If You Have Ghosts
Danny Malone's haunted 'Balloons'
Most would consider a stay at Hidden Lake Academy a nadir in their personal history.
Nestled in Georgia's southern bracket of the Appalachian mountains, the boarding school hosted troubled youth with issues ranging from typical academic rebellion to more dire psychological ailments. When Danny Malone was ordered there as a high schooler, exposure to bitter mountain temperatures, plus rations of rotten meat and solitary confinement in a dusty cabin, loomed as punishment for misbehavior. Despite the promise of severe consequences, only one thing provoked behavioral modification.
"When I would act up, they would take my guitar," he says. "That's all I had. I would bawl when they took it."
The guitar stayed locked in a closet for most of his two years at Hidden Lake, doled out in weekly hourlong glimpses. The facility has since closed, never quite recovering from a $400,000 lawsuit over accreditation. Despite extensive group therapy forced upon Malone, he doesn't point to Hidden Lake as a turning point in his recovery.
"I learned how to manipulate therapists, so that's all I did," he admits. "I could just coast through the system. I had to be there so long, I figured I better figure out how to not get into trouble."
Reunited with his guitar, the 29-year-old songwriter's typically upbeat melodies mask the demons that inform his lyrics, often laced with paranoia and addiction. The period after his release from Hidden Lake has since led him to a magic castle, on cross-country treks selling his music, and settling locally into what he fondly refers to as his Special Magic Barn Fantastic. As with most stories though, Malone's life got a lot worse before it got better.
The Special Magic Barn Fantastic
Sunlight streams through the windows of Malone's barn in East Austin, fogged by his steady cigarette puffs. He rents out the front house to two bartenders, preferring the privacy of the renovated garage with its high ceiling. I've been to the Special Magic Barn Fantastic three times for his intimate showcases, but he fidgets nervously with his acoustic guitar and a pack of Camel Blues when I drop in on his clandestine space.
"I would feel weird coming to someone's house," he apologizes. "Sorry they made you do this."
He turns up the volume on his dropped-G twang while enthusiastically chatting about his music, but quiets to a demure mumble as he unpacks a dark past. Malone seems far from the showboat who ended the last barn fête I attended with a stage dive.
"Those are two different people," he explains. "One is designed, and one is flawed and private. One is a real person, and one is a caricature. It almost feels like I'm schizophrenic or something; I have another personality that comes out at shows. Like Beyoncé."
More than anywhere else, Malone feels at home in his barn. The sparse, open room serves as his creative center. He lives, works, and records here. He also descended into and recovered from a drug-induced turmoil within these same walls. The barn now acts as Malone's makeshift rehab, with music as his counselor.
"I realize [when writing] I'm sort of working a problem out that I've been repressing or not thinking about. It's like therapy."
Therapy he needed after returning from a haunted castle.
A certain English bard once famously warned that there's something rotten in Denmark. Tales wrought with betrayal, torture, and witches cast an ominous air over Danish castles. The idyllic Engelsholm Castle in southwest Denmark was once home to astronomer Tycho Brahe's family, purchased from a tyrant king in the 15th century. His brother, alchemist Knud Brahe, harnessed the castle's mystic locale, constructing four onion-dome towers that aligned with stars and ultimately unleashed what many visitors believe is supernatural prominence.
It was the perfect candidate for a Shakespearean drama, but the mise-en-scène missed its mark. Malone's trips to Engelsholm certainly had the mysticism, but the drama unfolded upon returning home.
He'd arrived in Denmark with 10 songs written, prompted by an initial songwriting workshop at Engelsholm. Even before his return there to record them, the castle played an integral role in all stages of his third album, Balloons, out this week.
"I never left the place in the year that I was away," says Malone of the castle. "When I went back, it felt like it was where I had been in my heart the whole time."
Joined by local producer Matthew Smith, the pair began recording. Spinning hay into gold, the two used raw percussives like piano-lid slams and patty-cake games in lieu of a drum kit, keeping with the space's history of turning simple elements into something finer.
Offering sweet heartache on 2009's Cuddlebug, biting but wide-eyed in perspective, Malone explores uncharted territory on Balloons. A handwritten Post-It stuck to the inside cover of my Digipak says it best: "There are ghosts in these tracks." That's a frank summation by the creator, and an accurate one, too.
There are placid specters lurking in Malone's songs – longing, maybe, but eerily anchored in resignation. The natural storyteller traded gut-spilling confessionals for a cryptic mosaic that Malone pieces together in flashes. Balloons deals heavily in magic and superstition, with songs like the sinister "Spiderlegs" and "Lee Woke Me." The former stands out as one of the stronger tracks, countering a chugging electronic bass with music-box guitar pickings that dance in the upper frets. It's both delicate and menacing, much like its arachnid namesake. Whether the magic belongs to a castle or a maturing songwriter, Malone's got a true gem on his hands.
Denmark may have bucked its reputation for ill-fated castles this time. Brimming with anticipation, Malone ended his two-month sojourn and returned to Austin to find a mess.
"I thought the castle was going to be my story, but it continues. My life fell apart."
Something Rotten in Austin
Balloons remained in limbo for nearly two years. Label money, promised on a gentleman's agreement, disappeared. The city of Austin condemned Hot Tracks, the studio he co-owned with Smith, though the building still sits on the corner of Sixth and Pedernales. Smith scrambled for another space, putting Balloons on hold indefinitely.
"I kept thinking, 'This isn't going to happen, is it?' I fucked my whole life up because I was so heartbroken about the record," recounts Malone. "My manager quit. My booking agent quit; I guess because I was so fucked up."
Though a broken betrothal provided the final push, Malone managed to turn the bedlam of Balloons into an entirely new full-length. Speed Dreamer was recorded in solitude and extreme isolation, ending a macabre journey.
"It kind of saved my life, because I got on drugs and stuff and, God, I think I would have just killed myself on drugs."
After recording Speed Dreamer on a four-track, microphone, and the limited equipment he had after selling many of his possessions, Malone reached a breakthrough, with Balloons finally being released nationally. And if the songs he previewed from Speed Dreamer offer a peephole into the next album, Malone already has another masterpiece past the peak work that is Balloons.
For now, Malone plans to let Balloons breathe before slating a release date for his next LP. He heads to L.A. this month, but has no plans for extensive touring.
"I'm relieved," he sighs. "Balloons is an important record to me. The whole experience was magical, because we didn't know we were going to have these problems yet."
Unfettered by impending uncertainty, Balloons does shine. Whether in an enchanted castle or fantastical barn, Malone's malcontent recedes into the past.
Danny Malone plays the Chronicle's free music series, Paper Cuts, Tuesday, June 25, last entry of the summer. Visit austinchronicle.com/papercuts.