Interview: Heather Maloney – A Meditative Journey That Sings

It took some time for Heather Maloney to discover that she wasn’t just a singer/musician, but also an inventive and poignant writer with many stories to share…

What motivated you to venture to a silent meditation retreat for three years?

I’d be willing to bet that what motivates 99.99% of people to do anything as drastic as a silent meditation retreat, is suffering. That’s not to say that I think I suffer more or less than anybody else but as human beings, suffering is part of life and we all try to figure out different ways to deal with it. For me it was to understand it and the meditation approach seemed like the most logical and simplified. My mom is a psychotherapist so I have a lot of exposure to more western approaches to emotional and mental well being, so I appreciate that very much. Mental health is the same as dental health; if you don’t keep it up you get cobwebs and plaque. You have to keep on top of it. Whether you go to a therapist, church, write songs, go for a run or have a certain friend that you always work stuff out with, if you know that it works, I have absolutely no judgment. At that time diving into meditation was my solution.

Do you still meditate?

I meditate regularly when I have structure to my life. My life now has such little structure because I travel so much in and out of different time zones and I don’t clock in and clock out. I don’t hit the same pillow every night so without that structure my meditation practice doesn’t have structure. Instead of sitting on the same cushion in the same corner of the room for thirty minutes, I take three conscious breaths before I get on stage. I’ll also listen to some sort of meditative music while doing nothing else, or close my eyes and lie down to take ten breaths. It’s sort of fragmented throughout my whole day.

Tell us more about your transition from being classically trained to the songwriter/musician you are now…

Things happened in the order they felt natural. I studied with a few different teachers and a few different traditions and it felt like I needed somebody to take my hand and say this is how it’s always been done. If you do a, b, and c then this will happen. I needed that type of guidance and restrictions at the time because I didn’t have a lot of clarity as a person. I didn’t really feel like I had anything to say. I started writing songs two years into my time at the meditation centre and that’s when I felt that I had something to say that was a major difference between just being a musician/singer and being a songwriter who’s using the tool of songwriting, to get some sort of message across. That’s not to say that I made the most be all end all discoveries while I was at the meditation centre and found the answers to life and needed to put them into the form of song to share with the world. When I do stumble upon some sort of insight or sliver of wisdom or love, I have this urge to capture it and make it stay. To me a song is the only way I know how to do that. I don’t have any tattoos but I want these moments that feel really important to me to be tattooed in song form.

What are the pros and cons of performing under the name Heather Maloney instead of a band name?

As a singer/songwriter it takes work to establish what people expect when they see you at a live show. For example I’d go see Ray Lamontagne solo any time but I’ve seen him with his band and it was an awesome show. One con for me would be that it’s harder to establish what people expect at my show. But as a singer/songwriter I can do whatever I want. When I feel like playing a solo, acoustic, intimate show and I want to tell stories and connect more with the audience I can do that. If I want to bring a band and rock out a little bit I can also do that, which is ultimately why I decided the singer/songwriter realm allowed me to wear different hats and be happy.

You’ve performed alongside Shakey Graves and Rodrigo Y Gabriela. Can you recall a special moment on tour when you really connected with another artist?

Shakey Graves picked the song we performed together only hours before the show and what made that fun was the fact that it was pure adventure. I never got to play with Rodrigo Y Gabriela but they are the most grounded, connected and spiritual people. I toured all over the US last year with a quartet from Boston called Darlingside and we collaborated on an EP called Woodstock. The video we made of Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock got posted on The New York Times website and then Graham Nash saw it and helped created a lot of buzz that allowed all of us to jump in a van and drive all over the country to play numerous folk festivals. The whole thing was really serendipitous. Darlingside is super talented and they’re great people. I couldn’t have asked for a better first collaborative experience.

Your voice reminds me of Deb Talan from The Weepies. Who are some of your major vocal influences and besides other artists/bands, where else do you get inspiration for your material?

I’m definitely a Weepies/Deb Talan fan so that was on point. I listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell, Beatles and I really love the singer from The Shins; singers like Aimee Mann and Regina Spektor inform my voice.

There’s nothing like going to a live show to make you want to play and write music; whenever I can go to a show I will but I’m usually playing on prime show nights (Laughs). I get a lot of ideas – sometimes full songs – and record voice memos while I’m driving. It’s similar to when people say they get ideas in the shower; it’s a monotonous thing that takes a little bit of attention but not all of it. Historical events or even things that I find interesting about history inspire me. There’s a song on the new album called 1855 about a couple who only have one photograph ever taken of them and it’s towards the end of their lives. The camera was a new piece of technology then and so expensive that most people couldn’t own one. I like thinking about different perspectives.

Interview by Scott J. Herman