‘Tis the season for something different: Heather Maloney to debut unconventional holiday EP at live-streamed show

  • Northampton singer-songwriter Heather Maloney has a new EP out — an unconventional one — which she’ll perform as part of a Dec. 10 livestreamed show. Photo by Joanna Chatman

  • Heather Maloney’s new EP, “Christmas Anyway,” is about recognizing “the bitter and the sweet” about the holiday season during a strange time. She did the artwork for the CD sleave.

  • Northampton singer-songwriter Heather Maloney has a new EP out — an unconventional one — which she’ll perform as part of a Dec. 10 live-streamed show. Gazette file photo

  • Heather Maloney in what now seems the distant past: perfoming live at the Green River Festival in Greenfield in July 2019. Photo by Paul Franz

  • Guitarist Ryan Hommel, who grew up in Amherst but now lives in Los Angeles, has produced Maloney’s last three records, including her new EP. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2020

Heather Maloney wasn’t planning on making a Christmas record. But 2020 being the strange and spooky year it’s been, she’s ended up doing just that.

Yet Maloney’s new EP, “Christmas Anyway,” isn’t a conventional holiday record. It’s rather a testament to finding a way to celebrate the season even if one can’t be with family and friends — and also recognizing both “the bitter and the sweet,” as Maloney puts it, of the weird time we’re in.

The six-song CD offers a mix of some original songs and some unusual covers, with a sound that includes lushly recorded strings and layered harmonies as well as the more acoustic guitar-based tracks Maloney is known for. There’s also a nod to one-time Valley folksinger Dar Williams, with a lively cover of her song about finding common ground at the holidays: “The Christians & the Pagans.”

Maloney will be performing all the tracks, as well as other songs from her catalog, in a virtual show on Thursday, Dec. 10 that will be live-streamed from The Parlor Room in Northampton, as part of a series of shows and other events celebrating Signature Sounds’ 25th anniversary.

The show can also be viewed any time after Dec. 10 at signaturesounds.com/homesessions on the Signature Sounds website.

In a recent phone interview, the Northampton singer-songwriter said “Christmas Anyway,” on Signature Sounds, had a gradual gestation that started this summer, when it began to seem increasingly likely many families would be unable to be together at the holidays. It was an odd project for her to consider, Maloney says, because she’s not enamored of upbeat holiday music; she also grew up in a home that celebrated the Winter Solstice along with Christmas.

“I’d never had any real interest in making a Christmas album,” she said. “And I’ve never liked that kind of relentlessly cheery Christmas music.”

But some conversations she had with her producer, Ryan Hommel, and one of her managers, Nate Meese, made her consider doing a different kind of holiday record: one that would look at some of the sadness that can be part of the season — families, lovers and friends separated from one another at a traditional time of coming together — as well the idea of celebrating the Christmas spirit beyond just the actual holiday.

Maloney, whose last album was 2019’s “Soil in the Sly,” also wanted and needed to make some music. Like myriad other players, she’d seen her touring schedule shut down for months by the pandemic and had played just a handful of live gigs, as well as some virtual ones.

“I think Ryan and I were both feeling it might be kind of cathartic to have a project to work on,” she said. “But it wasn’t something we elaborately planned out … it kind of slowly evolved.”

The project would have to be a virtual one, a new experience for her and one that left her a little nervous about how she’d pull it off. She says she was fortunate to work with Hommel, an experienced guitarist and producer who grew up in Amherst and has been a frequent touring and studio partner for her in the last several years. The two are good friends who “have developed a real trust and sense of intuition about each other’s musical perspectives,” she said.

They developed a list of cover songs they considered recording, and they also co-wrote what serves as the EP’s title song, “Sing a Christmas Song Anyway,” in which Maloney imagines someone bustling about a house, waiting for the song’s narrator to arrive for Christmas just as in years past — only this time “I miss us this Christmas / And it’s just not the same this year / But I’m still here / So I’ll sing a Christmas song anyway.”

The song is built around a basic but melodic guitar riff and Maloney’s overdubbed vocals. She says the tune and others on the EP began with Hommel, who nows lives in Los Angeles, and her trading ideas in digital tracks, phone calls and texts; each took time to process what the other had suggested, which in some ways worked better than doing it face-to-face in a studio.

“We had the space and time to really consider how to develop our ideas, to just let them percolate,” she said.

Maloney wrote another original song, “Table for the Feast,” which is also built around gentle acoustic guitar. Other covers include “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” and the perhaps less well-known “The Secret of Christmas,” first recorded in 1959 by Bing Crosby and later by Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis and others. The song suggests the real message of the holiday is about “choosing to be kind and generous and tolerant all year long, not just at Christmas,” said Maloney.

Once they had solid versions of their songs worked out, she and Hommel sent the digital tracks to some fellow musicians to add parts: pianist Jaron Olevsky, bassist Reed Sutherland, and backing singers Seth Glier and Liz Longley. Another key contributor was violinist Cynthia Tolson, who handled many of the EP’s string arrangements. Tolson, who’s Hommel’s fiancé, “is just brilliant,” said Maloney.

She’s excited about doing her Dec. 10 show from The Parlor Room rather than her home; she’ll be joined at the gig by Sutherland, the bass player, as long as both of them pass a Covid test, she said with a rueful laugh. And Maloney says she’s also grateful for the relationship she has with her fellow musicians and Signature Sounds: “It really does feel like we’re kind of a family, and that’s meant a lot during this year.”

Another key for her in 2020 has been help she’s received from Paetron, a membership platform that supports artists via a subscription service, through which supporters get special perks such as private online concerts. “They’ve really helped me pay my bills this year,” said Maloney.

For more information on “Christmas Anyway” and related gift items, visit heathermaloney.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.