The town of Northampton, Mass., is a creative hub from way back, attracting the type who make and share art in a scene more hippie than hipster. There are plenty of indie musicians in that Berkshire town, but few if any songwriters better than Heather Maloney.
The thirtysomething New Jersey native lists a range of rock, pop, and country music as her influences, the likes of Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Sheryl Crow. But you don’t have to listen long to hear folk roots in her melodies, arrangements, and singing style – Irish roots in particular. No surprise that the stops on her current tour include New York’s Irish Arts Center and a few other shamrock-lined venues.
Classical music informs her creations, too, obvious in her vocal control, her imaginative melodies, and her use of dynamics and phrasing. In fact, she was studying to be an opera singer when she veered to the opposite path: she moved to a Buddhist meditation center, where she lived for much of three years, often under a vow of silence. The silence must have spoken to her clearly; since then her mind has been flooded with lyrics and music of her own.
Maloney’s first album, self-released when she had just left the retreat and moved to Northampton, was Cozy Razor’s Edge (2009). This is the work of a bright musical being still defining itself. The title song features yodel-like experimentation with her voice and self-conscious diction – she’s a big Alanis Morissette fan -- none of which she held onto as she matured as a singer.
But the underlying strength and confidence of her singing is an indication of her potential. And the lyrics are intelligent and thoughtful, with compelling imagery: “Meet me on the edge of this moment / you bring stillness, I’ll bring movement…”
In 2011 she released Time and Pocket Change, which gradually gained glowing critical attention as reviewers took notice of this new-on-the-scene talent.
The opening track, “Fifty Lines,” shows off all that’s best about Maloney both as composer and performer. It’s a tribute to the muse, addressing inspiration as if it were a sort of ghost inhabiting the people and things of everyday life. She, the songwriter, is ready to receive whatever messages from the creative beyond that might be coming her way: “My cells are spirit soldiers waiting in formation.”
Besides the huge pitch range in this song, it’s worth noticing Maloney’s ornamentation – quick melismas very different from the popular wandering-wailing style used to ruin melodies on American Idol and The Voice (and which, for reasons that elude me, always win massive applause). These ornaments are tight and controlled, in a distinctly Irish style:
In 2012 Maloney signed with Signature Sounds indie record company in Northampton, which is still her label today. As labels tend to do with new artists, they had her start over, so to speak, with an eponymous album. Heather Maloney, released in 2013, has one particularly striking trait: the influence of country music (I’m talking old-timey, golden age of Nashville kind of thing) on the arrangements and delivery. Here’s the thigh-slappin’ song “Hey Broken”:
The country tinges bleed through on the slower numbers, too. The mountain harmonies and long, nasal notes in “Darlene” show off the power and focus of Maloney’s voice. But the lyric content is right out of ʼ90s brainy, sensitive indie rock (by which I mean the genre, not the type of label distribution) by women like Jewel and Ani DiFranco. Then again, song-portraits of women in tough circumstances have some solid roots in the country and folk tradition, too.
For 2014’s six-song EP, Woodstock, Maloney collaborated with the indie folk band Darlingside, also based in Western Massachusetts. Good musicians all, for my money their star is mandolin player Auyon Mukharji, who gets to shine both as soloist and as counterpoint on the track “Roadside Lily.” Maloney’s meter-defying poetry, stretching over line breaks, moves the song beyond standard folky fare:
Good songwriters don’t shy away from the hard topics. On the album Making Me Break (2015), Maloney shows she can deal with more than vague vignettes about human sadness. “Involuntary” is a detailed, vivid take on the heartache of PTSD from the point of view of a man suffering from the affliction and his grieving wife. Again, note the Irish-inspired ornamentation.
Maloney’s newest release is the EP Just Enough Sun (2018), which bubbles over with energy and motion. The provocatively titled “Don’t Be a Pansy” is written in second-person, admonishing somebody who’s afraid to show a softer side. But it’s done with sarcasm: “Don’t be moved, don’t be touched, don’t be tender. Don’t ever surrender. And whatever is feminine, don’t let it in.” Maloney demonstrates her ability to use melody for emotional purposes with the sweeping phrases the chorus that plunge to the very bottom of her vocal range.
This is a composer who knows her gift did not develop in a vacuum. I always admire an artist who not only acknowledges her influences but goes out of her way to do them honor. Maloney has recorded many songs by her heroes, including this stunning cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that makes it sound like a 200-year-old Ozark Mountains tune: