Michael Malarkey on How Leonard Cohen & 'Vampire Diaries' Influenced His Singing Career: 'I Find the Beauty in the Melancholy'


When Michael Malarkey released his first EP in 2014, he was also enthralling Vampire Diaries fans with Lorenzo “Enzo” St. John, the mysterious anti-hero introduced in Season 5 the popular CW series. Though it may have seemed like music was a secondary career for the now 34-year-old Malarkey, it was actually his first love.

A fan the punk rock scene growing up, Malarkey’s passion for bands like Operation Ivy, Rancid, Minor Threat and Fugazi led to starting his own group after high school. The Yellow Springs, Ohio, native fixated on a local hardcore band called Shadyside, eventually fronting the band when the lead singer left.

“I just kept haranguing their guitarist to let me audition,” Malarkey recalls with a laugh. “We had a good run it.”

Spending five years with the group touring and recording in Nashville, Malarkey was simultaneously teaching himself guitar and developing his own sound on the side (“I just wanted to create things,” he says) while diving into the likes Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Yet even when Shadyside was through, Malarkey didn’t feel ready to release his solo creations, and decided to pursue an acting gig when he was approached by a former theater director from his junior high days — despite the fact that he hadn’t acted since.

Malarkey went on to pursue pressional training in London in 2006, loading up his acting resume while still “banging around on a guitar and writing countless songs.” His villainous practice proved practically fortuitous when he landed his Vampire Diaries role in 2013, and his musical beginnings came back into play when he decided to finally unleash some solo material in 2014.

“I thought the script was completely bonkers, so I auditioned for the role the villain in the show and I got it,” he shares. “I got a lot critical acclaim, some awards and nominations and things. It kind was the stoking the fire realizing, ‘Hang on, maybe I can do this.’”

Even though he was balancing both endeavors at once, Malarkey found them to be surprisingly parallel. “My acting feeds into my music, my music feeds into my acting,” he asserts. (He means it literally too: His song “Scars” was featured in an episode  Vampire Diaries, and he and fellow star Kat Graham exchanged demos they were working on while on set.)

Now on his fourth release, a three-song EP titled Captain Solitaire — which follows two EPs and his debut full-length, Mongrels, that was released last year — Malarkey made another connection between his actor and singer roles, as he recently teamed up with UK label Hudson Records. And though he is on double duty, Malarkey wants fans to know that he hasn’t lost the musical conviction he developed before acting came into play.

“I have a very, very strong sense the kind thing I want to put out,” he declares. “I’m not someone else’s product. I’m not trying to make money necessarily — I’m trying to give the exact thing that I’m imagining.”

Malarkey chatted with Billboard about how he’s managed to make his two paths work harmoniously (yet separately), and how both his beloved vampire alter ego and Leonard Cohen played into it.

You’ve talked about battling self-doubt to feel comfortable actually doing anything with the music you were making. What did that stem from, and how did you overcome it?

In this world, it’s easy to think that your contribution is insignificant. I think you realize over the years that the people you like and respect aren’t necessarily these shooting stars — they’re just stars who have decided to share their glow with the world. Somebody like Adele, for instance: You listen to her music and you’re like, holy shit, she’s telling a story, and she’s vulnerable, and she’s sharing that vulnerability with the world. That’s what makes her special, is that she’s not shying away from who she is as a person. She’s an everywoman. Her story’s inspiring in that respect, because it makes you realize it’s not about how good you are — and she is fucking amazing — it’s about the honesty with what you do what you do. It wasn’t Adele that made me do that, by the way. Laughs.]

I just started thinking, you know what? I’m not the best player in the world, I’m not the best singer in the world, but I feel like I have a unique outlook on life and see things in a poetic way and I’d like to share that with people. I guess the need to share started to overcome the nerves and it was just like “Fuck it!” after a while. I’m definitely a “fuck it” kind guy.

So how did you develop your knack for songwriting?

When I write, I don’t know what I’m going to write about. I don’t sit down and try to write a particular song; I just start playing and see what emotion that evokes and what lyrics and themes start to emerge. I don’t consider music therapy, but it’s like in therapy when you start talking and all a sudden you realize you solved your own problem, and the job the therapist, I suppose, is to help guide you so that you’re empowered by having done that by yourself.

I feel like with a lot modern stuff in the charts, it’s very third, fourth-grade lyrics where it’s like “Let’s keep the theme so obvious that everybody can connect to it.” The only accessibility I’m interested in is if people can bob their head to it. I’m not hoping you can understand exactly what I’m listening to, exactly what I’m talking about and exactly what I’m going through, because I don’t even understand half that Laughs].

Were you nervous about people following you from The Vampire Diaries and not totally getting what you’re trying to put out there?

