Maura O'Connell:
a singer in retirement

When you speak to Maura O'Connell, you're at home immediately; she has the ability to make you feel like a long-lost brother. She is warm, welcoming and hilarious, with a personality as big as County Clare, and those qualities, along with her enormous talent, have made her a constant presence in Irish-American music for the past 30 years. Maybe that's why the announcement of her retirement sent shock waves through the music world a few months ago.

The shock was followed by confusion as Maura O'Connell remained as busy as she had been before her announcement. It appears that a lot of people missed the nuances of the retirement message and wound up wondering why, if she had stepped down, she's been busier since she packed it in than she was before.

"I retired from the music business," she explains, "not from music. I won't go out and tour anymore anymore but if anybody wants me me to come somewhere and sing a few songs, I'm delighted to do it." In fact, when I spoke to her by phone from her home in Nashville, she was preparing to go out and join Cherish the Ladies for a month-long tour. "Poor Maura," says Joannie Madden, the head of Cherish the Ladies. "She keeps trying to retire but I won't let her."

Why the selective retirement? "The music business has changed too much. You have to make your money touring now; record sales no longer do it. I can't carry a band out on tour anymore. The costs are too high and the return is too low."

I mentioned a student of mine who got an opportunity to tour the United States with his band. For four months, he slept in a van while crossing the country, playing clubs and bars. He came home with a fat $300 in his pockets. Maura recognized the situation and was sympathetic. "That's pretty good if you're young and unknown and are getting known, doing opening acts and such. But I'm not in that position anymore."

Part of the reason she finds herself in her awkward situation is the very quality that made her career and her music so interesting: her versatility. "I never fully integrated into one group. I was never this or that. It's too expensive now to do it if you're outside the system."

Costs are way up. Everything from gas and lodging, to van rental and food on the road to venue costs, electricity and everything else is up. Clubs can't afford to put up guarantees anymore and tickets have priced themselves out so that audiences are having to be more selective in the shows they attend; where in better days they might have gone to monthly or biweekly shows, they can no longer afford to attend concerts that frequently. They've cut back. We see how the rising prices affect audiences but they have an major impact on artists also, especially those who like Maura O'Connell don't fit easily into one category and are forced as a result to work outside the major show business system.

Maura O'Connell has spent most of her career outside the system. Born in the town of Ennis, in County Clare, she worked as a child in the family fish shop, growing up hearing the music her parents loved -- opera on her mother's side, Irish rebel ballads on her father's. When she discovered her own gift for singing, she began working local folk clubs as half a duet with Mike Hanrahan, who later became the leader of Stockton's Wing.

Then she got a break; she joined De Danaan as their first vocalist. "In the early '70s, traditional Irish music was like rock 'n' roll in Ireland. It was everywhere, all over the radio. De Danaan asked me to join and I told them I didn't really do that kind of music -- and I didn't. I didn't think I could do that. But I joined them and became known as a folk singer. Now, it's a frustrating thing. I still get put in that category and I've never really belonged there. Now I joke about it: What kind of singer are you? A good one. What kind of songs do you do? Good songs."

She sang on De Danaan's Star Spangled Molly album, which was a huge hit that nailed the lid on her public identification as a folkie. While touring with De Danaan, she met the members of New Grass Revival, who were busy reinventing bluegrass, adding elements of rock and jazz and jam-band improvisational freedom to the traditional driving string band sound. She became so enthralled with their music that she moved to Nashville so she could work with them and the nucleus of musicians that made up the then thriving New Grass movement: Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and others. A string of major albums for Philo, Warner Brothers and Sugar Hill records followed.

The musicians she associated with were known for pushing boundaries, blasting away at genres, deliberately transcending all of the established limits. Maura felt right at home in their company. Their musical philosophy matched hers. "I'm still mostly considered a folk singer," she says, continuing her argument against categorization, "although I'm not, and I mostly work at folk clubs. But any song has the potential to be a folk song. If it's an American standard, a pop song, anything, it can be a folk song."

