet Cowboy Blues print come to life. It’s been so delightful to me, the way that the queerness of cowboys and outlaws has become a community aesthetic touchstone, and this new set of songs is that vibe at its finest.
I caught up with Mal after several busy weeks of surprise tours with Welcome to Night Vale, and in this moment between live performance and new releases, we talked about their inspirations, their songwriting processes, finding humor in sorrow, and the lifelong process of inhabiting our emotions.
Yash: I have had the new EP on repeat for days. I mean, I grew up in Nashville, so this Americana- and country-inflected sound was familiar and delightful. Did your songwriting process for this new sound differ from, or build upon, the processes you’ve used for your previous work?
Mal: Yes. I wrote most of this EP during the first lockdown, and I was not expecting to do anything with these songs. I thought that they would go to the song graveyard. I have a lot of songs in the song graveyard; I write my own stuff, but I also do songwriting for film, TV, and other artists, and if they don’t pick what I make then it just goes into the song graveyard folder. Sometimes when I write things, it’s like, I like this song, but it doesn’t really fit the project that I’m doing right now. I just put it in my demos folder and it lives in the song graveyard indefinitely. So I just figured that’s what these would be, but then I started working on a co-write with this person, Kyle, and we wrote the song “The Road” together. We were in a virtual writers room through our music publishing company, and we were all giving each other feedback on our songs, and the rest of the group was really into our song. And so I was like, well, how about this? I have other songs like this!
We called it New Mondays: I would just send over a song and then Kyle would produce it and arrange it and we would go back and forth with notes and we did really not know what it was like going to be at first. But once we got to six songs, I was like, oh, okay. Maybe I should put it out as an EP. I had a minute of anxiety where I thought about how my last full-length record was a pop-punk, indie rock kind of record. I’m not looking to be a country singer, so many this is off-brand or whatever.
But then I decided, who gives a shit, really? Especially at that time, everything felt so apocalyptic. I didn’t know what I was doing with my career. I had just canceled my tour. My grandma died. Everyone was dying around me. And I was like, all this stuff feels so myopic right now. Who cares that I don’t usually release country, or that it’s not “on brand”? None of this stuff matters. It’s like, if you want to share your art, then do it, because you don’t know how long you have.
Yash: Absolutely, I think that felt very urgent for a lot of artists, especially in the early pandemic.
Mal: Maybe that’s morbid.
Yash: I mean, if it’s morbid, then it’s morbid in a way that I find very relatable and also very affirming.
Mal: Yeah. I tend to be a little bit of, well, some would call it “neurotic.” I want things to be right. So sometimes, I can be sort of like a bit paralyzed by indecision. But with this, I was just like, no, it sounds good. The songs are cohesive. They go together, and we’re just going to do it. Let’s do it.
Yash: I, for one, am very glad that you did! The way you combine Americana and country influences with indie and pop and rock influences — I feel like they all get stronger together.
Mal: Yes, and it’s important to play, because I get so bored otherwise! You asked if it was different than my process in the past. And I would say that it was collaborative in a different way, because obviously I didn’t have access to the bands that I worked on full lengths with. So it was different in that I worked with a new collaborator, but it was also not different in that I always write my songs on my own anyway and then collaborate with other people. But in the sense of writing the actual lyrics, melody, chords — that was the same process. I’m used to doing that part on my own.
Yash: I really, really enjoyed the songwriting on this one and the way this sound has developed on your previous work. I wanted to ask you more about those Americana influences! You incorporate those influences into songs about romantic ambivalence at a time when Americana and that kind of artistry is facing a lot of political and social ambivalence and critique as well. So I was wondering: how do you approach wielding that kind of double edged nostalgia?
