Heather Maloney Mixes Bitter With Sweet in Gift-Wrapped Christmas Package (interview + premiere)
Without a holiday season full of good cheer in the year of the pandemic, Heather Maloney takes the right approach by making a festive EP and lyric video that will still deliver an emotional resonance.
13 November 2020
Even if it seems like the Grinch and Scrooge conspired to ruin the 2020 holidays by spreading the coronavirus months ago, leave it to Heather Maloney to provide the rightful remedy with Christmas Anyway.
A global pandemic helped push the Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter to finally release her first collection of Christmas-themed songs on 13 November, an EP that includes two originals and four endearing covers. But Maloney has more depth and sincerity to realize this isn't the time to paint a rosy, joy-to-the-world picture. So she decided to "Sing a Christmas Song Anyway".
"Honestly, I never thought I'd make a holiday record," Maloney offers in an email interview for this article accompanying her song's new lyric video that premieres today at PopMatters. "Not all, but definitely most popular holiday music feels emotionally one-dimensional to me — a whole lot of joy and cheer. And while I enjoy listening to joy and cheer, I never really saw myself contributing to it. Most of what I write has some emotional conflict to it, or at least a good amount of both bitter and sweet. It's how I process the parts of my life that are complicated or confusing.
"I think that's why this complicated holiday season is the only one I've ever felt compelled to process through music. I also think that's why Christmas Anyway is very solidly a bittersweet holiday album through and through. To me, every holiday song on this EP contains (and even celebrates!) equal parts of bitter and sweet."
See and hear "Sing a Christmas Song Anyway" now, then read on to find out more about how the song, the lyric video and the EP were created while getting in the holiday spirit with Maloney, whose project presentations have become practically a welcomed yearly tradition for me since being introduced to her sublime work in 2013.
"Sing a Christmas Song Anyway", co-written beginning in early July with longtime collaborator and producer Ryan Hommel, was completed after a final arrangement in late August. The song came out of a conversation they had about what kind of holiday music they would want to hear during this very unusual — and unnerving — year.
"Bittersweet is the feeling that came up over and over, and we realized that we wanted to hear holiday music that acknowledges the difficulty — but doesn't wallow in it," says Maloney, who relied on some acoustic guitar parts sent remotely by Los Angeles-based Hommel as sources of inspiration.
"The mood in the parts was so spot-on to me that the lyrics came together very quickly from there," Maloney adds. "When we finished it, we stepped back and saw that 'Sing a Christmas Song Anyway' really defined the central themes of the album for us: celebrating in the face of uncertainty, seeing beauty in the bittersweet, and finding connection in our separation."
While Maloney often takes her artistic talents beyond the studio, she went to greater lengths to make her fifth recording for distinguished New England label Signature Sounds that's her first remotely recorded album.
"While there were certainly new challenges to making an album remotely ... I'd have never even attempted it without the team of people I was fortunate enough to have working on it [including Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith, singer-songwriter Liz Longley and Amos Lee keyboardist/musical director Jaron Olevsky]," declares Maloney, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where her label is located. "There are years of musical experience, and friendship, between us that we drew upon to bridge the gaps that came with physical distance."
Photo: Courtesy of Signature Sounds
Maloney, whose other original song on the EP is "Table For The Feast", also feels blessed and grateful for the presence of Hommel, saying, "This album would definitely not have been possible without the deep trust I have" in him.
"I think every song, album and tour we've worked on together over the years has brought us to a place where thousands of miles between us didn't seem to dilute the synergy we have as a creative team ... and sometimes even led us to new ideas and perspectives," she continues. "He's also wildly good at keeping a flow of communication in a team, which was so crucial this time around because everyone involved was in a different corner of the country."
While that team spirit resulted in a tight-knit, personal recording, Maloney's stylish skills also found their way into the EP's first music video.
For "Sing a Christmas Song Anyway", she incorporated her own block prints with some public domain home video footage she spent hours collecting.
"Carving the elements of the scene into the blocks was pretty time-consuming but I just love the look and feel of block prints, so I committed to start working on them a few months ago," Maloney states. "I printed everything onto paper individually and took photos to build up the scene one element at a time. I then green-screened the footage in from there.
"I had to do some serious digging in the public domain archives for the home footage. I have to say, it was pretty emotional to watch hours of people's intimate moments in their homes ... watching them be close to one another (maskless!), watching them embrace, watching them be kind to each other. It brought tears to my eyes a few times."
Choosing what she believed were "the most spontaneous, vulnerable, affectionate and authentic" scenes, Maloney's favorite moments that are definitely worth watching include a couple kissing in front of a Christmas tree and a mother dancing around a tree with her baby.
