As an aspiring singer, Heather Maloney crammed an ambitious range of academic approaches into her head. Then she got out of her own way and started over.
The New Jersey native was a semester away from completing a two-year music degree focusing on operatic singing, she says, while pursuing private lessons in both classical Indian and improvisational jazz vocals. Then she was “hit over the head” with the impulse to drop it all and go meditate.
So she did.
“I sort of let it go and said I’m just going to drop this sound thing altogether and move into a space of silence,” says Maloney, 27, in a mid-tour phone call from Pittsburgh.
She found her silent space at a center devoted to Buddhist meditation in Barre, where she picked up a job as vegetarian cook and spent nearly three years refining a daily meditation practice that would sometimes require days at a time without speaking.
About halfway through the stay, she found her creative voice in songwriting, a new endeavor for her. After those years of classical voice training, she was surprised to hear what emerged.
“To my surprise, I started writing kind of folk-based songs, even some songs with a country twang, which I never imagined writing before. But that’s what came out, and that’s what felt authentic. It felt like me,” she recalls.
The results have come quickly — three albums since 2009, and the prompt launch of a full-time music career. She coproduced her latest effort, a self-titled album released by Northampton-based label Signature Sounds in March. Her tour in support of the album winds its way to Club Passim for a homecoming show on Saturday.
Much of her recorded work features a full-band approach liberally flavoring her “adventurous folk,” as she describes it, with pop and rock. The sauntering, dizzy love song “Fire for You” wraps a Beatles influence around lyrics that could have worked for Cole Porter. But her not-so-secret weapon is that voice — pretty but not precious, fully able to launch into aural backflips but perhaps more affecting when intimately expressive.
“I took the gig before I’d ever heard her sing,” remarks J.J. O’Connell, a Haydenville-based drummer who tours with Maloney and is featured on the new album, “and once we started, it was pretty impressive to see this 27-year old who can write some incredible lyrics but also can sing like nobody I’ve ever heard before.”
Her songs often probe the questions that inspired her meditation jag — issues of the “Why are we here?” variety. She jokes that she’s not looking to pioneer the genre “Buddhist rock,” but her songs reflect an abiding concern with what she describes as the impermanent nature of the world around her.
“It’s a really important thing for me to be aware of, to have at least one foot in the reality of impermanence. Because I think if it’s held in the right way it actually enhances one’s life in an incredible way,” she explains. “It helps me to be present in every moment, not just the ones that we consider to be the highlights or the point of the whole thing. There’s no place to get to.”
That’s not to say she’s admiring the view from atop a soapbox. Her gaze lingers in the cracks between these ideas — the places where they break down. “Dirt and Stardust” depicts a woman who hides behind her view of life’s transience to avoid human connections. (“Don’t want a promise that outlives the promiser,” she sings by way of a marriage refusal, “and my body will not last longer than a metal band.”)
The new album’s winning opening track “Great Imposter”— including the withering accusation: “They’re going to figure it out, you’re a fluke and a phony and you don’t know how to do what you do, do you?” — can be read as a tart indictment of a poseur or a lacerating exercise in self-doubt. The song’s video, closing with a pan of the camera from a mannequin (seen earlier with a guitar) to a wryly smiling Maloney, implies it’s the latter.
She applies her in-the-moment approach to life on the road, where the unpredictability of the daily grind can make it hard to find those quiet moments she craves. But there are no road-weary laments to be found here; she’s savoring the experience of getting out there and connecting with new people, and simple triumphs like finding good, gluten-free pancakes in Pittsburgh.
The current tour, with bassist Marc Seedorf and guitarist Ryan Hommel joining O’Connell and Maloney (who plays acoustic and tenor guitars), is her first as part of a four-piece band. She’s inspired by the newfound opportunities to stretch, musically, from night to night.
“The night before last, we played a raucous show in the woods of West Virginia to a crowd of hooting, hollering West Virginians,” she says enthusiastically, sounding more than a bit impressed with the whole experience, “and last night we played a more quiet house concert where I could do more storytelling. But it was just as satisfying, in a different way.”
After all, it seems, no one can keep quiet forever.Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.