Shelly the Cat turns music into medicine
Local musician finds an emotional release by immersing herself in her music
On May 23, Maggie Maloney remembers feeling nervous as her father came into her room and sat on the corner of her bed. It’s the usual sign, she says, that she is about to be in trouble.
She remembers laughing when her father looked at her and said, “Your brother died.”
She thought it a joke.
Even when her mother came into the room crying, Maloney said, it took her a long time to fully comprehend what was happening – what had happened.
Earlier that day, Ryan Casullo, Maloney’s eldest brother, was killed in a motorcycle accident when a trucker merged into his lane and failed to see him in the vehicle’s blind spot.
Casullo, a father and husband, was the oldest child in the Maloney family, with two younger brothers Sean and Tim and a younger sister, Maggie. His death has devastated the family who are still having trouble coming to terms with the tragedy and feeling the emotional consequences.
It was yet another crippling blow to Maloney’s emotional health after years of tribulation. Her brother’s death came during one of the lowest points in her life, after a hard-fought battle with severe depression and a nasty breakup with a longtime boyfriend.
Music making, she said, has been the key in facing these problems and finding release.
Maloney, a Buffalo native, is a burgeoning musician and junior chemistry and math student at SUNY Geneseo who performs under the name Shelly the Cat, which was originally a pet nickname from a former boss. She started playing the ukulele as a running gag in her senior year of high school because she thought it “was a stupid instrument” that she could probably learn in an hour.
Years later, her artistry has spawned two albums – Chris and, most recently, Tribute. She has gotten a record deal with local DIY-label LIPS Records, a write-up in a The Public and her music consistently airs on Alternative Buffalo 107.7, a local radio station.
Most importantly, Maloney said music has given her a place to vent her emotions – something she struggles with in a non-musical environment.
Battling against life, love and loss
Maloney has been battling with depression for a long time.
But one of her worst bouts came last year during her sophomore year of college after a series of hardships right at the end of the spring semester.
In the last year alone, she’s had to handle an ugly breakup with a pushy ex and abandonment from an entire friend group. Then she got sick with a stomach problem that later turned out to be lysinuric protein intolerance, resulting in Maloney’s complete severance from meat.
It was just too much for her to handle.
Maloney was hospitalized in BryLin, a mental health clinic in downtown Buffalo after attempting to kill herself.
“I was very close to the edge at the end of my sophomore year. Over sophomore year, I attempted to die,” she said. “Everything was in shambles.”
Initially, the hardest thing for Maloney to deal with was her ex-boyfriend.
“My ex was harassing me because he was upset,” she said. “We had dated for two years and he didn’t want it to end, but I wanted it to end because he was treated me really poorly.”
The hardest part of the breakup, she said, wasn’t the actual breakup itself. It was the fallout – trying to let go of her emotional attachments.
“We had plans for the future and the whole nine yards,” she said. “I was really upset that it had to end but I knew it had to because he was treating me so badly.”
The relationship, which Maloney refers to as “the dictatorship,” because of how much influence her ex had over her, took its toll on her over the course of her sophomore year, as she continually bounced back and forth between talking to her ex and forcing herself to distance herself from him.
“The only thing I need to get past, and that is what was making me so upset, is that I’m still, or was still, so co-dependent on his opinion,” she said.
But then her brother died.
It was that tragedy, she said, that helped her put her ex in the rearview.
“The day he died, I was going to ask the kid I broke up with to get back with me,” she said. “He was going to come over, but then my brother died. I told him not to come to my house, my parents don’t like you and my brother just died. They don’t want to see you.”
Using a ukulele for catharsis
With all that Maloney has been through, making making music is what helps.
Maloney, who plays the ukulele, said the first song she ever wrote was to ask her ex to prom nearly three years ago.
“It’s a really good purging,” she said. “I feel like that the best thing that you can do with a record is make something that represents you completely, even if you’re falling apart.”
Maloney’s newest record Tribute deals directly with the emotional trauma of everything she’s has had to face in the past year, from her depression, her breakup and her brother’s death. It also serves as a tribute to her brother.
Maloney said she is very open with people about where she stands emotionally, especially in her music, because there just isn’t any other way for people to understand her.
“I feel like it helps people see music as a very human thing,” she said. “It has all the emotions humans have in [Tribute]. It sounds happy, but will get super sad; there’s some anger and some passive-aggressiveness – everything. I want people to be able to use the music for anything.”
