The fact that Maggie Herron opens her musically eclectic and adventurous, lyrically poignant, insightful and cathartic album My Story in Song with the sly, boisterously swinging big band romp “Devil in the Details” speaks volumes about her choice to continue to celebrate the good things in life even after a time of the worst kind of sorrow has to offer.
In 2020, the year after releasing Renditions, a splendid set of re-imagined classics from the Great American Songbook to Norah Jones, the Michigan bred, Honolulu based singer and pianist – a multiple Hōkū Hanohano Award (Hawaii’s Grammys) winner - lost her longtime gig as resident musician in the Halekulani Hotel-Waikiki. Not long after, her beloved daughter, soulmate and songwriting partner Dawn Herron was killed in a bicycle accident. (She currently plays regularly at Lewers Lounge-Waikiki)
Though My Story in Song is Maggie’s second album since the tragedy (after 2020’s Your Refrain, which she was working on with Dawn when she passed), it feels from track to track – starting with the aforementioned “Devil” and wrapping with a soulful, poignant and elegiac take on Leonard Cohen’s “Halleljah,” the first lead single – that this is the first time she’s sharing her full emotional journey, the way she is processing her day to day life and finding a creative way forward.
Some artists might choose to hide in their sorrow and use it as an excuse to retreat from their previously prolific ways. Maggie has decided instead to be vulnerable, chronicle her difficult truths and use her grand gifts – a dusky voice quite well suited for both melancholy expressions and lighter hearted, sensual musings, bright and incisive storytelling and sparkling piano playing – to impart the balance of grief and shards of hopeful light that infuse her day to day.
Just as her ability to courageously express the darker reflective moments will no doubt help others who are going through a time of transition or loss, those occasions when she chooses to let loose and have a good time (most notably, on her brassy, bluesy romp through Stix Hooper and Will Jennings’ “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” previously covered by everyone from B.B. King to Joe Bonamassa) remind us that the whimsical spirit of the departed can stay with us in meaningful ways as life carries on. Although the easy swinging, coolly swaggering brass-tinged “The Big Seduction” is about disappointment after moving to L.A. to pursue one’s dreams, it’s still good to see Maggie has music and optimism (even if quickly dashed) on her mind here and there.
One of the ways Maggie uses music to navigate her grief is keeping Dawn’s wit, wisdom and poetry present and thriving on four of the tracks. In addition to “Devil in the Details,” Dawn is a co-writer (with her mom) on the elegant, piano and cello driven ballad “Footsteps,” the equally lyrical and graceful “Consider My Love” and soulful and lilting “Sweet Lullaby,” a sweet dedication to the innocence and adventurousness of children and the love of a mother, given a gospel touch via the rousing backing vocal arrangement and instantly identifiable harmonies of Take 6’s Mark Kibble. When Maggie sings on “Footsteps, “Every place that I found is perfect and true/But I am happiest here just being with you,” we are aware she’s singing now about happy times with her daughter. It’s perhaps the most glorious kind of heartbreak imaginable, a memory that brings heavy sadness but you would never trade for all the world.
Which brings us to the heartfelt core of My Story in Song, the four tunes where she imparts in raw yet (in Dawn’s honor) richly poetic terms the harsh realities she has been experiencing these past few years. She gets right to it on the meditational blues infused “No More Regrets”: “The night is dark and my heart is cold/You left me here sad and alone.” On “Modern Day Angel,” a wonderful tribute to a selfless, giving person, the singer doesn’t make it clear she’s reflecting on Dawn, but when she sings that her subject is “Loud outlandish and perfect. . .We miss the happiness she brought us…” we know Dawn is close to her thoughts.
Maggie is likewise bold in showcasing every last detail of a life and soul in turmoil on “Density” (using the symbolism of a rock’s “permancence” and “dependability” as a contrast to her own “aging broken heart”) and “Alone Too Long,” a simple jazz ballad (also featuring Kibble’s caressing harmonies) where she offers herself an opportunity to look forward: “I work and I pray and I hope every day/You’ll come back to me my heart will be free.” Though some of the other lines indicate the aftermath of romance, we can also interpret this as a spiritual reach out to Dawn for a sign that it’s okay to move on.
Because My Story in Song has so much emotional content, it’s easy to overlook the most important musical elements – Maggie’s interaction with some of contemporary jazz’s most storied musicians. In a time of sorrow, the best thing humans can do is be there to comfort and show love and the “cats” do just that, shining their intuitive, upbeat yet sensitive where appropriate light on even the darkest of moments.
Helping bring Maggie’s story in song to life are, among others, Mitch Forman, Grant Geissman, Andrew Neu, David Enos, John Ferraro, Bill Cunliffe, Bob Sheppard, Larry Koonse, Dererk Oles, Dan Schnelle and Romain Collin, mixing and matching throughout to glorious effect. Andrew Neu’s horn arrangements on “Devil in the Details” and “Modern Day Angel” are particularly transcendent. Testament to Maggie's own ivory briliance, her sparkling piano playing on "Consider My Love" and "Hallelujah" rivals that of the masters who tackle the keys elsewhere.
Grief being the process that it is, and creativity and storytelling often being the life-giving and saving outlet that allows us to navigate its waves, there’s little doubt that Dawn will be present in Maggie’s music for some time to come. My Story in Song is a bold, inspiring place to begin.