That’s something I’ve thought about a lot. My take on it now is the fact that it’s a very unique position. I grew up working in a record store five, six years, playing in hardcore bands, digging for music — I still have that addiction, I spend way too much time on Spotify. I’m in a place where I’m discovering all this stuff, and sharing these things with people who may not have come across that kind stuff before. Oftentimes with some the Vampire] fan base, they listen to a lot the mainstream stuff. What a position you can be in where you can share something that is equally accessible, but far more eclectic and intellectual, with them, and they can go, “Wow, I found this great band.”

How have you seen your acting influence your music, and vice versa?

Being an actor is like being a shrink, in a way. You start analyzing the human carnivore and you start seeing the way people work, and you end up watching people in relationships, whether they know you’re watching them or not.

I feel like that kind “universal human condition” outlook that acting provides you can’t help but bleed into how you’re feeling about the personal songs that you’re writing, if that makes sense. On the flip side, being a musician, you hear the musicality in the scenes. You hear the musicality in the cadence yourself and the other players. You can adjust accordingly based on what the scene or the song requires.

I feel like your music has a similar vibe to Enzo’s mysterious, sometimes dark ways. Do you think your music and your character are similar, in a way?

I’ve always been kind drawn to darker things. I read Bram Stoker and all that stuff when I was younger. I was into heavy music and even into darker, gothy Type O Negative type stuff at one point. I’ve always been fascinated by the darker side the human condition. I feel like the songwriter in me is the person who lives in that dark world and finds the beauty in the melancholy. I’ve never shied away from that ever since I was a lot younger. I was always a very observant and watchful kid.

How did that transmit into making music?

It started with poetry. I’ll never forget when I first read On The Road by Jack Kerouac in my humanities class in junior high school. I remember responding so viscerally to the way he wrote. I’d never quite read anything like that before, and that was also very stream–consciousness jazz writing.

I think around that time, the only poetry I’d written was silly love poems to chicks. You slip it to them by the drinking fountain… anyway. I started messing around with words. And what interested me about the Beat Generation was how they used words, not just for the sense them, but for the onomatopoeia them — what sounds they evoke and make you feel. My interest in writing poetry was how I could transmit not only the sense what I was saying, but a visceral response to that. I was one those weird, long-haired, hat-wearin’ dudes at the university, which I dropped out . I definitely was that dude in the back. Laughs.]

That’s how I started, and I eventually realized I’m not going to stand up and just read my poetry. Which, I tried, but it just didn’t feel right. Then when I started playing guitar and being able to put those things to music, I finally found that that was the equation I was looking for: The combination setting the scene with music and telling a story with the words.

Did your music back then sound like what you’re making now?

It started out a lot more — I used to feel like singing at the top my voice was proper, like I’ve got to push up there at the top all the time. The emo world things. Eventually, life grinds you down to the baritone Laughs]. Then I started kind relaxing more and letting the music and lyrics speak for themselves, instead trying to push it.

It’s almost hard to imagine a voice as deep as yours doing screamo.

I think I found a way to scream, you know? I still got it. I have in my mind that I really want to do — if they ever do one — Faith No More biopic, and do Mike Patton. Because I could fuckin’ scream and growl, all those weird noises. Not at good as him, but I’d love to approach him one day, like “Yo dude, you ever want to do a biopic?” I’ve heard before that I look a little bit like Mike Patton. That’s something that I’d love to do.

So once you found the right lane for your voice, was there something you set out to do with your music?

I literally just create to create, it’s not with an intention doing anything other than that. But I what I hope, if anything, is that my music is that record people] put on when they’re on a road trip where they can drive and they listen to the lyrics, they soak it up, it’s an active listening experience — it’s not background music, really.

One my favorite artists is Leonard Cohen, and what happens with him is you’re not waiting for him to pull a Mariah Carey, you’re waiting for that next lyric and you’re going, “Oh shit!” He’s been one my biggest inspirations over the years with the way he — ‘cause he also was a poet initially. I wouldn’t have considered myself a poet before, FYI, I was just writing poetry Laughs]. He sings all low, and I think a lot people that aren’t used to hearing that kind music think that’s just depressing, but that’s ‘cause they’re not actually listening to what they’re saying.

Is there something else that’s driving you to pursue both acting and music at the same time, aside from your love both?

I think it’s just that I know there’s more to investigate as the human curiosity the universe and yourself. And I feel like my key to discovering all that is art. The more I can be free as an artist, the more I can free myself up as a human being. That curiosity is what drives me.

Do you think one will dominate your career eventually?

I feel like there’s no reason for me to choose one or the other at the moment, so I’ll just keep doing both. You’re going to be disappointing someone at some point, that’s just part it. There’s a part me that was worried about that kind thing, like, “Oh God, maybe I shouldn’t book a tour in case I book an acting job,” but now I’m in the camp “You know what, let’s cross every bridge when we come to it.”

I’m being smart about how I book things, but if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. I do believe that you manifest your destiny to a certain extent — if you put the right energy into what you’re doing, it’s gonna fucking happen. It takes some experience and living to learn that for real, but I feel like I’ve been blessed to have learned that the past couple years with both these things, trying to balance them and my family. You reap what you sow.