One of the joys about covering music in my spare time is hearing a singer-songwriter or band for the first time, not having any preconceived notions or prior knowledge of their work. With mounds of sounds stacking up, for whatever reason you dig deep to find the one CD that arrived unsolicited in the mail. Before reaching the end of the opening song ...
It's like finding buried treasure. The odds of that happening are slim, but when it does, you feel compelled to tell the world what you've just uncovered.
So if you haven't had the pleasure to meet her already, consider this a proper introduction to Heather Maloney, whose self-titled record, her first for Signature Sounds, comes out Tuesday (March 12). A CD release show will be held March 16 at the Shea Theater in the western Massachusetts town of Turners Falls, about 30 miles north of her Northampton residence.
During a phone interview last month, Maloney was pleasant and relaxed, but somewhat cautious about where her career is going and what effect this latest record will have on it.
Maybe she doesn't realize how good she is, sounding pleased yet surprised by an upfront compliment.
After previously self-releasing 2009's Cozy Razor's Edge and 2011's Time & Pocket Change with the financial support of some generous benefactors, Maloney decided to name the new record after herself, saying it was "sort of a symbolic thing because it really feels like me. It feels sort of more authentic maybe than my past work in a way. Not that I am not proud of what I've done in the past. But there is something about this record that feels like I'm figuring myself out in some way and that it's getting reflected in the music."
Heather Maloney the record is as hard to categorize as Heather Maloney the person, and seemingly that's the way she likes it. Her music is riveting, her voice adventurous, her lyrics thought-provoking.
She has the ability to bend genders as well as genres. Her expansive range can handle Ella Fitzgerald-style jazz scat and adapt to Beatlesque pop or Joni Mitchell folk, two of her strongest influences mainly because they figured prominently in her mother's record collection.
That source of inspiration is firmly embedded in tunes such as "Flutter," delivering the spirit and delightful whimsy of Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," and "Fire for You," with Fab Fourish melodies and George Harrison-like electric guitar riffs. And while Maloney is flattered by vocal comparisons to the wondrous Mitchell (not so much with the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan), she is unabashedly thrilled when her lyrics in songs like the politically charged "Iron Bull" and playfully amazing "Grace" are linked with members of the opposite sex. You really don't have to be a man to think or write like one.
Subconsciously using folk heroes such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as a contemplative template, her words can reflect on the world with sarcasm and glee and, for comparison's sake, she appreciates when listeners are "keen enough or musical enough to be able to get beyond gender."
Her outlook, personality and attitude are as refreshing and original as the 11 songs she wrote either alone or with Ken Maiuri, the bass and keyboard player with whom she produced the album. (Drummer J.J. O'Connell also gets a co-producing credit.)
Maloney first met Maiuri, the band director of the Young@Heart Chorus, in 2011 at the Northampton NoHobility XXI Royal Transperformance benefit event, where she played the part of Carole King and sang "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "You've Got a Friend" and "It's Too Late" with the backing of other western Massachusetts musicians. She returned as Amy Winehouse last year.
After getting to know Signature Sounds founder Jim Olsen, she eventually presented him some of her material and was signed last summer by the small but influential label located in Northampton. Its roster already includes impressive roots artists like Chris Smither, Kris Delmhorst and Caroline Herring, along with developing bands like Lake Street Dive and Joy Kills Sorrow.
Having neither their musical resume nor a diploma from Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, with famed alumni such as Aimee Mann, Paula Cole and Gillian Welch, Maloney has endured a "murky" songwriting process where "I'm feeling my way around in the dark until finally I might touch on something that resonates."
Grateful for her label's helping hand, she now has graduated to the next level after going the extra mile to land in downtown Northampton, which has a creatively rich music and arts scene.
"It really has been a struggle," Maloney said of her major shift of interests four years ago. "I know everybody says that. It definitely felt like ... I mean it's just something that I know that I'm meant to do and I'll always find a way to do it whether I have the help from a label or not. I was definitely starting to feel the fatigue of being such a small operation and not having the wisdom or having the connections. Just that level of support.
"It feels like a very rooted label just because of how long they've been around and how ... it's just people. It's not a big machine. I think that's a part of the attraction to smaller labels. It feels sustainable. ... And chock-full of experience and wisdom. ... And just on a business level, just the pure connection of getting to see my songs (including the catchy 'Great Impostor,' 'Fire for You' and deeper 'Dirt and Stardust') starting to play on all the radio stations that I love. It feels like a total dream. ... And I have no idea how long it's gonna last, so I'm just soaking it up."
