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O'Hara, Mary Margaret

O'Hara, Mary Margaret

Singer, songwriter

Mary Margaret O'Hara may be remembered as a comet who crossed Canada's musical horizon, glowed brightly for a short time, then passed on into oblivion, never to return. She only recorded one album, a four-song EP, and an extremely limited-edition film soundtrack, but they were original enough to send music writers scrambling to their thesauri to find the words to describe her unique voice and style. "O'Hara's voice weds the lilting twang of Patsy Cline to a near-operatic range," music critic Johnny Ray Huston wrote in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "Her original, scat(tered) style doesn't just turn words into objects, it turns them into the possessions of an obsessive: neurotically she picks them up, rubs them, rips them, tosses them away, then picks them up again and tries to piece them back together ... Her voice ... is riddled with unpredictable stutters and hiccups, it struggles through fractured sentences and sentiments."

Upon its release in Canada and England in 1988, O'Hara's first (and only true) album Miss America received rave reviews from both countries in the music press. Britain's Melody Maker called her a genius, while New Musical Express compared her debut to Patti Smith's Horses and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. Chris Dafoe of the Globe and Mail wrote, "What emerges after a few listens is an eccentric but engaging record full of strange quirks and out-of-kilter song structures."

Lending credence to O'Hara's ability to deliver a powerful, if somewhat unusual, musical experience, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe has been quoted as calling her "one of the most powerful singers I've ever heard ... a performer of astonishing force." She also numbers among her fans alternative rock star Morrissey, who said she "absolutely, totally stands alone." Tanya Donnelly of alternative pop/rock group Belly put Miss America on her list of favorite albums for Spin 's Alternative Record Guide.

Artistic Tendencies

O'Hara has been a part of the Queen Street club scene in Toronto since the 1970s. In the early 1970s she studied painting, sculpture, and graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and since then her work has been shown at various galleries in Toronto. A talented graphic artist, she has designed logos for clubs on Queen Street and has seen her artwork appear in publications such as Rolling Stone and the Globe and Mail. Her playful drawings and calligraphy illustrate the CD booklet of Miss America. For much of the 1990s she taught art classes for children in northern Manitoba.

Since she's the sister of well-known comedian and actress Catherine O'Hara (Home Alone, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind ), it's not surprising that O'Hara has considerable theater experience, as well. She also had a supporting role in photographer Robert Frank's feature film, Candy Mountain.

Cult Following on Toronto Club Scene

In 1977 Mary Margaret O'Hara followed her sister Catherine's suggestion and auditioned for a band called Songship at The Jarvis House in Toronto. Catherine was then working with Second City at The Old Firehall Theatre. O'Hara passed the audition and met guitarist Rusty McCarthy, who would work with her for the next decade or more and appear on Miss America. Songship broke up and became the Go Deo Chorus ("Go Deo" means "eternal" in Gaelic), keeping most of the same personnel. According to David MacFarlane of Toronto Magazine, "The two bands had a fervent cult following in downtown Toronto bars and clubs."

Go Deo Chorus broke up in 1983, and the next year O'Hara signed a contract with Virgin Records of England on the strength of some tapes a friend had sent to the label. Virgin signed her to a seven-record contract, but they would all be at the label's option. That is, Virgin wasn't obligated to release her material if they didn't like it for one reason or another. In fact, artistic differences between Virgin and its newly signed artist delayed the release of O'Hara's debut album for some four years.

O'Hara explained to Canadian Composer that Virgin told her she could "do anything [she] want[ed]" as far as changing the music that was on the demo tapes. She also told the label she wanted to be her own producer, or at least co-produce the first album, but Virgin insisted she work with an established producer. When she finally agreed to a producer, they went to Wales to record. According to Canadian Composer, "It was very quickly clear to her and her musicians that the collaboration would be difficult." The producer was soon dismissed, and O'Hara and her band recorded 14 cuts in Wales by Christmas 1984.

