Mal Blum is an indie rock musician, writer, actor, and model. Their latest record, the Ain’t It Nice EP, is out now.
Mal Blum is an indie rock songwriter and performer based in LA; John-Allison Weiss is also an LA-based indie musician, whose Americana-tinged Death Valley Demos EP was released last year. Blum just came out with their own country-inspired EP, Ain’t It Nice, and to celebrate, the two friends hopped on the phone to catch up about it and life-at-large.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Mal Blum: I got a lot of questions for you.
John-Allison Weiss: Oh, shit, OK.
Mal: Can you start out by describing where you’re calling from? What are you looking at right now?
John: Ooh, I am on I-40 somewhere between Asheville, North Carolina, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Mal: OK, so you’re on the road right now. Where are you going?
John: I’m just going to see some friends in Chapel Hill, and just park my trailer and hang out and have a home base for a little bit to get my shit organized for my own record, and get some repairs done on my trailer. I’ve been traveling for the past three weeks now and I’m ready to be in one spot for a little bit.
Mal: That’s nice. OK, so for somebody who’s never heard of Mal Blum or John Allison-Weiss, what’s our relation to each other?
John: I always start off by saying music friends, because we met through music. But it’s so much more than just music friends, because we’ve also been close enough buds through the years that we’ll have these long talks about all the things whenever we do end up in the same city. And we’re both on a gender journey thing, whatever you want to call it. You were one of my first non-binary friends.
Mal: Yeah, it’s funny, we had similar trajectories in that regard.
John: Now we are close music buddies.
Mal: That’s right. When did you know we would be friends forever?
John: Forever?! [Laughs.] I feel like right away. When we met in the green room of that show at Webster Hall. And it was just like, badda-bing, badda-boom, we’re friends. And the next day we went to the beach, it was great.
Mal: I think that’s what solidified it for me. We played the show, but then the day after the show we hung out. It’s like, so many times you’ll go to a show or whatever and it’s like, “Oh, my god, let’s totally hang out.” And it never happens. But next morning, me and you, brunch and the beach. We were like, “This is happening.” That’s when I knew we were friends.
John: Yeah, when I was riding in your dirty Prius.
Mal: That’s right. My car is extremely clean and professional now, for anyone wondering.
John: Wow. Well, 12 years later, you got a clean car. OK, do you want me to ask you a question?
John: When you came to me, you were like, “I made a country EP.” What made you want to make the country EP? Is that just what was coming out at the time?
Mal: I’m sure that you can relate to this, but I write songs all the time that are not in my current genre. Well, first of all, I’ve changed genres a lot, right? Because that’s just the nature of things when you start writing songs super young, and then you keep writing them and you change as a person. So record to record, the genre’s changed. And then — and I’m sure this happens to you — you get tapped to write for other things, or you just want to write other things. You’re like, Oh, I just feel like writing grunge songs right now, or like, I got tapped to write a song for a pop singer who doesn’t want it, and so now I just have a bunch of pop songs in my song graveyard.
So I actually have a lot of songs that aren’t on brand or whatever, and I just happened to have these Americana sort of sounding songs. My friend Kyle [Andrews] produced one of them and it sounded really cool and we just kept working on them. Then we had a collection of six and part of me was like, Oh, I can’t put out like an Americana record, the last record I put out was a pop punk record. And then it was during the pandemic and I was also just like, Fuck it, it doesn’t really fucking matter. Like, life is so short that if you have art that you made that is cohesive and you want to put it out, just put it out. Who cares? I think the next record will probably be back to being a rock record. But who knows, really?
John: Well, I just love that you made this EP. It’s so great. Me and my buddies were listening to it by the campfire the other night, and it was like, Oh, yeah, this makes so much sense. And it doesn’t not sound like Mal Blum. I feel like one of the, one of the benefits of being a solo artist is like, if you want to make a different record, make a fucking different record. If you want to go back to the old thing, go back to the old thing. Over the course of our lifetimes, as artists and songwriters, we’re going to have so much shit. How are you expected to just be like, “I’m going to do the same thing again and again and again.”
