When Mal Blum performs at Truro Vineyards this Saturday, hosted by Twenty Summers, it will be their first concert since the start of the pandemic.
“I turned down other gigs because I just didn’t feel ready,” says Blum, who uses they/them pronouns. “I’m a pretty neurotic person in general and, like, a literal hypochondriac.” Because the Twenty Summers concert is outdoors and socially distanced, it seemed like “a good way to dip my toe back in.” Plus, Blum hasn’t been to the Outer Cape — Provincetown specifically — since a visit in high school.
“It’s sort of like riding a bike, in that I’ve been performing professionally for a decade,” explains Blum. “You don’t really forget. Once you get up there, you remember what to do. And it’s not like I haven’t been playing music this whole time — just not in a live capacity.” This past year, Blum did a series of webcasts called “Mal’s Big Night.”
“The other thing is, my voice dropped pretty significantly over quarantine,” says Blum. “I’ve been on testosterone for two years on a low dose. I don’t know what happened over quarantine, but it did a drop. So, I’ve been re-finding my range. I’ll have to put together a set list and see which of my old songs I want to put on there and which ones I need to practice.”
Blum grew up in New York. “I’m from an area called Airmont or Monsey or Montebello, depending on who you are, but it’s all the same zip code,” they say. “I think they made a distinction because Monsey is a very observant Jewish area. My family is Jewish, but we’re Reform.”
Blum picked up the guitar as a 14-year-old. They started writing songs, performing, and recording with high school friends. “I look back on that time pretty fondly, because even though I was struggling with a lot of stuff, I had a good group of friends,” says Blum. “It was nice to have the freedom to creatively explore. Now, the flip side of that is the internet was a thing, and I started putting music on it way too young, frankly.”
Blum self-released their first album at age 17 — they have since “successfully scrubbed it from the internet” — but this set a pattern for sharing music directly with fans. Blum attended the conservatory at SUNY Purchase — during and after that time, they self-released three more albums: Goodnight Sugarpop in 2008, Every Time You Go Somewhere in 2011, and Tempest in a Teacup in 2013.
“The reason for that is that no record label would sign me, which is often the case,” Blum says. “At a certain point, you think it’s because you’re green, and then you start to get a chip on your shoulder. Once you have fans, you’re like, ‘What the hell, guys? Do I suck or is it because I’m gay?’ The evidence is that people like my music — they come to my shows. At this point, this would be a profitable venture for you. You either just don’t like me or it’s the homophobia and transphobia.”
Blum did finally sign with punk label Don Giovanni Records, releasing You Look a Lot Like Me in 2015 and Pity Boy in 2019.
“During that album cycle for You Look a Lot Like Me, I publicly changed my pronouns, and that was a whole issue with the press company we were using, because they wouldn’t do it,” says Blum. “Right before Pity Boy came out is when I got top surgery, and after it came out, I started testosterone. So now I think I’m exploring a whole other side of trans identity, which is walking through the world in a different way. I think that’ll probably come out in the next full-length album.” Before then, they are planning a release of country songs written during the pandemic.
Many of Blum’s lyrics are about identity as well as mental health. “Things Still Left to Say” is about being in the closet. “See Me” is about being misunderstood and misidentified: “I don’t belong/ Though it helps to play along/ Why can’t they see me when I’m right here?” They are passionate, slightly grungy anthems — lying somewhere between punk, rock, pop, and indie — about topics usually missing from the schoolyard.
For Blum, voice has significance both literally and metaphorically. “My voice was the main thing I was worried about when I started testosterone, because this is how I make my living,” they say. “I’m not a strong singer, but I have a sound and people seem to like it. Do I want to start messing with it?”
Blum realized, however, that the way others described that voice — comparing it to the voice of other singers — did not match their self-conception. “Some people experience dysphoria [a sense of feeling out of place in one’s body] where they’re hyper aware of things they don’t like,” explains Blum. “Then, some people, like me, experience dysphoria where they’re so removed that they don’t realize how others perceive them. Now, when I listen back to stuff I recorded over the years, I sound really young but also really timid.
“Voice is held up to you as one of the things with gender affirming hormone treatment that doesn’t go back if you decide to go off,” continues Blum. “So, I think a lot of people have anxieties about it. But for me, I just had to lean into it, and I’m glad I did. I’m still learning how to wield it, and live will be a new endeavor. But I think it’s going to be fun.”
The event: Mal Blum in concert
The time: Saturday, Aug. 14 at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7 p.m.
The place: Truro Vineyards, 11 Shore Road
The cost: $30 at 20summers.org