Singer Maura O’Connell on stage at the Wheeler
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Before the early 1960s, the singer was venerated. The singer didn’t need to write the material he was singing, didn’t need to accompany himself on an instrument to be considered an artist. It was enough that he used his voice to bring alive a set of words and melody.
Bob Dylan changed a lot of things in music, but perhaps none more than the notion that there needed to be a divide between the singer and the song. Dylan wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Chimes of Freedom,” and the times did, indeed, a-change. In his wake came the singer-songwriter – and the idea that, to be considered seriously as an artist, one needed to fill both parts of that job description.
“After the surge of writer-performers in the ’60s, the idea really was that a singer couldn’t be an artist,” Maura O’Connell said.
O’Connell, who was born in 1958, never quite saw it that way. Growing up in County Clare, Ireland, she “played piano for way too long,” messed around a bit with the cello – and took on singing joyfully and seriously. At boarding school, she was referred to as “the human jukebox” for her ability to sing a vast array of songs, beginning to end. In 1980, she was invited to join the esteemed group De Dannan, as their lead vocalist for a six-week tour. She ended up spending two years with De Dannan, which became a launching pad to a solo career that has yielded 11 albums; several Grammy nominations; and collaborations with Van Morrison, John Prine and Bela Fleck.
Over that time, O’Connell has never developed skills as a songwriter, nor as a guitarist, not even a strummer of simple chords, at least not while onstage. “I can’t concentrate on a guitar and sing a song,” O’Connell said from Nashville, which she has called home for a quarter-century. “It’s the tapping your head and rubbing your stomach and chewing gum thing for me.”
But O’Connell has developed a strong sense that being “just” a singer is no cause for apologies. With her most recent album, “Naked with Friends,” released in 2009, she actually celebrates her place in the music world. The album features no instruments other than voices – O’Connell’s, along with guests from this side of the Atlantic (Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas), and the other (Paul Brady, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, and Mary Black, who succeeded O’Connell in De Dannan). The album earned a Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional Folk Album category – a nice honor, but one that might take some strength out of the argument that pure singers are put on a lower artistic plane than other musicians.
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As a child, O’Connell had a fine model for what a singer could be. Her mother had a local reputation as a soprano and a choir member. O’Connell and her three sisters were born into the Irish tradition of performance – if not making music, then telling stories or jokes, dancing, or reciting a poem. Asked when she started singing, O’Connell said, “I don’t remember. I’m from Ireland.”
After high school, O’Connell formed a duo that played the Irish pubs, but shunned her native songs. “Anything but Irish music,” she said of this period. “I was a teenager, and like any teenager I was more interested in what was going on outside my world than inside it.”
O’Connell’s sensibility became a little more focused when a friend went to see Emmylou Harris in concert, and came back raving. O’Connell got a copy of Harris’ 1978 album “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.” “It blew my mind,” she said. “I thought I’d rather do anything than listen to country music.” The album, it should be noted, featured no songs written by Harris, and while Harris is credited with playing acoustic guitar, she also had a fleet of other pickers (James Burton, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs) helping her out.
After Harris, O’Connell began digging into other American icons, including Mississippi John Hurt, Ma Rainey and Aretha Franklin. “I was just hungry to learn more and listen more,” she said.
Still, she avoided Irish music. “I had nothing to contribute,” she said. “I knew some of the songs, and could speak Irish. But I didn’t have a repertoire like some of my cohorts, who had generations before them teaching them old, unknown songs. I didn’t want to do songs just for the sake of doing them, without being able to bring something to them.”
De Dannan was her opportunity to learn what she could bring to Irish material. At the time she joined up, the band was already one of the top three groups in Ireland: “People said, ‘We were like the Rolling Stones, and the Chieftains were like the Beatles,'” O’Connell said. To O’Connell’s credit, De Dannan became even more popular during her two years singing with them, and had several No. 1 hits.
“I couldn’t help but be influenced,” she said of finally taking to Irish music. “But I was afraid, if I did anything like that right after De Dannan, I’d never get out of it. I wanted a broader scope of song. I’d always considered myself a singer, not a singer of any particular type of songs. I don’t care where it came from.”
Moving to Nashville in the ’80s, O’Connell fell in with a group of musicians who had the same desire not to be constrained by styles. She met Bela Fleck, who collaborated on her 1988 album, “Just in Time,” and Jerry Douglas, who has produced several of her albums. Fleck and Douglas were instrumentalists, not singers (although Douglas adds a vocal to “Naked with Friends”; according to O’Connell, Douglas says he “sings like a Viking”). But there was a similar philosophy about music.
“I was meeting like minds, in that they weren’t bound by their instruments or where they were from,” O’Connell said. “Bela didn’t want to be stopped from playing all kinds of music just because he played banjo. I appreciated that intensity and energy. It was an exciting time; it was a good time for cross-referencing.”
The songs on “Naked with Friends” come from a variety of sources: old Irish traditionals; American writers Cheryl Wheeler, Janis Ian and Darrell Scott; British rocker Elvis Costello. O’Connell sings in Irish on “Mo Sheamuseen,” and in Spanish on “Hay Una Mujer Desapercida.” It reflects the way she has always worked; the production on her recordings has ranged from newgrass-leaning to pop-oriented to rock.
But “Naked with Friends” makes the point that O’Connell’s albums have always been, in essence, about the singing, and about the songs. O’Connell believes there is an overlooked artistry to what a singer like her does; it is not merely a matter of having a pretty voice, and being able to sing in tune.
“For me, it’s about finding the songs, making the connections with a song, getting invested in the material,” she said. “You find something in the song you can bring forward. It takes a certain understanding to bring the material to yourself in a way that lets you bring that same feeling out to the public.”
O’Connell has never been speedy when it comes to making albums, and “Naked with Friends” was an especially deliberate process. “It only becomes my version of the song after a long time,” she said. Many more songs were recorded than the 13 that make up the final album. Along the way, O’Connell refined her perspective on what makes a song stand up to the a cappella approach.
“It’s when a song goes into your body, will follow you around all day, get into your head, is one that you can hear just the singing,” she said. “It has to be an interesting song, about something. It has to have a beautiful melody. And you have to be able to sing it from beginning to end without feeling like there’s something missing; you’re not waiting for the beat to move on.”
When O’Connell performs Friday, at the Wheeler Opera House, she will not be standing naked onstage; she will have friends: her three-piece band, John Mock, Don Johnson and Dave Frances. O’Connell says that a full a cappella concert might not be a great idea, as the songs that work that way tend to be slower, with more downbeat emotions. Instead, she devotes a segment or two in each show to the unaccompanied material.
And, O’Connell swears, she’s got nothing against musicians who need an instrument to make their art.
“I love instrumentalists,” she said. “I’ve played with some of the greatest musicians in the world. I love to gather with other musicians. I always want to be a member of the band.”
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