Singled Out: mbilly's malheur
"malheur" is the title track of my album and takes its name for the county in Eastern Oregon where I grew up. The word is French for misfortune and supposedly came from French fur trappers who had everything stolen from them while passing through the area. They ran into nothing but trouble there so they gave it that name. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I found out what the word actually means and at the time it couldn't have seemed more appropriate to me. It's a very rural area that is both geographically and culturally miles away from Portland and what people think of as "the NW." It was around the time I was 14 that I began playing guitar and became obsessed with Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks, and Townes Van Zandt, all of whom were just "country" enough that I could identify with their rural aspects. Eastern Oregon is mostly dry and desolate, wide open and expansive: it looks like "the West."
I really hated it by the time I left after I graduated high school and was ecstatic to be in Portland which was everything that Eastern Oregon is not: green, liberal, and populated. I very much felt at home in Portland and no longer like a transplant. I've lived in Portland for 13 years now and slowly I've begun to feel like a transplant here. I identify with Eastern Oregon in ways that I never had before and I've become much more nostalgic for the landscape and isolation. Almost two years ago one of my best friends growing up died unexpectedly. We began playing music together when we were 14 so all of my musical development was with him. We learned the process of writing songs--both together and as individuals--with each other and we learned how to first record together. He was really fundamental in the development of something that is a huge part of my life so I can't separate making music from him, no matter how old I am or how long ago it was. We had grown apart over the years which is totally natural, but what really struck me was how immediate his death still felt to me, even though we were no longer involved in each other's day to day lives. I felt a tremendous sense of loss that I wasn't really expecting.
I found parallels in the ambivalence I felt towards my old friendship and my hometown. And I found that I can't articulate what it is about either that makes me who I am today, but I know that it's very much there. I realized that it's like trying to explain how the color of your eyes makes you who you are. It just is, it can't be separated from who you are. These feelings felt confusing and hard to solidify into any real answer or resolution. The album itself deals with this issue in one form or another on almost all the songs so I wanted the title track to be the jumping off point for it.
For the sound of the song itself I knew I wanted it to sound desolate and raw in some ways, but also driven and purposeful. I wanted it to have the atmosphere of the landscape in some way. The song wasn't going to have any kind of answer to it, so I didn't want it to be structured in a way that songs often are where the verse is setting up the question and the chorus is delivering some kind of answer. I thought of the Neil Young song "Albuquerque" which I really love and the way in which he stretches the name of the town over the whole measure so it's the only word in the chorus. I always thought that was an awesome idea and wanted to try it, so Malheur--which is a difficult word to fit in to a song--seemed like the perfect opportunity. That song became a guide for me not only for the one word chorus, but for it's lack of a resolution. It feels so sad and lonely, but it's unclear what it's really about other than he wants to get away from the pressures of his life. The song still feels complete though and for me it's one of those I most identify with. And hopefully people will have that same reaction to "malheur."
Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen for yourself and learn more about the album right here!