Mal: It’s an interesting question. I feel like it’s contextual, whether it feels nostalgic or not. For me, going into sort of more Americana elements, that’s not actually something I came up in, and it feels a bit subversive almost. Country music, you know, I don’t know how gay they want it to be really. Right? Americana is like a more left-leaning, left-influenced country, and I’m just going to be very gay and trans and sort of turn these rambling, yearning, tropes on their side, and that’ll be different on the one hand. But then on the other hand, we know gay and trans people have actually always been in these spaces. You know what I mean? It’s just not the representation that you see. Right? People want to pretend that Americana is like very cowboy, masculinity/heterosexuality. But in reality, if you open up any truck stop app, basically anywhere in America, like trucker talk or whatever, it’s gay. Like there’s very gay stuff happening.
Yash: Oh it’s very gay. Cowboys really are frequently secretly fond of each other. The way queer folks are inhabiting those spaces is always so interesting for me. There was a really incredible documentary recently about the erasure of lesbians and queer women in country music who had been excluded from songwriting and told that they couldn’t write or perform yearning for another woman, like “you can’t write yearning, that’s not straight yearning.” And it was like, how dare you? Queer people invented yearning!
Mal: Oh, absolutely.
Yash: Like, that’s ours!
Mal: Yeah. On this past tour I’ve been covering a Lavender Country song. Whenever I play the song, I’m like, “do you guys know Lavender Country?” I’m just so surprised how many people don’t! Basically in every music genre, there’s queer stuff that’s happening that dominant culture sort of eats up and pushes to the side.
Who cares that I don’t usually release country, or that it’s not “on brand”? None of this stuff matters. It’s like, if you want to share your art, then do it, because you don’t know how long you have.
Yash: In addition to musical influences like Lavender Country, what were some of the other more unexpected media influences for this? As I was listening, I felt like so many of these songs were very cinematic to me. What movies, what shows, what other sources were you interested in while you were developing these songs?
Mal: Well, that is really interesting that you say that, because Kyle who produced it is very cinematic in the way he thinks about music. So he asked for visual references and was like: “You’re driving down the road. What are you seeing?” I’m not a very visual person like that. I always thought when people referred to their mind’s eye that they were being metaphorical. For me, there’s nothing in there like that. I’m more of a lyrics and sentiment person. So that sort of visual landscape is very much there, but I can’t take credit for it.
What was I watching or listening to? I was listening to a lot of John Prine. I had to drive across the country by myself at one point. So I did that. And in terms of aesthetics, we were thinking about like a 70s, desert, solo-traveling sort of vibe.
I will say, there is one song on the EP that I wrote before this period of time called “Everybody Loves You.” I was watching a lot of Nashville at that point in time. So that’s one thing I was watching.
Yash: I love that show! In Connie Britton we trust.
Mal: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And Hayden Panettiere, right?
Yash: Oh yeah! When I lived in Nashville, I used to work at a bookstore, and we’d talk about seeing them around town filming. Connie used to actually come into the store. She was one of our regular customers, and she had amazing taste in books. I also went to school with John Prine’s kids and his wife, Fiona, is also an incredibly kind and well read and interesting person. At the store, we’d see a bunch of those musicians from around town. I think that someone should make a blog that is just like, what do musicians and other famous creators read? Because they always have really good taste!
Mal: I’ve seen some people who are on tour and have their nose in a book almost the entire time. You know?
Yash: I remember Lucy Dacus was tweeting about reading Garth Greenwell. And I was like, I love this, she would be reading Garth Greenwell on tour.
Mal: Oh, Lucy Dacus, yes! Having been on tour with her myself, I can tell you that Lucy Dacus is one of the people that reads a lot on tour. Which I always am very impressed by. I feel like I have no time to read when I’m on tour. I don’t know why. I used to read more. I would just run through books like water. I read so much as a kid, and then in the past few years I just have sort of, I don’t know. It’s almost like there’s never time, but I don’t know. Spend my time staring into the void of my fucking TikTok now I guess.
Yash: Yep. Absolutely. Same. Although I will say I love your TikTok.
Mal: Thank you. I feel like I don’t understand TikTok. The algorithm is punishing me right now for something. I don’t remember what I did.
Yash: I mean, the algorithm on TikTok can be very sensitive. It’s a lot like Instagram where it’s just like you have to be gay around the edges. You have to come at it sidelong.
