Interview: Heather Maloney on Meditating to Write Music & Her New Album 'Making Me Break'
When you think of a singer-songwriter, one of the last keywords that come across would be silence. But, for Heather Maloney, going silent for weeks on end is what inspired her to become a songwriter. After retreating to a Buddhist meditation center in the mid-2000s, the classically trained singer decided to get introspective and pen her own music.
After producing her first two records on her own, for her newest effort Making Me Break, Maloney got some assistance from Band of Horses' Bill Reynolds, who took her carefully crafted and introspective songwriting and turned it into a rich, layered indie rock album.
Music Times: If I'm not mistaken, you have a very interesting backstory. You wrote your first song in 2008 after living in a Buddhist meditation retreat. Can you tell me a little bit more about that part of your life and how that inspired you to start writing music?
Heather Maloney: Sure yeah. I started writing around then just not even with the intention of being a songwriter, but just kind of way of processing and capturing the experiences I was having there. It really almost honestly was more like a journaling, like an audio journaling of what it was like to be there. I hear a lot of songwriters say that they become songwriters out of more angsty things like heartbreak. I don't know if this is true, but I might venture to guess that it takes some sort of difficulty like heartbreak to want to pick up a guitar and write a song. And so, while I wasn't necessarily going through heartbreak, I was definitely suffering because it's really f*cking hard to be in silence. It's hard to be with yourself and so though it was really rewarding and often blissful, it was also like a huge challenge. I think that that's probably the biggest motivating factor behind me actually starting to write songs.
MT: You would take vows of silence for seven to 10 days at a time. That's pretty intense. That's some major self-reflection, so I could imagine how that could catalyze the creative outlet.
HM: Yeah, and I don't want to like shy people away from doing it, because like I said, it's also intensely rewarding and I'm bewildered sometimes that more people aren't like I'm going to go try that, do that radical thing, because we just don't do it. We're pretty much distracted from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep at night, and I think that [meditating] is something that's really amazing for someone to do. It's something that's really helpful and really healthy and inspiring. It has so many positives. I don't want to just be like oh man, it sucks. But just to be realistic, it's hard at first, but it's worth it.
MT: It's just easier to keep going with what you know rather than take that big risk. So you have some classical training throughout the years of jazz and Indian singing, which is different. How does that play into your music making?
HM: I think that getting classical training definitely doesn't hurt. These are some tried and true techniques that really can help somebody get to know what the instrument of their voice does and is capable of doing. So, I feel very strongly that that was exactly where I needed to start. I obviously didn't become an opera singer so it became clear to me that I, my voice felt like it was meant to do something a little bit different.
I studied it for a couple years, and sort of towards the end of [my studies] I started getting what I feel like was musical ADD and I could not commit to one thing. I joined this jazz improvisational vocal group and I found this classical Indian teacher that I studied with and it was all for like a year, or three months, or six months. I was just diving head first into different things for shorter periods of time. And I think it was an attempt to find my voice, but I had to kind of go have a bunch of people tell me what to do first. So yeah, I guess that and I think the last thing that I did was get really into, so you know Bobby McFerrin, he's got that, most people know that song "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
MT: Yeah, yeah.
HM: He's got these records and he does these performances that are just totally brilliant and what he does with his voice. It's not just him doing what a whole band does with his voice, which is also awesome, but him just making sounds and really using his voice as an instrument. It inspired me so much. And I didn't study with him, but I listened to him like mad and I tried to make every sound that he made and it really just kind of felt like it broke open my voice in a way that I wasn't thinking about it in terms of rules. I wasn't thinking about it in terms of technique. I wasn't even thinking of it, I was just kind of playing with it like a child would. What can this instrument do?
And that was sort of the last thing I got really into before I went into silence and not total silence, by the way. I just mean that was the last musical thing I did before I moved to the meditation retreat center. That's where I was. I was a singer, I wasn't yet a writer. The writing came from my time there at the retreat center, and I think your original question was how did those influences show up? I think that it's more or less unconscious how they all showed up, but I'm aware of them when they do. And if I ever sing something like it's a little hard to sing, I might consciously use some sort of classical operatic technique or whatever, but yeah, it's really just kind of in there now I think.
MT: I want to talk about your new album now Making Me Break. You worked with Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses on this album. How did you two meet up to work on this record?
HM: Well I knew that I wanted to work with a producer for the first time and really have someone in that role. I had never sort of officially done that, and I want to be a team with someone. I want to approach it with the steps that happen when you work with a producer. And so I had been kind of looking out and listening to the records I really liked the production on and finding those producers and seeing who was out there and who was available. There was one producer in particular that I was interested in working with. We got in touch, but his schedule was full. He wasn't able to do it, but he shared a manager with Bill Reynolds and so my demo ended up in Bill's hands through this manager. Based on what I was looking for, based on me looking for someone who could bring a little bit more lushness, a little bit more indie to the mix -- I think that's why I ended up with him. So I got an email like hey, Bill Reynolds, he's actually done production for his band, Band of Horses and for Avett Brothers and for all these bands that I really like and in the vain that I was looking for. So I was like oh that's awesome.
So we arranged a meeting very serendipitously, Band of Horses was playing in North Hampton, Massachusetts, which is where I'm from, on a day that I was home. Literally between tours, I was home and Band of Horses happened to be playing a show in North Hampton. It just sort of aligned. So we met up before the show, and I knew within like 10 minutes that Bill totally got what I was looking for and totally got my music and that he was absolutely the right producer for the record. It just clicked into place and a couple months later I was down in Nashville and we were working on pre-production.
MT: How did it affect the recording process and why did you decide to go for a producer after not having one for several records?
HM: I know that what a producer does is argued about and is this gray area sometimes, but I know that I really dwell in singer world and in songwriter world. I have a very basic knowledge of how to record, and I have a very basic knowledge of what a bassline should sound like and what the drums should be doing here and there. I have a very basic knowledge of everything outside of lyrics, melody, song structure, guitar playing and voice. Those are solidly my territories, but I just knew that there are better people out there than me for really building up a song and that's what a producer I think does. They take the structure of the song, they take the skeleton that the singer-songwriter provides and they run with it and hopefully they don't squash it in the end with too many ideas.
But Bill, I knew he wouldn't. I knew how much he respected the lyrics, how much he respected what I do with my voice and he was able to add incredible lushness and texture. Literally, there's some hidden saxophone parts to every layer of sound. vintage Casio keyboard parts and piano parts and organ parts and Tyler Ramsey coming in, laying in three different layers of atmospheric, beautiful, sparkly guitar parts. It's just sick with sound, but you never once miss a lyric if you're listening for them. He was able to put so much in and make it so sick and lush without ever compromising the integrity of the song, the sort of core of it was really kept in tact.
So I guess I knew that it'd be different in that I knew he could bring the lushness and texture that I so strongly associate with indie music to what I have, which is, when you take away the band, I'm a singer-songwriter. When you add the band, it's more along the lines of indie rock or whatever. So he really brought that, he brought the indie rock in a big way.