“I always said that if I didn’t write songs, I’d be covered in tattoos, because every song I write is something I want to remember really badly,” says Heather Maloney.
She has no ink so far. Instead, the Northampton, Mass., singer and songwriter is marking life lessons with music on her new self-titled album, penning tuneful reminders to herself about the little triumphs of love on “Flutter,” the solace of redemption on “Turn Yourself Around” and her firm belief that nothing’s colder than trying too hard to be cool, an idea that inspired “Fire for You.”
Heather Maloney, out in March on Signature Sounds, is the third album for a songwriter hailed by The Huffington Post for “lyrics that cut to the chase.” DigBoston wrote that she “deserves the type of cult following that has allowed the likes of Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco the long standing success and influence they have had.”
Although Maloney’s influences are largely rooted in what she calls “adventurous folk,” she pushes outward on these 11 songs, digging deeper, and roaming wider, than she has before on songs populated by vivid characters that ultimately trace their way back to her.
She uses juicy touches of pop, and a little dash of rock ’n’ roll on “Iron Bull,” a song she wrote after visiting Zucotti Park during, Occupy Wall Street.
“It’s become more multi-dimensional,” she says, a change she credits to the way she approached Heather Maloney. She mostly performed by herself in concert when she made her first two albums, so the recorded songs didn’t sound the way they did when she played them live. This time, she road-tested the new material with Ken Maiuri (Mark Mulcahy, the Young at Heart Chorus) on bass and J.J. O’Connell on drums, fine-tuning songs as she performed them in front of audiences before heading into the studio.
“I love playing with a band,” says Maloney, who’s even done some co-writing with Maiuri. “It’s become an integral part of the music.”
If there’s a typical path to becoming a songwriter, Maloney didn’t follow it. Although she went to school for music and had done plenty of singing, she only began writing tunes a few years ago after living and working for three years in a silent-retreat meditation center in central Massachusetts.
“The biggest motivating factor in writing was probably the experiences that I was having here in my meditation practice,” she says. “There was the difficulty of it, the suffering of it, and wanting to channel that into something creative, and on the positive side, the insights that came out of my experiences.”
Those experiences proved especially inspirational on “Dirt & Stardust,” the folky centerpiece of the album. On one level, it’s a song about a rambling woman, an idea whose origins were simple enough: “Who doesn’t love songs about ramblers?” Maloney says. “It’s adventurous, and heartbreaking, but beautiful.”
On a deeper level, though, it’s a song about embracing impermanence. “I don’t want these walls to wall me in forever,” Maloney begins, singing with the hint of a quaver in her sweet voice tinged with earthy grit. “Don’t want to make my home on fenced-in land. We can buy our lot, we can mark our spot but we’re travelers whether we like it or not, so please make my castle out of sand.”
“It led me back to the meditation practice,” she explains. “A large part of what this practice is aiming to get you to recognize is that everything is impermanent, and not only to recognize that, but to be OK with that, and maybe even celebrate that. So in this song I’m trying to express this woman’s complicated relationship with impermanence.”
It’s not just an expression of the character’s relationship. Like most of Maloney’s songs, “Dirt & Stardust” is ultimately about herself, though sometimes her songs are personal in a way that only dawns on her later.
“I prefer to start writing like I’m writing about somebody else, and maybe it turns out to be autobiographical,” she says. “Sometimes it even happens long after I’ve written the song and I’m performing it live, and I suddenly feel naked, like, ‘Whoa, this is really about me, isn’t it?’ It’s just that I’m in a room full of people when I realize it.”
It’s no surprise that those rooms are getting more and more crowded as people discover her smart, catchy and soulful music. Just wait until they fall in love with the songs on Heather Maloney.