Just the sound of Maura O'Connell's name conjures sonic images of tin whistles, fiddles, accordions and mandolins. When she opens her mouth to speak with a County Clare brogue, those sonic images are reinforced with mental images of windswept countryside, thatched roofs and a handsome race with pale skin, ruddy cheeks and strong penchants for drink and romantic ballads. As a singer, however, O'Connell defies such easy categories. Although the Nashville-based singer got her start as an interpreter of standard Irish tunes in her native Ireland, she has evolved into a first-rate interpreter of contemporary songwriters from both sides of the pond.
O'Connell came to music naturally. Her mother was an acclaimed singer who earned her reputation in light opera. "My mother's music was mostly classical, but there is a musical osmosis—you can't help but be influenced by Irish music, which is how I found the lilt in my voice," she recalled in an interview.
O'Connell had no desire to pursue a career in music, however. "I was co-opted into the music biz," she explained. The young O'Connell was invited to perform with traditional Irish band De Danaan, and shared vocals on the group's bestselling album, Star Spangled Molly, with Dolores Keane. "I was with De Danann for two years," she explained. "I toured all over Europe and did three U.S. tours. We were very popular, but I never intended to be a professional performer." The success of Star Spangled Molly led some fans to think of O'Connell as the song's title character, and many of them began calling her Molly, which did not go over well with O'Connell, she explained in the interview.
Despite the guarantee of a continued audience for traditional Irish music, O'Connell determined to buck the trend by recording more contemporary songs. In fact, she had already been exposed to a wide variety of music while still living in County Clare. She subsequently left De Danaan to travel to Dublin, where she lived for four years in order "to embrace the city." While performing in Dublin as a member of the duo Tumbleweed, she encountered New Grass Revival banjo player Bela Fleck and dobro maestro Jerry Douglas. "We were all very young people with a musical commonality," she explained. "It was a natural meeting of young minds and musicians who were constantly misrepresented. I'm not just a singer of traditional Irish songs, and Jerry and Bela were always introduced as bluegrass musicians, rather than what they really are, which are giants of acoustic music."
Douglas invited O'Connell to visit the United States. She relocated in the late 1980s, and proceeded to record a string of albums from her home base in Nashville, most of which were produced by Douglas. She enjoyed modest success, but noted that the difficulty of classifying her music made it difficult to market her music in an increasingly brand-oriented industry. "There is no mainstream American music," she declared. "You can call what I do Americana, but there's also a certain style I do that is contemporary, but not country. Genres keep changing to exclude me once a radio format is named for it."
Along with a Grammy nomination in 1989, O'Connell received many offers to sing backup with such performers as Van Morrison, Rosanne Cash, Peter Rowan, Nanci Griffith and Dolly Parton on the latter's acclaimed bluegrass albums The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow. During the same period, she endeavored to popularize the songwriting of such acclaimed tune-smiths as Patty Griffin, Hillary Lindsey, and Mindy Smith.
While her string of albums earned critical accolades, her live performances solidified her reputation as a singer of rare talent. "Maura O'Connell is so alarmingly good that it's enough to make one rethink one's notions of what comprises talent and artistry," gushed Musician writer Elizabeth Wurtzel in 1993. "At New York's Bottom Line in December, O'Connell's delivery was so impassioned and lively, her voice so warm and full, and her onstage persona such a funny and unpretentious pleasure that she proved that certain talents undervalued in popular music today—like the ability to carry a tune—can be the province of true artistry."
Asked about her favorite career moments, O'Connell fondly recalled her work with Martin Scorsese on his epic film of Irish Americans in nineteenth-century New York City, Gangs of New York. But she also recalled working with her musical idol: "One of my career highlights as far as I'm concerned is being asked to duet with Bonnie Raitt on Angel from Montgomery. I also sang it with (song's author) John Prine," she said.
Wrapping up her interview, O'Connell said: "I'm 48 now. I can relax a little bit more. Singing's my hobby again—I can listen to a lot of music these days and maybe even see a show or two simply for the sheer enjoyment of the music rather than as research for my next album." For a 2006 mini-tour, O'Connell enlisted bass player Don Johnson and multi-instrumentalist phenomenon John Mock. "I adore being on stage in front of an audience," she said. "I really have a great time, and I get a great kick out of it. It is a drug, and I have to do it."
Selected Discography With De Danaan
Star Spangled Molly, 1981.
Just in Time, Philo,1988.
Helpless Heart, Warner Bros, 1989.
Blue Is the Colour of Hope, Warner Bros., 1992.
Stories, Hannibal, 1995.
Wandering Home, Hannibal, 1997.
Walls and Windows, Sugar Hill, 2001.
Don't I Know, Sugar Hill, 2004.
For the Record …
Born in September 1958 in County Clare, Ireland.
Member of traditional Irish music group De Danaan, early 1980s; released album of contemporary Irish songs, Wandering Home, 1997; signed with Sugar Hill Records, 2001; appeared in Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York, 2001.
Addresses: Home—Maura O'Connell, P.O. Box 150312, Nashville, TN 37215. Publicist and Media—Ronna Rubin, Rubin Media, P.O. Box 158161, Nashville, TN 37215, phone: (615) 298-4400, e-mail: [email protected] Artist Management Mitchell Drosin, S.A.D. Management, 218 Sawyer Rd., Sherburne, NY 13460, phone: (607) 674-6473, e-mail: [email protected]
Musician, February 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a personal telephone interview conducted with Maura O'Connell on Sept. 21, 2006.
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