Mal: Yeah. I think if you’re not growing and changing, then it doesn’t make for very compelling art in general.
John: Yeah. And like I said, it’s still you. I barely even think about the difference in the sound between Pity Boy and Ain’t It Nice. It’s just Mal songs produced in a different way.
Mal: That’s true. And my voice dropped. [Laughs.]
John: That too.
Mal: People always ask me about that. Do people ask you about that all the time?
John: Yeah. And something that keeps happening to me is, I keep meeting new people who want to go look up my music, and I feel compelled to tell them that it’s going to sound like my voice dropped. And it’s a weird conversation to have because I’m like, Do I out myself or do I just make a joke about puberty and hope they don’t dwell on it? But it’s definitely weird and frustrating to have a collection of music out there where my voice is so much higher.
Mal: Right. Totally.
John: What do people ask about your voice drop?
Mal: They mostly in interviews are like, “Oh, well, you’re a singer, and then your voice dropped from testosterone. That must have been a difficult decision.” I think somebody asked me, “Do you have any models for that?” And usually I just think about you, because you sort of did it before I did. And so my only real models were, like, you and Justin Bieber. [Laughs.] People who are singers and then their voice dropped.
John: Yeah, the Hanson Brothers. I always say I’m a Hanson Brother.
Mal: I was going to ask if you had any if you had any models.
John: No, not really. Yeah, it was all like teen boys — which is a similar thing, but not quite the same. And then there was one guy who I found online named Holden Madegame — he’s an opera singer, he transitioned and went from being a mezzo soprano to a tenor or something. So I was like, Well, fuck, this opera singer can do it, I can try with my weird ass voice. It was definitely worth it. Was it a hard decision for you? Because I think it was hard for me, but also I just wanted to go on T so badly that I was like, Fuck it, whatever happens is going to be fine. And I sort of believed it would be fine.
Mal: It was a hard decision in that I have a really hard time with change and with the unknown and with not trusting my own decision-making in general. And also, I think the culture at large likes to talk about transition in this way of sort of fear-baiting — of like, you could lose all these things, don’t forget, this is permanent. [It’s] never really framed in terms of what you gain. But it just got to a point where I was just like, Yeah, I don’t know if there’s a net down there, but I gotta jump.
Mal: So I didn’t know. Somebody was asking me the other day and they were like, “Was that difficult?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess some songs I can’t sing like I used to, but I was never a classically great singer.” You know? Like, that’s not the thing that I do. [Laughs.]
John: Exactly how I feel as well. I wasn’t, like, Ariana Grande or something. I’m just singing as a means to get the song down, you know? Honestly, I’ve worked on my voice more since transitioning than I ever did before T, because I have to now. But I’ve also found that it’s fun. I’m like, Oh, I can actually get good at this. And that’s kind of cool.
Mal: Right? Because that’s the thing: I didn’t like my voice before.
John: Me neither. I was like, Ugh, why do I sound like this? But now I’m kind of into it. Also, you sound great! Look at us!
Mal: Look at us go! So, speaking of growing and changing, you just had an audition for an acting thing, right?
John: Oh, yeah, I didn’t get it.
Mal: Ah, shit. OK, never mind.
John: You know what’s cool is, one of my besties who is also trans man, got the gig.
Mal: Oh, good! That’s the funny thing — I was going to ask you, what’s up with trans masc musicians all of a sudden taking acting and modeling jobs? What are we doing?
John: Oh, God. Well, I feel like you are doing the acting thing, and that’s really cool. Acting for me just terrifies me. I already feel like I’m awkward enough, and then when I try and act, I just feel like a not a person. So I don’t actually love acting. I did it because I was asked to, because the creator was a fan of my music, and I was like, You know what? Why not? I’ve never had a Hollywood audition. Let’s do this. It was fun, but I was nervous. I had a great time. Kind of glad I didn’t get the part.
