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Jena Malone on Susan Sarandon, Ani DiFranco, and The Shoe

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Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firstieswe talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

Undoubtedly best known for acting in films like Donnie Darko, Into The Wild, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Jena Malone is also a talented musician. Her latest band is The Shoe, an improvisational music project she started with Lem Jay Ignacio after the two met at a party in Los Angeles in 2008. The group’s latest record is I’m Okay.


First song she ever wrote
Jena Malone: I had started freestyling lyrics and melodies. One of the first kinds of melody I had been riffing was in mythical Portuguese, which was funny because I knew Spanish words, but I didn’t know all of them and it was just easier to sing in gibberish. So I started riffing on “You Are My Sunshine” and creating melodies and words around that.

But the first “song” song I wrote was for this solo project I used to work with called Jena Malone And The Blood Stains. It was called, “You Are The Bread (And I Am The Fire)” or “And I,” and it was an easy, conversational song back and forth between this man and this woman.


First song she wrote for The Shoe
JM: The first song we wrote together was called “Shaking Hands With Presidents.” I had been to a thrift store and found all these old children’s books. When I freestyle, it’s nice to have books because if I get lost or can’t think of something, I can open a book and riff off that sentence. “Shaking Hands With Presidents” was a children’s story about this class president election, and all these children were voting for who they wanted to become president and some of the votes got blown away in the wind. It was kind of silly, but yeah. That was the first song we ever wrote together.

First instrument she learned to play
JM: The first thing I learned to play was a looper because I was mostly just a vocalist and I wanted to be able to build loops and percussive things to sing against.

The A.V. Club: When did you learn that?

JM: About six years ago. It was one of the first instruments I ever picked up. Piano I sort of pretend to play. I’ve pretended to play piano my whole life, but I’ve never been that well-versed. Looper, I was kind of like, “Oh, I understand this. It understands me.” It kind of spoke my language.


AVC: It seems like a good gateway for a lot of artists.

JM: Yeah, for sure. Especially for people like me that aren’t classically trained musicians.


First live show with The Shoe
JM: For the first live show, we played six different shows consecutively around Los Angeles and built a kind of treasure map to allow people to follow us around to street corners, alleyways, and mini-marts.

Before that, we did a little test run on a street corner on Fletcher right next to the L.A. River kind of next to the 2 Freeway. It was on St. Patrick’s Day and we brought our generator out and played on this abandoned, crappy hill that just had a billboard in the middle. We were selling little bottles of Irish Luck whiskey in brown paper bags and I think we were selling cupcakes. We invited a bunch of our friends and played and it was a lot of fun.


AVC: Did you think the cops were going to shut you down?

JM: There’s always that question, but we’ve only been shut down once and we’ve played 20 different shows. The cops drove by a couple of times and were kind of listening. I remember them waving to us like it was cute what we were doing because it was very childish, whimsical music, and there were kids out, and there were all these trinkets out. It looked like a funny, antique picnic for love and music. It was not a thing for them at all.


First favorite band
JM: I think it was Lisa Loeb. My older sister had a boyfriend that would drop her off and they’d listen to that one song “Stay” in the car. I’d watch them hang out and be teenagers in the car. I was like 7 years old and thought it was so cool that he had memorized all of the words to this song. I was like, “God, it’s so cool that a woman singer can have a man want to sing her song.”

But I think the first “band” band was, literally, a tie between Ani DiFranco and the Spice Girls. I’m not going to lie; I was 12 years old and that was my shit.


AVC: Do you have a favorite Ani DiFranco or Spice Girls song?

JM: God, it’s so far removed from me now that I don’t even remember the names of the songs. I could know every single lyric.


The first concert I ever went to was an Ani DiFranco concert.

AVC: Where was that?

JM: I was working with Susan Sarandon on Stepmom and she took me. It was in Central Park and I got to sit on one of Ani’s amps on the side of the stage and watch her perform. It was so rad.


AVC: How old were you?

JM: I was like 12.

I think one of my favorite songs was called “Fuck You” or “Untouchable Face” or something.


AVC: Do you feel like there’s a boundary between your acting work and your musical work, or is all a part of who you are?

JM: I feel like they’re both me being interested in storytelling. In one I become the body and in the other I become the voice. I feel like the boundaries are pretty blurry for me because when I’m singing, I’m creating stories and creating characters and becoming really raw and intimate with my emotions. Then, obviously, in films I’m getting lost in something more specific. But it’s all getting lost in the art of characters and stories and wanting to move people.


First acting role she was really proud of
JM: I don’t know. I remember booking the first audition I ever got and thinking that was really rad. I was 10 years old and thought, “Yeah, I can really do this.” It gave me all of this false confidence and I was walking around with a little bit of swag on my back as this little precocious 10-year-old.

AVC: What was that for?

JM: It was for a student film called Sunday’s Child.

First time she turned down a role
JM: I turned down Parent Trap like three times.

AVC: The Lindsay Lohan Parent Trap?

JM: Yeah, I think so.

First day on The Hunger Games
JM: My first day on The Hunger Games I had a cold sore and I was sick and we were all supposed to be meeting in the training area. I was so sick and I was supposed to be strong and intimidating and I felt bad because I was so stressed out. I was like, “Oh my God, everyone is going to hate me.” But I started going up there and wielding my ax and all the crew guys were stepping away. I was like, “Okay, this is going to be good.” If I can intimidate the crew, I can intimidate the actors.