Growing up in the northern New Jersey town of Hamburg, Maloney said she never was shy about performing as a child. "I would stand up in front of the room and sing for everybody," she offered. "I really don't have that same ... I mean I enjoy performing now but ... apparently as a girl I was pretty ready to serenade anybody at the time."
While she "played around on the keyboard" and took piano lessons at County College of Morris, utilizing an instrument for songwriting didn't happen until 2009.
That was after a period of adjustment that involved classical training and entertaining the idea of becoming an opera singer, when Maloney's vocal teacher filled her with ambition and dreams of travel and study abroad and seeing how far she could take her voice in international competition.
"But I think somewhere in the back of mind I always knew that it was a little bit too ... well it's not rigid, actually, it's an amazing art form," Maloney said. "But it felt rigid to me because I had so many interests that I wanted to explore. It definitely wouldn't have been the place to do that."
A retreat in central Massachusetts took her life in a totally different direction. "I had such a kind of powerful, moving experience that I decided that I was going to leave all things musical behind for a time and pursue my interest in meditation," said Maloney, who spent almost three years working and following the practice at Insight Meditation Society in Barre.
Finally at peace with herself, the urge to write took hold, though it initially began through poetry and journaling. Then Maloney received a gift from her mother Kalo -- a guitar. It was the same one the daughter and two brothers were never allowed to play while growing up in a home where television was banned and "the record player was pretty much the source of entertainment."
Her mother, whom Maloney credits for "convincing me that I'm -- or helping me stay convinced -- that I'm on the right track" during some late night, sobbing phone calls, knew chords to a few songs that the two would sing together. But she wasn't a serious guitarist.
Neither was Maloney at first.
"Guitar has felt ... like a huge effort," she said in measured tones. "I felt really awkward on it the first year. And it wasn't that pleasant of an experience. (laughs) I didn't really want to have to go through that, you know. ... I had always sort of wished that I just knew how to play guitar. I've always approached it as a backup tool. ... Like it's just there to sort of hold the song together. But it's really been a thing that I've learned to enjoy."
The same could be said of her songwriting skills, which also took awhile to develop.
"I think that I might have been interested in writing my own stuff prior to my time at the meditation center but ... I didn't really feel like I had anything to say or get behind," Maloney admitted. "I feel like my time at the meditation center was sort of formulating the things that were most important to me. ... In that space, it was really quiet, it was really easy to be in touch with one's deepest values, I suppose. And it takes a lot more for me to sit down and get quiet and write a song from the deepest place I can write from (today) when I live the type of life that I live, which can be stressful
and busy. ...
"And then become really interested in maintaining that and bringing the music out into the world. Which is challenging; it really is. Sometimes, I would just like to go back."
That's a bold statement few aspiring singer-songwriters on the verge of breaking through would be willing to make. But while blessed with an immense gift and unlimited potential, Maloney still goes about her business in much the same way she talks -- softly and carefully.
At times, she still yearns for a simpler, more tranquil lifestyle. Trying to achieve unattainable goals might be as low on the priority list as her blip on the radar. Yet while showing signs of being the reluctant artist, there's the realization that this chosen career path has its benefits, too.
"Of course, it would be nice to have great success, great financial success, but I've been aware of how difficult it is to even make money doing this," Maloney said. "So the fact that I've become at least more comfortable than I was when I started ... (laughs)
"I feel encouraged enough by the momentum and sort of what's been built to continue. ... If I felt like it was diminishing (laughs), I might not be so excited about continuing. ... I imagine I'll always push myself to write in new ways and to keep growing but I certainly wouldn't mind if it sort of plateaued a little bit just to become what feels like a very sustainable career. I've seen artists do that. That never really break through and become really, really well known but they established a sturdy, well-earned fan base and they just are able to write and create for the length of their careers, for their whole working lives. That would be a huge blessing." (laughs)
In a business where humility and forthrightness are rare commodities while fool's gold quickly diminishes in value, Heather Maloney is a real find and Heather Maloney is a precious gem.
Take the journey with both of them, and get ready to be amazed by what you discover.
Guitar photo by Kevin Hill. Other publicity photo by Christine Kennedy.