Versatile vocalist opens season

Written by Holly O. Austin November 15, 2013 04:43 pm

Maura O’Connell performs Tuesday, Nov. 19, in the Crescent Elk auditorium.
Maura O’Connell performs Tuesday, Nov. 19, in the Crescent Elk auditorium. Submitted
The Grammy-nominated, Irish-born singer Maura O’Connell hand picks the songs she wants to sing. “No one has ever told me what to sing,” emphasized the chanteuse in a recent interview. 

The musical panoply that is her 30-year body of work as a solo vocalist includes songs by a variety of songwriters, and encompasses multiple styles — including acoustic pop, contemporary folk and traditional Irish. She will cut a broad swath across this repertoire when she performs as the first artist of the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

During her early years in County Clare, she heard and sang music all the time. There, “singing is the same as breathing,” said O’Connell. Her mother loved to listen to parlor tunes and light opera, and so those styles infused her early years, as did traditional Irish music, which had a rebirth in Ireland in the 1970s.

“It was the pop music of the times,” she said. “My reaction to all the traditional Irish music was I was turned off of it. It was too much.”

Her favored music was that of Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and The Band.

She sang in choirs throughout her school years, and when she was 18 or so, she started singing in folk clubs, and went out on the road sometimes to do sessions.

“I had no intention of making music my business,” she said, noting that she intended to go into her family’s business, running a retail/wholesale fish market. “If I had gone to college, I would have studied accounting,” she said.

Serendipity played a role in her solo musical career. She had a friend who went off to join a band to become a “professional” artist; “I’d never even seen one then,” she said. Six months later, after singing at an “English wake” (basically a going-away party for someone moving to England), she was approached by two members of the Galway-based De Dannan. 

She toured in the United States and recorded with the band. When “Star Spangled Molly” came out in 1981 it was a huge success — “but I never really joined De Dannan. In the beginning of 1982, I told them I’d be gone at the end of the year.”

O’Connell’s musical interests and connections had turned toward Tennessee, having met several Nashville-based artists at American festivals. Among collaborators were banjo player Bela Fleck, then with NewGrass, and acclaimed dobro player Jerry Douglas, whom she worked with “in that tiny window of time when an alternative version” of country music developed.

She spent much of the 1980s in Nashville — where she still lives — finally getting her green card in 1991. 

Over a 30-year solo career she has recorded 12 CDs, on the Third Floor Music, Philo, Warner Brothers and Sugar Hill labels, among others. “Helpless Heart, “ produced in 1989 by Fleck, was nominated for a Grammy award; “Blue is the Colour of Hope” (1992) was O’Connell’s first CD produced by Douglas, and “Walls and Windows” (2001) was produced by Ray Kennedy.

Her most recent album, “Naked with Friends” (2009), is unique in that it is sung entirely a cappella — with help from guest vocalists Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss, Kate Rusby, Mary Black, Douglas, Tim O’Brien and Aoife O’Donovan (of Crooked Still) among others — and includes a good deal of traditional Irish music.

Don’t miss seeing O’Connell now, before she retires from solo touring. When asked about that decision, she talked about how the music industry has changed.

“I don’t want to ask people I don’t know for money to make an album,” she said. She will still participate in collaborations, but, as it was early in her life, music will go back to being a hobby. O’Connell will have come full circle. 

“Maura O’Connell brings great songs to passionate life with her voice: a sturdy, melodic, from-the-soul-instrument. Her interpretive powers are near-perfect, as is her ability to make someone else’s personal lyrics universal,” noted the Dallas Morning News.