If she was so concerned about being labeled a folk singer, I ask, why did she work folk clubs? The answer was simple: show business economics. "I've mostly worked folk clubs and shows because I couldn't afford to take a band on the road."

Being labeled also kept her in the folk clubs. Once you're placed in a particular bag, that's the way bookers think of you. "Whatever category is hot, they try to fit you into," she says. "Lately it's been Americana. The last time I was nominated for a Grammy, it was in the Americana category and there was only one other folk person nominated. Categorization is music business stuff. It's a business. I've been put into one category after another and I've fought not to be categorized through my whole career."

If she ever had a chance of breaking out of a category, that chance was erased forever by her participation in the album, A Woman's Heart, a group album containing cuts by many wonderful female Irish singers. Eleanor McEvoy, Dolores Keane, Frances Black, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon and Maura all sang a couple of songs each, and the resulting album was such a massive hit that it has been said that everybody in Ireland owns a copy. Its success shocked everybody, including the participants. Nobody expected the album to become the force it did and no one knows why it happened.

Asked why it was so big, she says laughs and says, "I don't know. If I knew, I'd use it. Maybe it's because it was the celebration of the singer."

But it did help cement her further into the folk category.

Her professional life has not been just an attempt to break out of the folk mold; it's been an effort to transcend all categories, to get the public and the industry to recognize that she is, in her own words, "Just a singer." Rather than simply performing folk material, Maura O'Connell sings whatever songs appeal to her, looking for the celebratory moments, the rare times on stage and in the studio when magic happens. "What are my best moments as a singer? There's been quite a few. That's like asking me what's my favorite song or my favorite color. I remember being on stage many, many years ago, feeling the room, feeling and hearing the way everyone responded. Or a few times in the studio when everything broke just right. Or when a musician and I are sort of going different ways and working our way back and wondering if we're going to end up on the same note and we do."

The transcendent moments? "Yes, that's it exactly."

And that's why she fights being categorized, even going so far as to have t-shirts made up that say "Just a singer." When she says she is just a singer, she is not denigrating herself in any way. To Maura O'Connell, the singer is an artist who penetrates to her own soul, as well as to the song's. She told Music City Roots, "A lot of people think every singer is someone's puppet, that they are not fully invested in the song -- that they are at the whim of a producer or a songwriter or a band. Singing has been denigrated like that for too long."

At this point, I'm getting a little confused. I've heard a lot of singers, even ones I enjoy, who are indeed the puppets of a producer. In fact, a friend of mine who is a Nashville session musician told me that the band gets together with the producer and arranges the song before the singer arrives. Sometimes, when they know the key she's going to sing it in, they'll lay down the tracks before she appears. The idea of finding the soul of the song or touching the singer's own soul doesn't enter into the equation.

To gain some clarity, I ask her what what exactly is singing, anyway. Her answer came quickly; she'd evidently spent time thinking about the question and had figured a few things out. The answer, she declares, lies in the difference between a singer and a vocalist.

"Every singer is not a good vocalist and every vocalist is not a good singer. There's a difference between those two. A singer gets to the heart of a song and makes you feel it. It's instinctive. It depends on the singer being able to feel the song, to respond on more than a surface level.

"For a long time, singers weren't allowed to be the leaders of our own sessions. I've always been allowed to, along with the producer. I can lead my own sessions. Vocalists can't do that. So, there's a big difference between singers and vocalists.

"Singers interpret. What's interpretation? It's the spirit of the song. It's the writer's intentions. Can you honestly be sure of the intent of the writer? Can you have an idea of where the lyrics are coming from? You have to have that and you have to add your own circumstances. Interpretation is finding your place in the song.

"It's like poetry. You get to the soul of the poem when it fits into your life. So if you want to be a singer, you have do the digging. It takes time and effort. I can't make a record every year. Can't find the songs. I can listen to a couple of thousand songs a year. There's so many good songs but you have to work to find the ones that fit you."

Maybe now, in semi-retirement, choosing her musical situations to suit her, Maura O'Connell can finally beat the categories and find more songs that fit her.

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

16 May 2015

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