Actress Jena Malone makes a dreamy album that’s music to our ears.
“Jena’s running late,” Lem Jay Ignacio tells me, giving his oversize glasses a push up his nose, when we meet for drinks at Bar Stella in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Ignacio is one part of musical duo The Shoe, and the Jena he’s talking about is actress Jena Malone, the other half of their dreamy, low-fi music project. Malone, who was a teen indie queen thanks to roles in cult classics like Donnie Darko and Saved!, is leaving for Paris the following morning to finish filming The Hunger Games’ final installation, Mockingjay. (She recently stole the show in Catching Fire as badass tribute Johanna Mason, no small feat when you’re acting opposite Jennifer Lawrence.) But as the 29-year old bounds into the dimly lit bar, wearing a perfectly beat-up jean jacket over a lacy black dress, tights, and boots, I get the sense that she might’ve been late regardless of her travel plans.
Ignacio and Malone strike me as the odd couple of music. He’s punctual and even-keeled, she breezes in effervescent and apologetic; he’s a classically trained pianist who studied composition at University of Southern California, she’s a creative free spirit who “doesn’t know where a C chord is.” As they tell me the story of their friendship, which began at a Christmas party more than seven years ago (“She came up to me and said, ‘I want to do “Winter Wonderland” in mythical Portuguese,’” Ignacio says of their first impromptu performance), and new album, I’m Okay, it’s clear that this is the yin and yang that makes The Shoe work so well. The two finish one another’s sentences, give collaborative answers to my questions, and feed off of each other’s energy much as they do when performing or songwriting. They also laugh a lot and banter as only kindred spirits can (at one point they discuss dancing their way through the rest of the interview before deciding to launch a singing telegram side biz).
It’s indicative of the relationship that’s grown out of their initial musical connection. After the duo’s serendipitous meeting, Malone would bring “the shoe” (a big steamer trunk filled with electronic instruments that became the band’s namesake) to Ignacio’s and the two would stay up all night, improvising sounds, melodies, and tempos as Malone freestyled lyrics—scat-like incantations and poetic stories. It wasn’t long before they decided to play out: “I had this idea that I was going to become a better musician in public, there was something terrifying about that exchange,” Malone says, absentmindedly adjusting her bleached blond bangs. But clubs and venues didn’t suit their un-rehearsed, make-it-up-as-we-go style. The Shoe’s first performance was in an abandoned field. Since then they’ve played in parks, living rooms, on rooftops, even in a bathtub (empty, of course, though perhaps only for safety reasons). “What we did when we first started was so improvisational,” Malone says, pinching the filter off of an American Spirit before lighting it. “It was just art, we were just creating it for ourselves.”
It’s still just art, but now they’re creating it for other people, too. I’m Okay is The Shoe’s second full-length, and though each track is a fully crafted song, Ignacio says all of them “came from the initial seed of something spontaneous.” The result is an album that is equally raw and delicate with a DIY feel that stems from its homespun recording. Malone and Ignacio are just as interested in The Shoe’s visual component so it’s no surprise that the Alia Penner–directed video for their first single “Dead Rabbit Hopes” is a stunner. It features a funereal Malone, naked on a piano, covered in various states of strategically placed flowers. “I wanted to create something that felt very naked and very beautiful but not sexualized,” says Malone, who wrote the tune “at a time when I was feeling really down about my sexuality and my beauty…a woman struggles so much every day with just feeling okay with her body.” Malone’s demeanor swings from excitable to thoughtful to goofy as we chat, but her words hold a gravity when she tells me about a 16-year-old recovering anorexic who wrote to tell her the video and the song were helping her battle body issues. “I want to die for that, you know?” Malone says, her eyes tearing up. “If for the rest of my life I only create art around that, that’s all I want to do.”
Nudity actually played a role in the album’s recording process as well, underscoring the unconventional ways The Shoe put their music together. “Jena wanted to do things very unexpected. She’ll be like, ‘It sounds too much like a song!’” Ignacio explains, gesturing with his old-fashioned. “She played brushes, not on a snare drum but on my studio wall. She sang naked...” Malone nods, taking a sip of her Chimay. “I was in the middle of [recording the first single ‘Paper Cup’] and I was like, ‘It’s not working.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, you ready to go?’ He looks back and I’m naked like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go.’ That was the take,” Malone says, pulling another cigarette from her bag. “Sometimes you have to get in a really vulnerable place as an artist, and I only know that because I come from acting. I know that the takes that feel good are not the ones that are good. It’s the ones that you feel exposed and you feel like you’ve made mistakes, and you feel like you don’t know where you’re at.”
There’s no doubt about where they are geographically, however. Ignacio describes I’m Okay as a break-up album (“We were both going through breakups, and I wanted to get personal with the lyrics, I wanted to tell the stories that were going on in our hearts at the moment,” says Malone), but you can feel the Southern California sunshine filtering through it. Even the heartbreaking tunes have an uplifting sweetness. “This is all West Coast. There’s nothing East Coast about this project. We take breaks and have rosé outside,” Ignacio says. “And delicious dinners,” adds Malone. But it sounds like “breaks” don’t really exist for these two. “Sometimes we’re not even thinking that we’re making music or recording music or writing music. We’ll be in the car on a road trip and I’ll have a Casio and she’s driving, and she’s singing and I’m accompanying her. It’s just life. We’re just doing it,” Ignacio says. “It’s like conversation,” Malone agrees.