F Scott Fitzgerald once memorably declared: “There are no second acts in American lives.”But then the great jazz-age writer never met Jesse Malin.
A ‘face’ on the New York music scene since he was 12 years old, Malin fronted hardcore band Heart Attack (one of the city’s first) and 90s rock’n’roll punks D Generation before finding success as a gritty singer-songwriter. His latest solo album, New York Before The War, is both a love song to his home town and an enthralling road map of his musical journey so far.
New York Before The War is an evocative title. What does it mean to you?
It’s a metaphor for how in this city we’re being beaten down and how we try to survive, trying to hold on to our culture and hold on to our freedoms. I’d been away for a bunch of years after [2010 album] Love It To Life, touring a lot, so I’d neglected to think much about my home town. But when I was writing this record, in my tiny studio apartment on Avenue C and 2nd Street, I noticed that on the side of the building, in big, black letters, it said: ‘The War’. And I started to think about that. And to me it kinda meant not one specific war, but a perpetual state. A lot of this album is about music pulling us together.
The song Oh Sheena reads like a tribute to your old punk rock days.
That was written about a tough girl I knew – I changed the name to protect the innocent and the guilty – who was into cool punk music. It’s me looking back at that from a distance, as I was writing a new record on the same streets I grew up on in the punk days. There’s a lyric on there that I like: ‘When it all goes down on the corner in this sad and beautiful world.’ And I think we’re all trying to find some beauty in a troubled world, a way to make it shine.
The album has guest appearances from two of the great American guitar players: the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and REM’s Peter Buck.
And J Mascis on one of the bonus tracks, actually. I’d met Peter Buck on tour with [Mexican singer-songwriter] Alejandro Escovedo, and when I wrote the song I Would Do It For You I wanted a rainy-day, sad-but-sweet REM guitar part. And then I thought, why don’t I just ask Peter? I sent him the track, and within a day he’d nailed it. Wayne I’d seen at a Johnny Thunders gig when I was a little kid, and I met him relatively recently with some charity things he’s doing. We have a lot in common, and we became pals.
Was it a conscious decision to have this record contain traces of everything you’ve done musically?
Well, I wanted it to be honest, and to lay out my journey. I guess from going back to D Generation [who have a new single out in April], and with all the nostalgia and interest around early US hardcore, it’s made me really think about where I come from, where I’m at right now and who I am. And I wanted to make this a snapshot of this time, and of the things going on for me and going on in the world.
At this point, what are your ambitions for this record?
I’d like to reach more people, to spread the word. And obviously make a whole bucket of money so that I can buy New York and give it back to the Indians.
New York Before The War is out on March 30 via One Little Indian.