If you’re a creative type, Los Angeles is the place to be. Whether your passion is acting, dancing, or comedy, this is the city that can make your dreams of living your artistic life come true.
When you think of “the industry,” movies and TV probably come to mind first. But film is far from the only artistic venture in LA. It’s also a major player in the music scene, thanks to iconic labels like Capitol Records and Warner Bros. that call the city home.
Legendary artists — ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Runaways — got their start in LA clubs and studios. No wonder established stars and up-and-coming hopefuls continue flocking to the Golden State.
Mike Malarkey is one such artist on the rise. He’s a Los Angeles music producer and composer who scores short films and gifts songs unforgettable catchy beats. He’s worked as a session musician for David D.A. Doman, composed theme songs for the Earwolf Podcasts Threedom, Raised By TV, and With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, and somehow finds time to edit and direct, too.
Full disclosure: Mike is a friend — we met through the comedy scene in Chicago a few years back. I’m a huge fan of his work, and I think you will be, too.
Starcity: So, let’s start out with a classic question: how did you get into music?
Mike Malarkey: I’ve always been very attracted to music. When I was in 6th grade, my dad came home with a super cheap electric guitar. He only really liked playing acoustic guitar, so I took it to my room and very quickly became obsessed with it. I’d just sit and learn songs all day and got really good at learning music by ear.
In high school, I got into jazz and became really serious about pursuing music. I went to music school in Chicago, and while I was there I started doing sessions as a guitarist and keyboardist for a hip hop and pop producer, David D.A. Doman. Through him, I really learned a ton about crafting popular music.
Describe your music in three words.
Kitschy, funky, and catchy.
Who were some formative artists for you growing up?
In middle school, I was listening to everything. I had a heavy Beastie Boys phase, a Limp Bizkit phrase, and a blink-182 phase, but at the same time I had a teacher who showed me the music of Italian composer Luciano Berio, and that blew my mind wide open. Once I got into high school I went hardcore into Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Rufus Wainwright, Prince, Paul Simon, and The Beatles. I loved film scores too — the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score by Jon Brion hit me at the exact right moment.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your tracks — like Big Dipper’s “La Croix Boy” and Jaime Lyn Beatty’s “Big Girl Lullabies” — have a cool retro vibe to them. Do you find yourself returning to particular eras or styles?
Totally — I’m a part of this super nostalgic millennial generation, so of course I love using those sounds from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early aughts. There was a really different sound harmonically and melodically to music then, and it’s really fun to borrow from that.
As for “Big Girl Lullabies,” that has a kind of retro soul/Broadway vibe. We were really lucky and recorded that in a proper studio, and I arranged it for a live horn section. I think that really leant itself to giving it more classic sound.
You often wear a lot of creative hats (composing, directing, editing). What do you find rewarding about working in multiple fields?
I just really love creating things. It all feels similar to me; it’s all about timing, tone, and collaboration. Editing a piece feels similar to composing a piece of music, especially with short form content. Directing came naturally — if you edit enough you learn what kind of footage and performances cut together well. I really just love the process of making things.
What brought you to LA?
LA always seemed like such a dreamy place to live. I grew up in Chicago and spent my first 28 years there, so the industry and the weather were really what did it.
What local artists inspire you?
BIG DIPPER. I work with him a lot, and I just love him — he’s taken on such an LA life. Jon Brion performs live in LA once a month. I love his works as a producer, songwriter, and composer. If you’re here and don’t go see him, you’re completely wasting your time. Kamasi Washington. I recently started listening to Moses Sumney and really love the work of his that I’ve heard. Does Kim Petras count as an LA artist? If so she’s so fun. Vulfpeck (are they LA?), Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator — his Flower Boy album has a very LA sound to me.
I also really enjoy the work of artist Kii Arens. I love his kitschiness, his sense of humor, use of color, etc. The same with Katie Kimmel. I really like her ceramics — everything is so full of joy and personality. Bloom & Plume‘s flowers inspire me.
What excites you about the LA scene?
LA has all the scenes you could want. This city is so big and full of culture. There are so many people who are working their asses off; it’s hard not to be inspired out here.
LA is known as this haven for various industries. Why do you think this city inspires creativity?
This city just manages to get stuff done. All the tools necessary to make a movie or an album or to set up your own studio are here. It’s not that they don’t exist in other cities, but the tools are more abundant here than in most places.
What’s one thing you wish people knew about the art scene in LA?
That it exists. I was cynical, like everyone else, about this city. That it’s shallow and doesn’t have a real art scene. That is totally wrong. There’s so much happening here it’s dizzying.
What are you playing on repeat right now?
Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two, Solange’s When I Get Home, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Frank Ocean. Charly Bliss is one of my favorite bands at the moment — their songwriting is amazing. I also just revisited Rufus Wainwright for the first time since college and have become re-obsessed.
It’s pretty early in 2019, but do you have a pick for album of the year?
Maybe Maggie Waters’ album. Or Solange’s. I’m terrible at deciding things like this.