The singer-songwriter born in New Jersey but now based in Northampton, Massachusetts, has remained primarily in her Northeastern comfort zone since leaving the solace of a meditative life to become a full-time musician in 2009.
So flying to Colorado to perform two benefit shows in Denver and Boulder for the first time while getting introduced by Cheech and Chong's Cheech Marin and sharing the bill with other up-and-coming artists she had never met took a huge leap of faith.
The jump-start just might change her life.
"I called my boyfriend and I said, 'I'm gonna come back from Colorado and not be the same person,' " said Maloney onstage, looking lovely in a white dress with brocaded flowers on September 29 at the sold-out Boulder Theater. She further connected with the audience by delivering more deep thoughts in "Dirt and Stardust," the signature song from her self-titled album that was released in March and is guaranteed a spot on at least one reviewer's top 10 of 2013 list.
I don't want these walls /
to wall me in forever
With only a few hours to rehearse before the previous night's event at Denver University's Cable Center, a relaxed Maloney (right) still managed to fit right in with the boys club of Boulder.
She also sang "Flutter," her charming nod to rambling that's as breezy as Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi"; joined Denver singer-songwriter Zach Heckendorf ("Keep Your Hats On"), his guitarist Curtis Halle and blind jazz pianist Justin Kauflin (who earlier dedicated his remarkable "For Clark" to mentor Clark Terry) for other feel-good songs such as a cover of Ray LaMontagne's "You Are the Best Thing"; and shared the mic with Kenny Passarelli, another Denver musician who has toured with Elton John and Hall and Oates, for a duet on his "You Came Into My Life."
If this is Maloney's breakout year, she'll undoubtedly find a place in her heart to partially credit There With Care, an organization that meets the needs of families and children facing critical illness.
The nonprofit that provides services throughout the Denver-Boulder area was founded in 2005 by film producer Paula DuPre Pesmen (Harry Potter series; currently Keep On Keepin' On, a documentary about the student-teacher relationship between Kauflin and Terry, the 92-year-old jazz legend). Persuading Maloney to participate wasn't difficult.
"When I spoke on the phone with Paula, I was blown away by her passion for these families, and her sheer positivity," Maloney wrote in an email while responding to a series of questions more than a week after her experience. "She has a real knack for bringing people together to create something beautiful and inspiring. ... I knew instantly that she had that unique and powerful combination of a brilliant mind and a deeply compassionate heart."
There With Care has more than 600 active volunteers and expanded beyond Colorado in 2012 with a chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area.
All those facts were sprinkled periodically throughout a lively program (where else would two donors pay $10,000 each to legally smoke Marin's hand-rolled doobies with the comedian/actor in the back seat of a Rolls Royce once owned by John Lennon?)
The occasion was a blend of light and dark, outrageous one minute (Marin singing "Mexican Americans" to the accompaniment of his Russian-born, classical piano-playing wife Natasha), touching the next, when beautiful photos and emotional videos about love and loss were displayed. By the end of the night, though, as a line formed to buy CDs that Maloney signed (with proceeds she donated to the organization), the points that were made hit everyone the same way.
"What they do really puts what's important in life into perspective," said Maloney, whose introspective lyrics produce a similar feeling.
The versatile entertainer whose classically trained voice handles jazz and pop-rock as easily as her trademark folk turned to music as a profession after spending almost three years working and meditating at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Recalling our phone interview before the album release, she shared "how I was motivated by the insights and experiences I had living at the meditation retreat center, and how I wouldn't be going through all the trouble of writing and recording and touring if I didn't believe DEEPLY in what motivates me, in what I'm singing about and for.
"Well, I got the same feeling from my involvement with (There With Care) as I did on meditation retreat. The same open-hearted feeling, the same clarity of knowing what's TRULY important."
While meeting Marin ("Cheech was hilarious") and performing with gifted artists ("Justin Kauflin is going to be very famous, very soon, because he's a brilliant pianist") were professional thrills, it was a tour of There With Care's warehouse that really made a lasting impact on Maloney, whose previous involvement with movements like the Girl Effect has been solely through donations.
"Paula was kind enough to walk me through and explain exactly how they support these families," she wrote. "That was the moment where it went from a nice idea (something in my head), to an incredible feeling (in my heart). I saw diapers, cribs that they deliver to the hospital rooms, toys, meals. Backpacks with toothpaste and shampoo for when families are flown in to emergency rooms and have no supplies with them. ...
"To put it in a nutshell, it was that hour of truly understanding the depth and width of what TWC does that was the true personal highlight of the weekend."
It'll be intriguing to see how this potentially life-changing event affects Maloney's professional career. In our February interview, she spoke about expanding her touring "radius" across the country and predicted "this would be the year" that performing in Denver and Boulder would finally happen.
In November, Maloney will tour the Midwest and dip into Nashville with Darlingside, one of her favorite bands, before heading back East for more dates to round out the year. At all her live shows, Maloney said she will continue to spread the word about There With Care and "would love to perform for them again if they should ask."
For certain, her music ("I do have the sense I'm getting closer to what feels really the most authentic me," she said) is finally attracting attention outside New England, even without the push of a huge PR machine or blockbuster social media numbers (her Twitter account -- @maloneymusic -- currently has just over 400 followers). She's received nice reviews and a show of support from selected members of the media, including influential blogger/columnist Val Waller (valslist.com), who had a hand in bringing Maloney and There With Care together.
But fame doesn't seem to be the main attraction in Maloney's game. Humbly, cautiously and almost reluctantly, she tries to keep her head above the treacherous waters of the music business while guided by manager Peter Hamelin and the folks at her esteemed label, Signature Sounds.
When asked over the phone about the pressure to keep developing fresh material, Maloney stated, "That is something that is relatively new in my life in the past few years. Before I wasn't trying to live the lifestyle of a songwriter. I was just writing because I felt like writing. Sometimes I write because it feels like a practice and other times I write out of pure inspiration."
A healthy dose of the latter might have been found during one glorious weekend in early fall before the aspen leaves in Colorado turned a brilliant gold. (At right, Maloney sings with Passarelli.)
"When I stood on that stage and sung my heart out, I didn't care so much about how I sounded or looked or what anyone thought of me, because I was wrapped up in the love happening in the room, in the images of those children's faces, their strength in the face of illness, in the generosity and tenderness of the donors and volunteers," wrote the 27-year-old who once dreamed of becoming an opera singer.
"I've always needed a deep reason to sing, and thus far it has been more spiritual than tangible, more inner than outer. Now I feel an added motivation for doing what I do, and I truly look forward to staying involved with TWC, and other beautiful causes like it."
Photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Heather Maloney and other performers from the There With Care benefit.