Maloney, who feels "lucky to be in a very small quarantine pod that includes my mom and her partner" and plans to be with them to celebrate Winter Solstice, will certainly experience mixed emotions at home during Christmastime 2020.
"For the first time in my life I won't see most of my family this holiday because of the pandemic. I know that's true for a lot of us, and that it might be hard," reveals the poignant storyteller who has been quarantining with "my sweetie" and their cat Abigail. "For me, I found some comfort in acknowledging that and resolving to sing something anyway."
The amount of work Maloney put into the video was about the same for her "simple" time-lapse video with handwritten lyrics for "All in Your Name" that she premiered last year at PopMatters ahead of Soil In the Sky, her fourth full-length album.
Copies of those lyrics on her website became a popular item for Maloney fans, and she has a limited amount of block-printed greeting cards available at her Holiday Store until December 14, with plans to also offer blocks she used in this lyric video to make a few prints.
The savvy entrepreneur has turned her Patreon page into a successful creative outlet, too, after the pandemic shut down a touring life that's "literally an entire year's worth of shows and 90 percent of my income!"
Through intimate monthly livestreams, visual art shows and exclusive live song videos and handcrafted merchandise, a "pretty introverted" but confident entertainer has found plenty of ways to reach out and touch someone she's never met. With a voice as elegant and pure as Joni Mitchell's, there's always a chance that Maloney will break out her startling cover of "Woodstock", which alone is worth the $5 monthly basic access fee.
"I get particularly anxious about sharing personal things on social media," Maloney admits. "But on Patreon — streaming from my little studio space, sharing the details of my songwriting process, hosting informal Q&A hangouts, trying out new songs, dusting off old ones, making and sharing visual art — these are all things that feel very comfortable for me. I think it's because Patreon has so much more of a community feel to it."
While making music may not compare with making miracles happen, it's certainly effective enough for anyone trying to soothe their soul at this time of year, particularly in "Bah Humbug" 2020.
"For the many people who've lost someone to COVID-19 this year, I can't even imagine how hard it will be," a sympathetic Maloney allows. "Especially without being surrounded by family. I hope comfort finds those who'll really be needing it."
Whether or not it's a happy holiday, now's the time to celebrate Christmas Anyway with Heather Maloney.
MALONEY'S CHRISTMAS STORIES
What classic Christmas song was at the top of your wish list to include on the EP? What makes it a favorite? Which artists' holiday songs or albums were also at the top of your playlist as a child?
I've always loved "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" for its bittersweetness. I knew we had to record it this year because of that — and how strangely relevant the lyrics are ("Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow"). Another one of my favorite lines packs so much into a few words: "Let your heart be light". To me, one thing I get from that line is that the heart is a thing that's inherently light. It's an invitation to allow it to be how it already is. No sugarcoated, forced holiday cheer there and I just love that.
I also didn't know about the Ella Fitzgerald song "The Secret of Christmas" [written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen] until one of the musicians on the album — Jaron Olevsky — showed it to Ryan and I during our demo process. We were blown away by the song so we had to include it, and Jaron made one heck of an arrangement for it. Ella's original recording of the song is just stunning.
Maybe a most favorite would be the medley we made of the Muppets' Christmas song "It's In Every One Of Us" (which features a bit of Kermit's classic "Rainbow Connection." We listen to the Muppets' Christmas album every Christmas in my house, so this is pretty darn special to me :)
What was your most memorable Christmas?
It's kind of a sad one. Let me preface this by saying I had many a wonderful Christmas and Winter Solstice with all of my family over the years. So I guess what makes this memory so memorable is that it was different than all those other years and therefore stood out.
It was a holiday season that we were struggling financially, and a New Jersey state program brought Christmas to our house. They showed up with big black bags full of secondhand toys, coats, decorations, food and even a tree. I guess it's really not sad so much as, you know, bittersweet :)
What is your favorite holiday tradition and how will if figure into this year's plans?
If it's possible for us to continue our small pod with my mom and her partner — we'll be able to have one of my favorite holiday traditions, which is where my mom breaks out her *epic* multi-generational cookie-cutter collection and we bake and elaborately decorate hundreds of cookies on Winter Solstice. It's a bellyache I really look forward to.
What was the best Christmas present you received as a child?
I mean — my dad getting me a Discman might be the best because I remember it basically became a new limb. I went everywhere with that thing. And it had the special "anti-skip" technology (hahaha) so I could walk around in a world of Mariah Carey wherever I went.
Heather Maloney performs with Kenny Passarelli in 2013.Photo: Michael Bialas