Jesse Malin and his band D Generation were on the road opening for the Ramones in 1996 when the ageless New York City punk first heard Lucinda Williams’ voice. It was on the duet with Steve Earle “You’re Still Standin’ There” and her distinct nasally tone cut through like a serrated knife, all jagged and dangerous. Excited about his discovery, Malin couldn’t wait to tell his mentor, Joey Ramone.
“He was such a music lover. We’d talk in the mornings and ask each other, ‘What are you listening to?’” says Malin, precariously sipping on an overpoured hot tea in a coffeehouse in Nashville, where he’s just performed the night before. “I said, ‘I’m listening to Lucinda Williams. I gotta go buy all her records.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, I know her.’ I said, ‘Joey, you know Lucinda Williams?’”
As it turns out, Ramone and Williams had in fact once performed together at a songwriters night in New York.
“It was a shock,” Malin says. “I would talk to Lucinda about that years later and she said, ‘Yeah, he’d send me cassettes, or a song about a train, or this and that. He wanted to write.’ They had this long distance connection.”
Like his punk hero before him, Malin himself would strike up a connection with Williams, a bond that culminated in his superb new album Sunset Kids. Produced by Williams and Tom Overby, the LP finds Malin fully embracing the Americana vibe he explored with his 2003 solo debut The Fine Art of Self Destruction, his first singer-songwriter effort after decades on the punk and hardcore scene as the frontman of bands like Heart Attack and D Generation.
After becoming disillusioned with punk rock — specifically that its message of social change and his lyrics were getting lost in its anarchistic image — he set out on his own.
“When I was singing for D Generation, even though those songs were personal, I was aware that I was writing for a gang, and I had to front these guys. We were singing stuff about our lives, and social things and alienation, but we got lost in the shoes and the hair and the outfits. And that was frustrating. It was all about the mosh pit and not about what I was writing,” Malin says. “So I went solo.”
Six studio albums and a wildly diverse covers LP, 2008’s On Your Sleeve, followed, all leading Malin to Sunset Kids, the most concise, focused, and personal LP of his career. It’s a record that was inspired by an unconscionable series of losses in the 51-year-old singer’s life — his father Paul Malin, former bandmate Todd Youth, producer David Bianco, and a friend on the hardcore circuit, Chris Charucki, all died in 2018.
“The whole thing had a heaviness around it, but it makes you appreciate every moment you’re on the planet,” Malin says. “There’s climate change, wars, hate, and toxic stuff in the air, and we’re being watched with our phones, but you know what, we’re alive and it’s this moment and you have to make the best of it. You have to find a way to wake up the next morning.”
Malin found at least some of that steadfast perseverance via his friendship with Williams. The two met at New York City jazz club the Blue Note during a performance by Charlie Watts in the early 2000s and, despite the unrelenting schedules of touring musicians, somehow managed to stay in touch.
“People drive off in their bus and you go back in your van and you go a different way, but with me and her, it felt like there was something there. Whatever we were going to be in each other’s lives, it felt unfinished,” says Malin, who paid tribute to Williams by writing the song “Lucinda” for his 2007 album Glitter in the Gutter.
“I just love his writing. I think his whole punk background informs a lot of what he does.” — Lucinda Williams on Jesse Malin
Fast forward 10 years later when Williams was opening for Tom Petty at what would be his final concert, a euphoric September gig at the Hollywood Bowl a week before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member’s unexpected death. Malin was in attendance at the show and he and Williams had dinner the next night, where they talked about collaborating on an album.
“I was nervous,” Malin admits, “because lyrically she’s such a monster and a powerhouse.”
For Williams, the appeal to work with Malin lay in his street-smart lyricism.
“I just love his writing. I really love his lyrics. I think his whole punk background informs a lot of what he does, and yet he’s really good with melodies,” Williams says. “I think he’s gotten better and better as a songwriter, which I think shows on this new album. He is sort of like how I approach music: where there’s a little of this and a little of that in it.”
Williams helped Malin refine his words, in some cases deconstructing lyrics line by line, while her husband and manager Overby, who first met Malin during the release of D Generation’s 1996 album No Lunch when he was an executive at Best Buy, focused on broadening his vocal approach.
“I used to go see D Generation back in the day. But when he made these kinds of [singer-songwriter] records, he needed to try some lower keys and sing a slightly different way,” Overby says. “You can’t sing this kind of music with the same energy that you’d sing a punk rock song. He really responded to that.”
But while Malin may be singing in a more controlled manner than he did on sneering D Generation songs like “Capital Offender” and “Frankie,” he never loses his Lower East Side edge on Sunset Kids. For the surging “Strangers and Thieves” he joins forces with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to relive their troublemaking glory days. On the Paul Simon-esque “Chemical Heart,” he skewers a toxic relationship and swears to never be the other person’s “Bernie Taupin” or “stepping stone.” And on “Gray Skies Look So Blue” he comes to the hard realization that rose-colored glasses are nearly impossible to remove.
“‘Gray Skies Look So Blue’ is about selective memory. When you break up with somebody or break up a band, you look back and you only think of the good things,” Malin says. “You miss certain things and so you come back, and it’s S.O.S. — the same old shit.”
The album is at its most fierce, however, on “Dead On,” one of three guest shots by Williams (Lucinda also sings harmony on “Shane,” a tribute to Pogues singer Shane MacGowan, and on the introspective “Room 13”). Here, she spits out lyrics about “Salvation Army combat boots” and duplicitous angels, with Malin summoning his D Generation bravado to match her acidic delivery.
“He had the melody and the refrain and wanted some help on the verses, so I went in and took the verses apart and put them back together,” Williams says. “That song is one that I wish I had written. I love that song.”
“I said, ‘Wow, these lyrics are dirty — I don’t know if I can sing these,” Malin says of Williams’ revision, which he was concerned was a little too aggressive for a man to sing to a woman. Eventually they found common ground, with Malin even injecting some rock history into the mix. “I told her a story about how Patti Smith comes out and spits on the floor of the stage at every show, and that ended up in the song: You talk like an angel/you spit on the floor/but you look just like the girl next door.”
Malin sloshes around the tea in his cup, spilling some onto the pant leg of the black suit he’s wearing on this humid Tennessee summer day. Outside, the English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock pulls up on a bicycle and Malin is wide-eyed. It’s another random encounter, a life moment that reinforces the underlying theme of Sunset Kids.
“It’s about appreciating things as they’re happening,” he says, “because they can be gone.”
With the album now out in the world, Malin is gearing up to promote the record, both on home turf — at New York’s Webster Hall on September 14th — and on somewhat foreign lands: he’ll make his AmericanaFest debut in Nashville on September 11th at the Basement, and set sail with Williams on the Outlaw Country Cruise in January.
But while the Americana tag may be warranted for Sunset Kids, he’s still a punk at heart. And he says Williams is too.
“As a kid we were so purist about being punk, but as you get older, you realize that rock & roll is an attitude,” Malin says. “These days, everybody’s mom has tattoos and a piercing just to be dangerous. But being honest is more dangerous, and that’s one thing I saw with Lucinda. As a writer she’s fearless. She has more swagger and attitude than most rock & rollers I know.”