Mal: Sneak up on the algorithm.
People want to pretend that Americana is like very cowboy, masculinity/heterosexuality. But in reality, if you open up any truck stop app, basically anywhere in America, like trucker talk or whatever, it’s gay. Like there’s very gay stuff happening.
Yash: Yeah. You have to sneak up on the algorithm. You can’t be always like straightforwardly funny or straightforwardly queer. You have to do something around the edges a little bit, which brings us back to my next question. In your songwriting, I noticed this sly wordplay and sly humor. Your songs often come at things from a slightly unusual angle for a new perspective on sadness, loneliness, frustration. I’m so curious about the way that you find humor in your work when it’s not always topics that would in other people’s hands, straightforwardly lend itself to.
Mal: Well, I am a Jew, so I come by gallows humor honestly. It’s sort of embedded in my genetic code I think. I don’t mean this in a self deprecating way, but I kind of feel like I do maybe three things well in my life. And one of the things I feel like that I am good at is word play and turning a phrase.
Yash: What do you want your listeners to take from those moments of humor?
Mal: I don’t know. I mean, it’s just inside of me. I think I will say, I started off being sort of evasive with my vulnerability. If you come to a band show it’s different, because that’s just a little more polished, and there’s a set, and there’s other people up there with me. You go into a solo show, however, and it’s like half of the time between songs I’m doing standup. I’m just talking to the audience and trying to get the audience to laugh. It’s just my nature. That’s how it is when I meet strangers. That’s how it is when I’m on a stage. It’s like a compulsive desire to make people laugh. So in that way, like that’s just my personality, you know?
And we don’t have time to unpack all that. Like why are people class clowns? I don’t know. But in terms of writing, I think it used to be that it was a thin line, and I would try to be funny, and I would mask the more vulnerable aspects of whatever I was writing to be funny instead. And I think over the last seven years, it’s been like a slow process of peeling it back, peeling it back, peeling it back so that I’m not afraid to be vulnerable anymore. And sometimes within that vulnerability, there’s humor, but I don’t use it to hide anymore.
Yash: It’s the kind of humor that turns the light on inside of the moment rather than covering it up or obscuring it.
Mal: It’s been delicate, but if there’s one thing that I’m proud of in terms of my growth, it’s finding ways to keep that humor while still allowing space for other emotions and not just trying to kill them.
Yash: Yeah, that’s the project! Learning how to balance and integrate that kind of humor, and that kind of joy, into more difficult or nuanced places. It’s a strength of your songwriting that I always enjoy encountering. This EP has a lyric about how “everybody loves you, everybody adores you, everyone’s sure of you, except you.” For some reason, that was the bit that got me. That twist made me chuckle in an “I feel recognized way.” If these lyrics are a tag yourself meme, that’s me.
Mal: You know, I think that I learned how to do something early on and I didn’t used to have a word for it. Once I studied poetry a little bit, I learned the term “enjambment”, which is when where you put your line breaks, changes the meaning of a line. I have to credit Shira Erlichman for teaching me that. Her example that she gave me is
“I love the pizza
Like, oh, now that’s a completely different line, you know? The way that you break it up gives it suspense and changes it. I feel like instinctively, I have always done that with my songwriting, and I have always loved to play with that. It brings me a lot of joy. I just really love when you find something that is like a small line that changes everything that came before it, you know?
Yash: That’s a really powerful inflection in the lyrics, for sure! If you had to pick one lyric that you felt was the best summation of this EP as a project, which line do you think it would be and why?
Mal: I think that it would be the line from “Candy Bars and Men” that goes:
“and just this once
boy, I don’t mind being your secret
never liked sugar much
but now and then I need it”
“Candy Bars and Men” is obviously an extended metaphor for — well, I don’t know if it’s obvious — it is an extended metaphor for knowing that something is wrong, but sometimes wanting that anyway.
