With a new album and fresh from making music at a three-day event called the Opelika Songwriters Festival in Alabama, Heather Lynne Horton was home in Orland Park Sunday and was telling me, “We do have a crazy life.”
Horton was with her 13-year-old daughter, Rain (who is also known as Willie), and the two cats who share their house, named Matilda and Bing Bong. Horton’s husband, singer-songwriter Michael McDermott, was still on the road, driving from Opelika to other performances in Florida and Georgia before heading home.
The house is where he grew up, with three older siblings and supportive parents Bill and Irene Murphy, who ran an insurance business.
“Maybe not that crazy,” said Horton, “because we love what we do and love each other, all three of us … and the cats.”
She is happy to be home, even though she has spent much of her life on the move. She was born in Hawaii and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, by adoptive parents. She was one of four children and says, “The house was filled with the music of Leonard Bernstein, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary. “I just so wanted to sing but I started playing piano at four, then the violin and mandolin and much, much later guitar.”
She never learned to read music and played by ear but she played well and energetically. She went to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and after graduating she made her way to Minneapolis, “because of Prince,” she said. “The music scene was so alive because of him.”
After some time there she followed a boyfriend to Chicago.
That was 1994. The boyfriend vanished. Horton stayed.
“I wanted to make music, write songs,” she says. “I didn’t have a career direction but I was able to get in a lot of doors. Violin playing was my superpower. “I had a demo tape and was starting to audition for bands when someone directed me to what they said was the best club in the city.”
That place was the Gold Star Sardine Bar, maybe not the “best club” but certainly a unique spot. Its owner, the late Bill Allen, was a creative, risk-taking dynamo. Although the room focused on jazz singers such as house regular Patricia Barber and such guest performers as Julie Wilson and Tony Bennett, Horton worked there for a year.
“Bill kind of kept me in that backroom office, doing all sorts of chores,” she says. “But I learned a lot from him, and heard a lot.”
When not working, she traveled to the local club scene — Martyrs,’ the Elbo Room — and grew especially fond of the cozy subterranean Underground Wonder Bar.
That was where she met McDermott in 2005. Friends at first, they performed together and they fell in love. They married in Italy in 2009. He was then drinking and using drugs and those very hard and scary times were captured in his fine 2022 book “Scars From Another Life.”
“I was like a clown trying to navigate this life through a very complicated world,” he told me.
Horton was no stranger to the scene but “people always thought I did cocaine because I was so skinny,” says Horton. “But I never did and was never much of a drinker. Even now, maybe one glass a month.”
With Horton’s compassionate understanding, McDermott has been clean and sober since, he will proudly tell you, “Jan. 14, 2014.”
With the birth of their daughter, Horton dialed back her performances and writing but eased back into music with a 2018 album titled “Don’t Mess With Mrs. Murphy.” It was a critical hit and features the achingly sad but hopeful “Save the Rain,” about the couple’s then young daughter.
This latest album is “Get Me to a Nunnery,” its title a slight variation of a line from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and inspired by a nasty encounter with a radio host in Scotland.
In conversation, Horton is animated and open and those qualities are powerfully reflected in her songwriting. Each of the album’s 10 songs has a pleasant punch and Horton’s voice adds palpable emotional authority.
One song is especially moving, even without words. It is “Lin’s Never Ending Song,” an orchestral piece sparked by the health troubles that afflicted and eventually took the life of WXRT radio host Lin Brehmer.
Horton had, like so many, met him over the airwaves and was charmed by his kind and clever manner, his heart and humor. She eventually got to know him personally and was deeply affected when he made his illness public. She started recording short pieces on her violin, 20 seconds or so, and sent them to Lin and his wife, Sara Farr.
These were ever intended to be anything but a private recordings but after Brehmer’s Jan. 22 death, Farr convinced her to include it on the album.
It makes for a compelling last track on the album, which has been getting rave reviews with critics writing “whisperingly beautiful tracks,” “incredible” and “beguiling, controlled and full of tension.”
She is understandably flattered by such reactions. But she talks instead about Rain’s artistry with her guitar and how much she misses Lin and how eager she is to see her husband get back home and pull into their suburban driveway.