Mal: Yeah, for sure.
John: And you’re like a legit actor now. You’ve, like, acted in things.
Mal: No, no, no, no. I wouldn’t say I’m a legit actor. I’m mainly a songwriter — that’s my main gig, that’s on my taxes, I’m a musician and a songwriter. I’m branching out into writing songs for other opportunities sometimes. I will take acting and modeling jobs if I can get them, because I am diversifying my portfolio. Because you know what? If there’s anything that the pandemic taught me when touring got shut down is, I gotta have multiple pokers in the fire.
John: Not a bad idea.
Mal: I gotta stay hustling. In the immortal words of Chi Chi DeVayne, may she rest in peace, “If you stay ready, you don’t gotta get ready.”
John: I love that. Were you a drama kid?
Mal: I did stage crew. I was like a lesbian stage crew person.
John: I was not a lesbian, I was a deeply closeted teenager, but I was on stage crew. I know that you’ve acted in your own music videos in the past and are always great, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a history in theater, or at least comedy or improv or some shit. So when I saw that you were just acting in stuff, I wasn’t surprised. Whereas when I have to act into my own music videos, I want to die the whole time. Although maybe that’ll change now that I like the way I look. But I don’t really like having to do it.
Mal: I mean, I did not realize that. You seem so natural in your music videos. Yeah, no, I love attention.
John: I love attention, too. I just get nervous about it when I’m supposed to be good at it for everyone else involved. So I feel like when it’s just me up on the stage doing my own thing, I’m confident that I can pull that off.
Mal: Yeah, you’re funny! That’s the thing about solo artists that I think some of us are good at, some of us aren’t as good at, but when you’re up there, it’s like 50% songs, 50% improv. It’s like a comedy show. You gotta talk to them. I mean, some people just go up, play their songs and leave, but I don’t think that’s what the audiences want.
John: Yeah. And I’ve always loved that about your shows, too. I feel like you literally will banter with the audience in the middle of a song that you’re playing.
Mal: Yeah, I talk too fucking much. So I’m on the other end.
John: But everybody loves it! What’s bad is when people try and talk and they’re not good at it, and they know they’re not good at it, but they still try. You’re like, You don’t have to, you could be a cool, mysterious, look down at your feet shoegazer between songs. But I just get too nervous. I’m like, “Oh, my god, it’s silent. I need to tell you a story while I tune my guitar.”
Mal: Right. I haven’t really played solo in a while, so I’m hoping that I’m not too rusty at that part of it. I had a professor in college who said that you should script your banter. And I was like, “No, that is bad. I don’t like that.”
John: I don’t like that at all. But on longer tours, I’ll have a tendency to, within the first few days, have banter that ends up running through the whole tour. I don’t plan it out, but I’ll introduce songs and whatnot, and if some bit lands and everyone thinks it’s funny, I’ll usually say it in some way every night. I’ve heard Brandi Carlile literally says word-for-word the same thing every night.
Mal: Oh, yeah, I toured with somebody once who — I mean, I didn’t realize it because the first time I watched their set, I was like, This is like so emotionally moving. And then after touring with them, it got to the point where beat-for-beat I could I remember. My sister was in the green room with me at one point, and I just started reciting with the person what they were about to say, and she was like, “Stop, man, you’re freaking me out.” [Laughs.]
John: Oh, god. I feel like big stars do that, too. I think Taylor Swift does that.
Mal: I mean, it’s smart. If you’re at a certain level, to be extremely polished I don’t think is a bad thing. I guess as long as you change it from tour to tour, you know.
John: Yeah, right. And I guess if you’re big like that, you can do whatever the fuck you want. Nobody cares if you’re reciting your banter. Not like the indie world — we have to prove our authenticity at every turn.