I did an interview with another outlet, and they were talking about how “Candy Bars and Men” is about loving candy and loving men. And I was like, no! It’s not! It’s about like shame and desire and secrecy and vulnerability. It’s about how sometimes I’m in the mood for a candy bar, and other times I want a full meal and I will settle for a candy bar. Sometimes I want nourishment, but all that’s available to me is a vending machine. Sometimes I want intimacy, but I will accept an anonymous encounter. Sometimes I want desire and intimacy and validation and acceptance and I will accept being like, hooking up with a closeted man. That’s what that song is about to me. And that’s definitely my favorite lyric on the whole record.
Yash: I am so excited to hear you pick that as your answer, because that was the line that really stayed in my head and that I kept returning to! I find it very funny that this other outlet only noticed “the Katy Perry of it all,” when it’s really just a beautiful description of compromise and frustration that we encounter when we want things and when we need things.
Mal: Right! And, also, it just feels good to do bad things sometimes.
Yash: Yeah. I mean, I had Pringles for breakfast, so I get it! It’s a very, very loving recognition. I mean, I noticed like with all of your songs though, especially on this EP, they kind of thread between like love and heartbreak and disappointment and loneliness and affection and affinity. So I was wondering, what are your favorite things about writing on these topics?
Mal: Boy, gosh. Well, with the one breakup song on there, I did not like writing about that topic at the time. I was very sad, and sometimes it feels good to lean into self pity. And as far as the other themes on the record, I would say, I like a writing prompt and I like exploring themes and thinking about things from a different perspective, but as myself, I guess, is the thing I like most about writing.
Oh gosh, I’m trying to think about what’s on the EP now. Let’s see. “Stockpiled Guns and TV Dinners” is about consumerism and trying to buy security. Then there’s “Candy Bars and Men” about hooking up. “Everybody Loves You” is about that public persona versus private persona and that feeling of a pop star being lonely in a crowded room. There’s “Hollywood,” which is more of a transitional, culture shock and self-loathing song. Then it’s “Anybody Else,” which I would say is the one song on there that is really a heartbreak song.
In terms of writing, I think it used to be that it was a thin line, and I would try to be funny, and I would mask the more vulnerable aspects of whatever I was writing to be funny instead. And I think over the last seven years, it’s been like a slow process of peeling it back, peeling it back, peeling it back so that I’m not afraid to be vulnerable anymore. And sometimes within that vulnerability, there’s humor, but I don’t use it to hide anymore.
Yash: It’s certainly a really multifaceted EP. Hearing you talk about it and recognizing the pieces of the process that you’re describing in the finished product is really satisfying.
Mal: Oh, thank you. That is very, very kind. Your enthusiasm is warming my cold, frozen heart.
Yash: Listen, that’s the one kind of climate change I can get behind! My last question is: I’m always looking for recommendations and I trust your taste more than I trust any algorithm. So who are some other queer musicians and artists who I should be listening to?
Mal: Wow. That is a really good question. Lavender Country. Got to listen to Lavender Country. If you haven’t heard Lavender Country, you’ve got to listen to Lavender Country. They were started in like the 1970s, and they were a gay country band. And they just put a new album out, I think last month. So yeah, you got to do that. I’ve also got Olive Klug joining me on tour in May, and they’re very nice, so give them a listen.
I also have a playlist that I made for the “Candy Bars” video shoot, with John Prine, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, Adia Victoria, Dolly Parton, Jason Isbell, Keb Mo, Patsy Klein, more John Prine, more Johnny Cash and Sheryl Crow.
Yash: That is a lot of bangers in one place. That is a high number of bangers per capita.
Mal: Sometimes when I’m depressed or when I am unsure about what’s going on in my career, I don’t listen to music, which is like an interesting thing. I don’t, but I should.
Yash: That feeling is very familiar and very, very, very recognizable. Like the opposite of writer’s block.
Mal: Yeah. I think people would be surprised maybe to learn that I don’t actually listen to very much music, but you know, it is what it is. Yeah. And then when I’m doing better, when I’m happier, I start to listen again. I finally started to listen to music again this week, actually, for the first time in like a year. With the EP coming out, that’s been a really good feeling.