Big Hassle Media
Just as New York City continuously cycles through stages of self-destruction and renewal, maintaining its unique character throughout, so too has Jesse Malin, one of the defining Rock & Roll voices of the city since the 1980s, evolved from Punk prophet to Roots Rock singer/songwriter, a metamorphosis that culminates in his collection of 14 finely honed new songs called Sunset Kids.
“Sunset Kids is about things fading out, loss and change and farewells and goodbyes, but also rebirth,” says Malin. Several losses frame the record, with Jesse’s father Paul Malin, his friend and former bandmate Todd Youth and producer/engineer David Bianco among those who passed during its making.
“As things go away and we lose people we love, we lose part of the world. You’ve got to find new ways to get excited and transcend the corporate stuff or political stuff or the ignorance. I think every generation has dealt with that.”
In exploring these themes of transformation and regeneration, Jesse drew guidance from a creative guru to help focus his prolific songwriting and oversee the feel of the sessions, album producer Lucinda Williams. A certified legend in the space where Country music meets Rock, the three-time Grammy winning artist was once named “America’s best songwriter” by Time magazine.
While perhaps not a predictable pairing, Jesse, a lifelong New Yorker, got hip to Louisiana native Williams’ edgy brand of Country in the ’90s, when Lucinda was on the cusp of her own transformative work, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and Malin was the frontman behind the fast and loud ’70s Punk/Glam-influenced stylings of D Generation, whose albums were produced by Ric Ocasek, Tony Visconti and Bianco. Malin initially made his presence known in the early ’80s as the 14-year-old singer of NYC hardcore punk rockers Heart Attack.
“People say Lucinda’s a Roots or a Country singer, but she’s really a badass,” says Malin, who first heard her voice on a duet with Steve Earle and soon after was surprised to discover his friend Joey Ramone was already a fan. “She’s probably more badass than most Rock & Rollers.”
Malin and Williams met around the time his solo career launched with 2002’s acclaimed The Fine Art Of Self-Destruction. Bonding over a shared affinity for society’s outcasts as well as the craft of writing and recording, a song he wrote for her, “Lucinda,” appeared on his 2007 album Glitter In The Gutter, which also featured a duet with Bruce Springsteen, “Broken Radio.” The seeds for Sunset Kids were planted a decade later at The Hollywood Bowl, when Jesse accepted Lucinda’s invite to see her open what turned out to be the final concert by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and then asked her to produce his next record.
“I don’t think she’d produced anybody, but I knew she really understood Rock & Roll and songs and lyrics and just everything,” Jesse remarks of his intuition. “I could feel her spirit would be something cool.”
That spirit manifested on levels beyond what many producers do, as Williams’ songwriting acumen drove Jesse to further refine his copious lyrics. “I always write a lot of verses. I went through all my verses and she was like, ‘Yeah, go with that,’” he says of her counsel. “A big part of Lucinda’s production is the outside set of ears and objectivity. We could always tell, when she’d start swinging her hips and moving, that it was the best take.”
Lucinda ended up co-writing and singing on three of the album’s tunes: the evocative Country-flavored “Room 13,” which Jesse calls “the heart of the record in a lot of ways”; the “sleazy Detroit meets southern swampy” rocker “Dead On”; and “Shane,” a tribute to a musical hero with whom he’s shared a stage, the lovably shambolic Shane MacGowan of The Pogues.
Another key guest contribution comes courtesy of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, who co-wrote and sings on “Strangers & Thieves.” “Billie Joe was in town and we were walking around,” Jesse recalls. “I showed him where we hung out when we were kids in the hardcore days. A couple days later, I got a text and he had just finished the song. He kept the couple of lines I had for the choruses and went into the details of his experience in the Bay Area with that scene, and also my experiences, which were very parallel in New York.”
Beyond the duets, the stylistically varied yet sonically cohesive Sunset Kids moves through many modes: the Lou Reed-like verses crossed with Ian Hunteresque choruses of the album opener (“Meet Me At The End Of The World Again”), radio-ready Americana pop a la The Jayhawks or Petty (“Shining Down,” “When You’re Young”), acoustic introspection (“Revelations,” closing track “My Little Life”), punky New Wave worthy of classic Elvis Costello (“Chemical Heart”), even midtempo neo-Soul (“Do You Really Wanna Know”).
The latest release in Wicked Cool Records’ partnership with distributor The Orchard, Sunset Kids is a highlight for the label founded and run by Stevie Van Zandt of Little Steven’s Underground Garage, the SiriusXM channel where Jesse is frequently heard on the air spinning Rock & Roll. Wicked Cool’s 2019 release slate also features albums from The Dollyrots, Ryan Hamilton And The Harlequin Ghosts, The Jellybricks and Richard And The Young Lions.