Mal: Do you think that’s still the vibe? I was wondering, are we in a cultural reset? Is like earnestness back? What’s the cool currency in the indie world right now?
John: I truly I personally believe that authenticity and earnestness is having a moment. And it’s our time to shine, because we’ve always been this way. I feel after the last two years, people just want you to be real, and that’s kind of nice.
Mal: Yeah. I met a fucking Hollywood dad the other day, like a stage dad, and he was like, “Nice to meet you, here’s my full name. What do you do?” And I was like, Ooh, I hate this vibe. I don’t like this at all. But that’s always been my belief in terms of networking — I think that people should be real people to each other and then once you have a real connection with somebody, you can work with them on stuff. I really bristle at the sort of fake persona type of stuff. Not my thing.
John: Yeah. When I was living in LA, I always felt guilty for not being more network-y. Because I feel like there’s pressure to be like, “Oh, we gotta go out and hang out with so-and-so,” or go rub elbows with people who you want to work with. I’m just never good at that.
Mal: I don’t mind that, I love meeting new people.
John: Me too, but I’m talking specifically about the times where like, we’ve all met some random ass white dude who works at a booking agency and somebody has told you that this person is here, and they could probably help your career, and you’re finding yourself trying to make some fucking douchebag laugh because you’re like, “Maybe I’ll get to be on this label…” Those situations, I feel like, happen all the time and I don’t like it. Maybe that’s why I’ve never had a real booking agent, I don’t know.
Mal: No, it was fucking hard to get an agent. I was selling out shows and I still couldn’t get an agent. But I know exactly what you mean. I remember one time an agent came to one of my shows and there was a big merch line of people waiting to talk to me or whatever, and he came to talk to me and he told me I should write a memoir or something. He was like, “You shouldn’t do music, you should be a writer.” And I was like, “Why are you here?”
John: Oh, god. You’re like, “Excuse me, sir, I need to sign CDs for these people lined up for my music.”
Mal: OK, final question: Obviously there’s always been trans people in the arts, but sometimes I feel like what we bristle against is the industries that we’re in. Do you feel like there’s space for us in the various art industries like music, et cetera?
John: Yes and no. I feel like traditionally there hasn’t been and it’s been really hard. But it feels like just based on what I see with my own eyes, the trans musicians and artists I see out there doing it now, that we’re taking that space and making it ourselves. I think I’ve talked to you about Get Better Records — I really love what they’re doing. So I think it’s a good time for us, actually. Hopefully all of these trans musicians coming out of the woodwork are inspiring more young people to pick up an instrument or a computer or whatever, write a song.
Mal: If you had one piece of advice for young people getting into the arts, what would it be?
John: It’s a tie between make things, and then also have yourself some other skills. Because like you were saying earlier, I feel like we need to diversify, because you can’t support yourself necessarily just on making your art, especially when you’re first starting out. But I think the number one piece is going to have to be make the thing. Because I think it’s easy to get hung up on how or why or if you can do it how you want to, or if it’s going to be perfect or not, or whatever. And then you just stay stagnant and you don’t ever actually create. So, lock yourself in a room and make something yours, you know? It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get heard.
Mal: Yeah, that’s good advice.
John: What about you?
Mal: I would tell them, keep your head down and do the work that fulfills you. Try not to compare yourself to other people as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to say no to things. But don’t be unkind as much as you can help it. That would be my best advice for artists starting out. Be kind and be consistent and have principles for why you do the things you do and try to always nod back to them when you’re trying to make decisions.
John: Yeah. Be true to you.
Mal: [Laughs.] Be true to you. And if that fails, then just dye your hair and try again.
John: Dye your hair, try again, change your band name. [Laughs.] Let’s catch up again sometime.
Mal: Yeah, give me a call. I want to hear about what’s going on in your life, but not on a recording.
John: Yeah, for sure. Boy, do I have some dirt! Just kidding.
Mal: Love you, buddy.
John: You too, bye!