Tuesday March 30, 2010

Finding A Home With Maura O'Connell

Maura O'Connell at New York's City Winery

By Gwen Orel

Twice grammy-nominated Maura O'Connell played New York's City Winery on March 28 (

If you haven't been there yet, you're missing out: Maura told the audience "try to keep this venue open, if only for me! I might have found a home, if they let me come back."

Moya Brennan (interviewed in this paper a few weeks ago) plays there April 6. Joanie Madden agrees: she was there last night, and got up to play with Maura on "Western Highway," a lovely song by Gerry O'Beirne.

Maura never thought she'd be a professional singer.

"I thought I'd work in my family's fish shop," she told me from her home in Nashville on a rainy day last week, that she said seemed like an Irish day to her. The Ennis shop was called Costello's Fish Shop, from her mother's side of the family.

"I come from a long line of strong women," she said. That strength showed in her performance - she was in fine, rich voice, and fine form too, teasing the audience, getting us to sing along, heckling the hecklers that she had her own set list and though she was a folk singer, she was a diva first. "Would you like the microphone," she said to one man.

She talks to the audience to make it a "good fun show... a good experience as a gig is how you engage people and bring the story of the song into play." Also, "The really good stuff is more often thoughtful and lyrical," so it would be gloomy without some riffing in between.

She was nominated for a grammy for her latest album, 2009's Naked with Friends, a capella collection of contemporary, traditional Irish and other folk songs, joined by "friends" including Kate Rusby, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Tim O'Brien, Paul Brady and many more. She had also been nominated for her 1989 album, "Helpless Heart."

One of the best songs in the night was "Summerfly," from that album, by Cheryl Wheeler - she conducted the audience to sing on the chorus, and prevented applause when it tried to break out before the final repetition of the line. She acts out and gestures as well, holding her hand to her forehead. "It's one of the saddest songs of all time, with one of the jolliest melodies I've ever heard," she said.

Mostly, she explained, being nominated for a grammy, or becoming a graminee, means that it will now be the first thing mentioned in any article about her.

The idea for the album had been percolating for a long time. In concert, she performs with John Mock and Don Johnson on guitar, bass and vocals.

"A lot of people believe that a singer who doesn't write must be some sort of puppet, not necessarily an artist in her own right. I felt that the art wasn't being addressed as it should be." At City Winery, she told everyone she had a t-shirt made at one point that said "I just sing."

While there are no instruments on the album, it's not stark: most of the tracks feature beautiful harmonies and counterpoints.

On a few of the songs, including a cover of Joan Armatrading's "The Weakness in Me," and "Maidín M'Béarra," O'Connell sings completely solo.

She sang "The Weakness in Me" on her own towards the end of the night, a powerful rendition of Armatrading's sad love song that brought out every drop of heartshattering emotion.

"Any song worth its salt can be sung from beginning to end a capella," Maura told the audience.

Some of the most beautiful songs of the evening were by Declan O'Rourke.

She made us all say his name so we would remember it. "Galileo" is a gorgeous love song, with its line "who put the rainbow in the sky." She hasn't recorded it yet, she said.

Naked with Friends was recorded it bits and pieces over the course of almost three years, with coproducer Gary Paczosa who lived near her in Nashville. "As I was feeling singing coming along I'd say, I feel good about singing today."

They recorded 32 songs, choosing 13 for the album. A few tracks, including "The Beggar's Heart" with Paul Brady, and "I Know My Life" with Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Mary Black and Moya Brennan, were recorded in Ireland.

In concert she sang "The Blacksmith," which on the album she does as a duet with Tim O'Brien, solo-and it worked very well.

Maura was actually in the studio with every "friend". Some really were old friends-Paul Brady she insults on facebook, and "I've known Alison since she was 13."

She also worked with some younger singers she knew less well, including Crooked Still's Aoífe O'Donovan and Sarah Dugas, whose enthusiasm she found exciting.

While O'Connell hoped to find songs from the 1920s era, the light opera, that she'd grown up with in her house, they didn't seem to work without instruments. "My mother sang in light opera," she said. "My father liked the rebel ballads."

She comes from a musical family: "On rainy days, the record player would be on and we'd be dancing around to something or other, maybe My Fair Lady. I only later found out that that wasn't everyone's house. At the same time, there was an element of performance in every household. You had your party piece. If you weren't a great singer, you'd have a great story - someone would recite a great recitation with fiery hand and stomping foot."

Her party piece? "My mother was in the light opera The Gypsy Princess. My earliest memory was of learning 'Noblesse Oblige,' there's a tape of me singing it when I was three or four."

As for the Irish songs, she learned those at school.

"I would never claim to be a traditional singer. That's something I've developed since my time in De Dannan. My touchstone was light opera and the parlor song."

In fact, her first duo, Tumbleweed, with Mike Hanrahan, featured country music "in reaction to what was going on in the 70s. It was just tradition, tradition, tradition, everywhere, there was one tin whistle and 20 bodhrans. I was sick to death of it."

Hanrahan joined Stockton's Wing and O'Connell stayed at home. After six months, O'Connell, perhaps a little performance deprived, went to sing at a party for someone going to England in a hotel outside of Ennis. There, she was heard by De Dannan's Frankie Gavin and Jackie Daly.

Gavin called the shop the next day, but it was Friday, "the busiest day for fish! My mother said, 'whoever it is, get them off the phone.'" They wanted to know if she would join De Dannan on tour for 6 weeks. At first she said no, but then she changed her mind. "Sure I'd get to see America anyway," she thought.

In between tours she would go back and work at the shop. Only after the success of 1981's "Star-Spangled Molly" did she decide to give a musical career a go. "I thought, I'll see what I want to do."

And she hasn't looked back. As for the fish shop, "During the boom it got bought. I rarely go up that side of the street anymore; I have guilt." Guilt, we trust, properly channeled into one of those gorgeous, emotional songs.

Including Van Morrison's "Crazy Love," her final song of the evening. Maura had everyone singing along.

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