Aspen Times Staff Writer
Shawn O’Neil doesn’t look like a wrestler, or the product of an Ivy League business program, or a hunter. What O’Neil looks like, with his overgrown beard, shaggy hair and earring, is a musician.
O’Neil has, in fact, been a wrestler, an undergraduate in Cornell University’s business school, and remains an avid hunter and fisher. As far as being a musician ” well, O’Neil, at 34, is still figuring out where music fits into his life.
O’Neil’s presence on the Aspen music scene has varied over the past decade from prominence to absence. Friends of Your Mother, the band he fronted through the late ’90s with his ex-wife Gillian, was a force for much of its existence. Friends of Your Mother ” the name a reference to Mother Earth ” released two albums, played constantly in the valley and beyond, and did an extended tour of the Southeast, opening a series of big shows for Sister Hazel. Even after the end of his marriage and the collapse of the band in the spring of 2002, O’Neil kept a reasonably high profile as a solo artist.
Then this past summer, O’Neil dropped almost entirely out of the scene. He focused on his business, Bloomin’ Landscapers. He hunted and fished. (O’Neil describes his diet as “catchitarian” ” he will only eat meat and fish that he kills or catches himself, or that he trades for with other hunters and fishers.) And he thought quite a bit about his relationship with music.
“I’m going through a thing,” said O’Neil. “When you’re younger and you’re ambitious, you have that dream or the idea or the possibility that keeps you going. As I’m getting older, the struggle of completely letting go of that dream is an interesting thing.”
O’Neil chooses that word “interesting” with some thought. In letting go of his dreams, O’Neil is philosophical, not at all bitter. He has found much to like about the downsizing of his musical ambitions.
“Now I’ve got to face the idea that I’m doing this just for the love of it and nothing else. Doing it just for that, because it’s in you,” he said. “There’s a positive side. Life becomes more simple, not as large. You don’t take crappy gigs. You’re picking your gigs based on nothing but what you have fun doing.”
O’Neil expects his next gig to be fun-packed. O’Neil is playing, along with fellow locals Dan Sheridan and Kory Krahl, in something of a “songwriters in the round” on Wednesday, Jan. 14, at Main Street Bakery. Sheridan is a good friend, and fiddler Krahl has been O’Neil’s steady duo partner, their relationship having survived the breakup of Friends of Your Mother.
While taking the occasional solo or duo gig lately, O’Neil has also busied himself with a home recording project. He has begun work at his eight-track studio, at the Basalt home he shares with girlfriend and landscaping partner Annie Roskam, on what he expects will become his first solo album.
It’s quite a ways from the hopes O’Neil harbored seven years ago.
After Friends of Your Mother, the band he and Gillian had put together upon arriving in Aspen nearly 10 years ago, became a local success, the band hit the road. In 1996, the group left for the Southeast, playing small headlining shows and high-profile opening gigs. Upon returning to Aspen, Friends of Your Mother recorded its debut CD, “Spaceshuttle Window” and played a packed CD release party at the Double Diamond.
At that point, O’Neil reached the zenith of his ambitions: “I thought a record label and all that stuff was hopefully in the future,” he said.
Even as he entertained such thoughts, however, O’Neil had doubts. The touring hadn’t been easy or profitable. And his marriage to Gillian was shaky. In 1997, the couple separated for eight months, and the band was on hiatus.
When the O’Neils patched up their relationship, Friends of Your Mother took flight again. But Shawn had adjusted his dream, and full-scale touring was the first part of it to go.
“That was so much work,” he said of the band’s time on the road in the Southeast. “Talk about finding out that you don’t want to make it as a musician ” six of us in a hotel room, getting drunk every night because you have to, to get into the music.
“But if you don’t do that once in your life, you’ll always wonder if you wanted to do it.”
Friends of Your Mother remained a vital local act for several years. They played a memorable set at the Wheeler Opera House, opening for Nickel Creek at the inaugural Beyond Bluegrass Festival in 2001. They recorded their second CD, “Assuming the Best.” But the O’Neil marriage ended for good the following spring, and Shawn decided that band life wasn’t for him.
“I think I’m meant to be a singer-songwriter in a solo or duo situation,” said O’Neil, who got his start as a musician busking his way through Asia ” until he got busted for playing on the streets of Singapore, earning himself a police escort to the Singapore airport. “I never felt right with a band ” you’re putting all your money into it, and it’s too much to hold it all together. It’s too much responsibility, and it’s hard to get into your art because you’re always making sure everyone is doing their part, including yourself. When you’re solo, you can get straight into your art.”
O’Neil believes he still has something to capture. But instead of hoping for national success, he’ll be content if his music is good enough to satisfy his own exacting standards. O’Neil jokes that there are only a handful of acts he really likes ” Coldplay, Ryan Adams, Elvis Costello and especially R.E.M. among them ” and if he writes and records songs that sound good to his ears, he’ll be smiling.
“I don’t care if anybody hears it,” he said. “I’ve always thought I’ve written some decent songs, or was capable of writing good songs. I don’t want to run around the country, and I don’t know how you get your songs out there without running around the country.”