Talking with Singer-Songwriter/Guitarist Malarie McConaha about “Empty Room,” Tone, and Guitars

Malarie McConaha
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Franklin, Tennessee-based Americana outfit The FBR recently released their new single, “Empty Room,” a track lifted from their forthcoming album, Ghost, slated to drop on January 19.

The band’s name – The FBR – was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song, “Famous Blue Raincoat. Fronted by Malarie McConaha and Tim Hunter, who met a local bar, The FBR began life as an acoustic project, followed by burgeoning into a blues-roots Southern rock band.

McConaha plays lead guitar and handles lead vocals, while Hunter plays acoustic guitar and harmonica. Both McConaha and Hunter do the songwriting.

Drenched in bluesy, melancholic tones and highlighted by McConaha’s haunting vocals, “Empty Room” captures the aching sensation of dreadful loneliness.

Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with Malarie McConaha to find out more about the person behind the music, her creative process, and her guitars.

What three things can’t you live without?

My friends/family, my instruments, my dogs!

Why do you make music?

I guess I don’t know how not to. It keeps me above water. So often I struggled to find the right words to express what was going on in my head.

Listening to music was a lifeline for me as a child navigating a complicated life. It made me feel heard, and it was such a catharsis. I want to carry that torch on!

What inspired your new single, Empty Room?”

‘Empty Room’ was a result of being able to communicate complicated emotions in a healthier way, than in the past.

Tim (the other half of The FBR, and my fiancé) was heading out of town for a few days while I was staying home. We hadn’t spent any time apart in almost two years (pandemic era.)

I struggled at the time with sitting alone with my thoughts for too long, and I felt myself getting moody and distant, dreading that time alone. I hated feeling that way so I asked Tim to write some sad lyrics that kind of captivated those feelings, so I could write music to them while he was gone.

That weekend was much easier than I expected, as I didn’t focus on the minutes and hours ticking away slowly. I was able to find enjoyment in my own company again, something I hadn’t been able to do in years.

How, where, and when did you first connect with Tim Hunter?

We met at an open mic night at Pucketts (now Fox & Locke) in Leipers Fork, Tennessee in 2014.

I sang ‘Hallelujah’ but I sang some of Leonard’s less known verses that night, and Tim came up and said ‘You didn’t learn that song from church or from ‘Shrek,’ did you?’

We bonded over our love for Cohen that night, and here we are almost a decade later, still making music and doing life together!

You have a new album, Ghost, releasing on January 19, 2024. What can you share about the album?

I can say this about ‘Ghost,’ it is such a reflection of our own lives and the people in our lives. Each song has its own backstory and unique way it came into existence. It’s about the things that haunt people. Regrets, love lost, life lost.

The album name didn’t come to me until all of the songs were on my wall in my office. And the line’“I’m just a ghost’ in ‘Empty Room’ kept playing on repeat in my head.

It was definitely a labor of love. We started our own label to make it happen. When we started recording years ago, we weren’t setting out to make an album, just trying to capture our sound, and it took quite a few years and growing pains to get here.

We had to find our sound, and then find the right group of people to help bring that sound alive, both in the studio and on stage.

How did you get started in music?

From the time I was very young, I was very in touch with the power that music had on emotion. I was in a military/sports family though so most of my childhood was spent in soccer, speed skating, cross country, etc.

The first instrument I picked up when I was 11 years old, I played trumpet in the school band.

When I was 15, I got a guitar for Christmas, and the rest was history!

Which singers/musicians influenced your sound?

Janis Joplin, Tedeschi Trucks, Bonnie Raitt, Lady Gaga, Adele, Brandi Carlile, Robert Plant, Sam Cooke, John Prine, Gram Parsons, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty… it’s all over the board, and I could go on for days!

Leonard Cohen was a huge influence on us both, I feel, more lyrically though.

What kind of guitar, pedals, and amps are you using?

So, my current rig is a Gretsch Electromatic. I fell in love with hollow-body guitars when I moved to Nashville. I saw a burnt-red hollow body Gretsch with dice for volume/tone knobs and I instantly gravitated toward it.

I also love my custom solid body built by Dave Easter with Easter guitars; it’s got a mahogany neck and center block, with cherry body wings, with a single Gibson P-90 pickup. It will definitely be making its way on stage and in the studio soon!

My dream guitar is a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow body. I haven’t bit the bullet yet, but I think I am going to before going on tour next year!

On my board, I’ve got a reverb distortion delay, soul food, and a compression pedal. I’ve switched out quite a bit since making our record and really defining our sound.

I’ve got some smaller Fender amps, but I am currently deciding whether to buy a Twin Reverb or Deluxe Reverb!

What is your definition of tone? And is your tone evolving?

Tone in music is like spices in food, to me.

I think it is always evolving. I’m always finding new sounds and feels that I gravitate toward and try to capture that when I am practicing/playing on my own. I see what sticks, and then use these newfound’“spices’ when I’m writing.

What can you share about your writing process?

My writing process is very emotion-driven. I find myself writing introspective lyrics often.

Writing with Tim has definitely challenged me to write from an outside perspective.

With songs for The FBR, when we both collaborate, it is rarely in the same room. Tim will often give me lyrics to write the melody and chords to. Or I’ll write a verse or an idea and give it to him if I feel stuck.

Writing is never scheduled. We can schedule rehearsing and working on the business side, but writing is often a result of the time we spend in nature, time spent on inspiration drives, or as a result of some sort of stuck emotion we are trying to process.

Which artists in your opinion are killing it right now?

Oh, so, so many.

I’ve loved Brandi Carlile since 2009, so seeing her career skyrocket has been awesome.

Amythyst Kiah has such an incredible voice, she’s one of my favorites. Her voice gives me chills every time I listen!

We recently saw Jason Isbell at the Ryman, and Lukas Nelson there shortly after as well. They both blow my mind, and their live performances are incredible.

The War and Treaty, holy crap!! They are on fire, and their song ‘Yesterday’s Burn’ makes me cry. Every. Time.

I’ve really enjoyed watching Sierra Ferrell these last few years as well.

I saw Daniel Donato play in 2014 at Roberts in Nashville, and it’s been really cool seeing his career blossom lately.

I also love Margo Price, Adia Victoria, Michael Kiwanuka, Amanda Shires, The Teskey Brothers, Chris Stapleton, and Nathaniel Rateliff… once again I could go on for days!

How do you define success?

Success for me is being able to maintain a healthy state of mind, friendships and my home life, all while pursuing all of my creative endeavors.

It’s accomplishing what I set out to do, without leaving destruction in my path, or neglecting/denying parts of myself in the process.

Success is becoming a better musician and a better person every day.

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