Singer-songwriter Heather Maloney on the rise at the Wheeler Opera House
IF YOU GO …
Who: Heather Maloney
Where: Wheeler Opera House ‘On the Rise’ Series
When: Saturday, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $22 ($52.50/On the Rise Pick 3 Pass)
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
Heather Maloney’s folk songs of diamond-cut wisdom and impeccable words were born out of silence.
Trained as a singer, she spent three years in contemplation at a Vipassana meditation center in New England, neither speaking nor singing. She emerged in 2010 as a writer, ready to give voice to something that emerged in the quiet.
“It literally is the reason that I started writing,” Maloney, who will play the Wheeler Opera House’s “On the Rise” series Saturday, said in a recent interview from western Massachusetts during a tour break.
She’d sung all her life, trained in opera and other forms, and developed her voice as an instrument. But her years in the woods gave her something to do with it.
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“The reason I had never thought about writing my own songs to sing was that I really didn’t have anything to say that felt passionate about saying,” she explained. “It was more the joy of expression.”
Since then, Maloney has been writing piercing and poignant songs that have drawn comparisons to immortals of folk like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
Maloney is among the more prominent artists featured in the Wheeler’s “On the Rise” series, which is aimed at helping Aspen audiences discover new artists. Maloney landed on the national scene three years ago with the release of her acclaimed full-length album “Making Me Break,” after which Spin named her to its “Artist to Watch” list and opening for the likes of Lake Street Dive, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Gary Clark Jr. and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Releasing music on the indie record label Signature Sounds, she’s already drawn attention and adoration from music greats like Graham Nash and collaborated with popular acts like Band of Horses and appears poised to grow in stature.
Though her meditation study is key to her origin story as an artist, Maloney is not a preachy songwriter or a singing guru. The wisdom in her compositions is delivered with humility and self-effacing humor.
“I’m careful about not saying, ‘Oh, I’ve meditated so I know these things to be true,’” she said, adding with a laugh: “It’s more like I’ve come into contact with my own craziness. And other people, seemingly, can relate to that.”
Her years of contemplative study simply helped her find some things to say.
“As I dove into my own self in a way that I hadn’t before, I would stumble upon parts of my heart and mind and past that felt like the thing we call insight,” she explained. “It was like, ‘Oh, here’s a shiny little gem that, if I could weave into song form I could share with other people. In the meditation center, I collected those gems and realized I had enough material from my own experience that I could do something with it.”
A singer and songwriter working in the American folk tradition, Maloney said she doesn’t think much about the form itself, its tropes and how she might push them into the 21st century. She was raised in a house without television, where the center of entertainment was a record player and a collection of old folk records from the 1960s and ’70s.
“Any writing that I’ve done from the beginning has been strongly informed by these artists,” she said. “So I couldn’t escape it if I wanted it. It just informs what I do in a deep and unshakable way.”
Her most recent record is the EP “Just Enough Sun,” released in January. It’s exemplary of her thoughtful work as a songwriter. Maloney has a poet’s way with words, bringing depth and weight to simple phrases and finding the universal in the specific.
“Let Me Stay,” for example, is about the personal experience of sleeping at her childhood home, in what used to be her bedroom and then her brother’s — now converted into a guest room. Maloney lists specifics about the room and its transformation over the years as she and her brother grew older and moved out before hitting listeners with the line “I am a guest in every room I’ve ever known,” transforms this personal song into a universal human statement nostalgia and homesickness for the past.
“The personal feeling for me was wanting to slow it down, and that ends up being something that a lot of people can connect to, as well,” she explained. “That song is sort of about impermanence and that being an inevitable and often difficult part of life. But there is a sweetness in it, too.”
The six-song record also includes a cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” an empathetic song about the first chimpanzees sent into space and the brilliant “Don’t Be a Pansy,” which was inspired by a misguided music critic’s misogynistic assessment of Maloney’s music.
“I wanted to respond to it and make art of it, in such a way that anyone could relate to it, whatever your gender is — male, female, anywhere in between,” she said. “So ‘Don’t Be a Pansy’ was more about, ‘Why are we undervaluing these qualities that are considered feminine qualities? How is that hurting us?’”
It’s a fierce folk song, written in direct address to a bullying “you,” about a storm that takes down a stiff oak tree but spares a patch of bright pansies.
“It’s a feminist song, but I tend not to lead with that word,” Maloney explained. “I finish with that word. Too many people misunderstand the meaning of it, so I’d rather get to the meat of what it means and then reveal that it’s a feminist song. I think that’s more effective.”
Her upcoming Aspen show — following concerts in Denver and Fort Collins on Thursday and Friday — is an intimate solo acoustic performance that will include material from “Just Enough Sun,” some brand-new songs that she’s just begun playing publicly and beloved covers like her version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” along with some storytelling.
“The meat of what I do is really around writing and telling stories and lyrics,” she said. “These shows are really fun for me, as a writer, to really dig into the story part of what I do.”
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