Maloney, who primarily performs as a solo act, has been playing small sideshows at coffee shops and open mic nights for years now.
She had the opportunity to start to cultivate her talent at a summer job working at the beach and playing on “acoustic Wednesdays.”
The beach was where Jacob Smolinski first heard Maloney perform. Smolinski, founder of local record company LIPS Records and a junior communication major at La Salle University, said he wanted to sign and record with Maloney immediately, but Maloney’s boyfriend at the time was against it.
When the two broke up, Maloney said one of the first things she did was reach out to Smolinski and see if he was still interested in recording.
They first recorded Chris in 2014. But it wasn’t until Tribute that things really started to pick up.
“Looking back, I’m all right with Chris – that’s where it all started.” Smolinski said. “But Tribute was much more serious. Tribute is a sad and dark album.”
In terms of composition, Smolinski said Tribute was more complex than Chris in practically everyway, from instrumentation and production to lyricism and chord progressions.
“We had to think about really tough topics because Maggie had an insane summer,” he said. “[Tribute] was her reaction to most of the summer and I was happy to be there during that.”
Maloney said the album is broken into two parts – the side of depression she had before her brother died and then after.
She said it was essentially a complete emotional overhaul – all the emotions she couldn’t fully express during the past year came out in some way during the album.
“She had so much happen in such a very, very brief period of time - it was a lot to take in and put into the album,” Smolinski said. “When she came back from everything, she had a fully formed idea of where she wanted the album to go.”
Every song on Tribute has its own story: “In Love With Fox” is about lonely, rainy days spent watching X-Files; “Fisherman’s Son” is about her failed relationship and the difficulties of moving on; and “Geath Drips” is a tribute to the rap group Death Grips.
The true magic, Smolinski said, in Maloney’s songwriting.
“She manages to somehow to convey so much emotion through a few simple lines and some good metaphors,” he said. “Not many people have had the same experiences she has, but no one is able to express them the way she does.”
The last song on the album, “I Have A Friend In Klonopin,” manages to be an open letter to her ex and an ode to her lost brother all at the same time.
She tells a story about her fish, Keith, who her ex-boyfriend gave her during their relationship, and sings about the death of Keith, which serves as a parallel between the death of her brother and starting to overcome her past.
The emotional weight of Casullo’s death still hangs heavy on the Maloney family.
Over the summer, Maggie said her friends kept her sane.
One of her friends, Chris Krajci, was there for her during the worst moments, from her attempted suicide to her brother’s death.
“I tried to do the only thing I really felt I could do, and that was just being there,” Krajci, a junior economics and mathematics student at SUNY Geneseo, said. “I watched my best friend struggle and fight daily against something that doesn't seem like it can be beaten, and felt powerless to help the majority of the time.”
Over the past year, Krajci has driven across the state twice, just to make sure Maloney was OK. He said even when he couldn’t be with her, he made sure to call her on the phone almost daily.
“It's scary, but over time you do see little things reemerge, and progress is made in baby steps,” he said.
Maloney says she thinks about her brother a lot.
“I don’t think I’m truly over it yet,” she said. “I am still grieving. It’s hard.”
Overall, Maloney said she just tries to keep as busy as possible to keep the past from coming back to drag her down. She’s a double major, works two jobs and is on the Geneseo crew team.
“I just keep adding on things to make me busy to forget it all,” she said.
In addition, Maloney will also be participating in a battle of the bands at her school.
Noah Sider, a senior philosophy and psychology major at SUNY Geneseo, has been practicing with Maloney as the bassist for her band.
He said that playing music with Maloney is always an extremely liberating experience, especially in how she can channel all of her emotions into an intense onstage performance.
“You know how Adele is singing about heartbreak, or some crazy punk band is all about energy and anger, whatever that experience is its a way for someone else to experience that very intensely,” he said. “Maggie took charge of everything and went for it – you can get a good understanding of anything in her life through the songs.”
One of the hardest moments, Maloney said, was when she saw people posting on her brother’s Facebook for his birthday and having to tell them that he wasn’t alive anymore.
It was an experience, she said, that was as much sad and uncomfortable as painful.
When all else fails, she said watching the movie “Scream” always cheers her up.
“Whenever I’m upset I watch ‘Scream,’” she said. “The guy in ‘Scream’ – the other killer, not the main villain – looks exactly like my brother. And, I’ll watch the live action ‘Scooby Doo’ too because [that actor] was in that too.
“It really helps.”
Brian Windschitl is the senior arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com.