reflections with Maura O'Connell
"There are all kinds of passages in life, and this is the one where we have to wake up and be grown up, we're not kids any more, we've children to raise, countries to run -- or mis run --responsibilities in all areas of our lives. I think for me it was preparing myself for adulthood at this late stage of my life," says Maura O'Connell about the song choices and mood of her album Don't I Know The song titles bear her out: Hold On, Love You in the Middle, When Being Who You Are Is not Enough, Spinning Wheel, and No Good Day for Dying are among them.
"As I now know from talking about it, because you never know when you're putting them together what the forces are," she says, "the kernel of this record was the song Time to Learn, the Tim O'Brien song that's on the very end of the record. I first heard that song twelve or more years ago, just after my mum died. My reaction to the song for many years was when I'd hear it I'd cry, and I have to wait a while and get over it it before I can do something like that. Then there were a couple of other songs I was listening to, but usually it comes together as picture and I'm not even aware it's there," she says. "This one seemed to be about lessons you've learned, letting things go -- but I don"t make concept albums. They just happen to be a picture of where I am."
In the midst of life, and life's changes, would seem to be where the singer is happiest. She's been based in Nashville for some years, and though some of her work would fit country playlists one wouldn't call her a country singer; she grew up in the west of Ireland, in a family that loved music -- but what was heard in the O'Connell household was not traditional Irish music but parlor songs and light opera. Yet when she made her first major splash on the music scene in the early 1980s, it was as lead singer with a traditional band, De Dannan. '
She didn't even want to be a professional musician at first. "I grew up in the usual west of Ireland household, in Ennis, in County Clare," O'Connell says. "My sisters sang, my mother sang, and our friends sang, that was how you entertained yourself and your friends in those days. Eventually I teamed up with a guitar player and we went around as a duo for a while, and he left to join another band and asked me to join too, and I said no. But I found I missed it." Still. O'Connell thought she'd go into the family business, a fish shop in Ennis. One day while she was working there, she got a call from the band De Dannan, an internationally known traditional band, wanting to know if she'd come and do a six week tour with them in the United States. At first she still thought no, but decided to give it a shot, "and then when we came back they'd booked another tour, and they said oh, come on and do this one --- and I've been at it ever since!" she says. She didn't really see herself as a traditional singer, though, and despite top charting success with the band's albums in Ireland, she found herself more and more drawn to the new grass and bluegrass music coming out of Nashville, though her listening tastes then, as now, ranged from pop songs to jazz, to folk, to country. In the 1980s she moved to Music City to begin a solo career. Along the way she's dipped back into Irish tradition ("you just grow up with it all around in Ireland, you can't help it"she says). most notably in recent years as part of the internationally respected collection A Woman's Heart: a decade on.
At her solo concerts, O'Connell reveals a singer who really inhabits a song and takes her listeners along with her wherever she decides to go. That trip might range from a traditional Irish song to a Mary Chapin Carpenter ballad, to something from rising singer songwriter Mindy Smith to a bluegrass flavored Tim O'Brien piece. In performance she's relaxed, lively, and funny, often lacing the serious reflections she offers in music with a dry sense of humor about life's foibles and her own. One of those turns, she explained to a packed out house in the Strathclyde Suite of Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall at the Celtic Connections Festival two Januarys ago, is the realization the she's a folk singer. "I didn't like that, for along time," she said. "I was never into that, you know people handing flowers around and singing old songs." O'Connell says she has found that there's beauty in the old songs, but also "I realized that folk music isn't all that, isn't only that. Folk music is a living breathing thing, and there's a space for singers in it. It freed me up to sing anything I wanted, really, because if a song is doing its job, taking a snapshot of real life, then it's a folk song. The pop songs of the past that are really good are the folk songs of the future -- somewhere in there I've decided I'm part of making that connection."
O'Connell again draws together connections of her life in music in her most recent release. The songs are all done unaccompanied, which among other things is an ancient traditon in Irish music. The music she's chosen ranges across older and contemporary song. It is called Naked with Friends.
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