O'Hara and her band, which included guitarist Rusty McCarthy, violinist and keyboardist Hugh Marsh, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Michael Sloski, returned to Toronto for overdubbing and remixing. As O'Hara explained in Canadian Composer, Virgin became indecisive about going ahead with the album. "They listened to it and thought it was strange, but then they said 'Go ahead.' That happened twice. They didn't want the album, but they didn't drop the album, so we spent years just talking."

The stalemate was broken in the summer of 1988 with the help of musician Michael Brook. After he saw O'Hara perform at Toronto's Music Gallery, he contacted Virgin about helping her finish the album. With Brook's assistance, O'Hara and her band re-recorded four songs in the summer of 1988 and remixed seven of the original cuts from Wales to finish the album.

Music critics in Canada and England praised O'Hara and Miss America upon its release in 1988. Perhaps more revealing are the comments of the musicians who worked with her on the album. Piltch told Canadian Composer, "The way she thinks of her ideas is not standard, so the musicians have to interpret her ideas_You can have a very simple song, but her approach is not that simple and her ideas require quite a bit of time to figure out." Marsh, who played violin and keyboards on Miss America and was a member of Go Deo, said, "When I work with Mary, the main thing I listen to is her voice, it can go anywhere, it's a real angel's voicereally fascinating. It's as if I'm fencing with her, playing with or against her."

Favorable Critical Reaction

The favorable critical reaction to Miss America moved Virgin to commission a video for the album's first (and only) single, "Body in Trouble," which was released in February of 1989. The only recorded follow-up for more than a decade to Miss America was the four-song Christmas EP, released on Virgin in 1991. On it O'Hara sings one original composition, "Christmas Evermore," and three standards: "Silent Night," "Blue Christmas," and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Although no further recordings were issued until well into the next decade, a 1995 poll for the British magazine Mojo included Miss America among the "Best 100 Albums of All Time," and the March of 1996 issue of Canada's Chart magazine ranked Miss America #25 in its list of the "Top 50 Canadian Albums of All Time." In July of 1996, Koch Records reissued Miss America, then reissued the Christmas EP in October of that year.

In a brief return to the recording studio, O'Hara recorded a track for the benefit album Sweet Relief 2: The Songs of Vic Chestnutt (Columbia) in 1996. In addition, her vocals were featured on the mostly instrumental album Puerto Angel (Bar None) by The Henrys. For the rest of the decade, O'Hara stayed under the radar, working as an art teacher, playing one-off gigs, and, by her own account, recording "zillions" of songs, as she revealed to Globe and Mail writer Robert Everett-Green in 2002. Still, a follow-up to Miss America did not appear.

For the Record . . .

Born Mary Margaret O'Hara in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Education: Studied painting, sculpture and graphic design at the Ontario College of Art, Toronto.

Signed solo recording contract with Virgin Records, 1984; released debut album, Miss America, 1988; teacher of art classes for children, northern Manitoba, 1990s; released Apartment Life, a film soundtrack and her first studio album in more than a decade, 2003.

Addresses: Record company Maplemusic Records, 30 St. Clair West, Unit 103, Toronto, Ontario M4V 3A1, Canada, phone: (416) 961-4332, fax: (416) 343-9986, website: http://www.maplemusicrecordings.com.

And then, with no promotion or support, an album appeared. Titled Apartment Hunting, the 14-track album is a soundtrack to a small Canadian film by director Bill Robertson. It was praised by those lucky enough to hear itthe album had no organized distribution, available only over the internet and in a few select Toronto record stores. Her unique, powerful voice hadn't weakened over the past 14 years. Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail remarked: "She's a musician of profound contrasts, which begin in the sound of her voice. It's intimate and sweet, with the kind of fast cooing vibrato you might hear on an old 78. But it's also cool and instrumental, and liable at any moment to shuck off the words like satin pumps and dance barefoot into states of artful delirium."

Selected discography

Miss America, Virgin, 1988; reissued, Koch, 1996.

Christmas (EP), Virgin, 1991; reissued, Koch, 1996.

Apartment Hunting, Maplemusic, 2003.

Sources

Canadian Composer, February 1989.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), November 17, 1988; February 21, 2002; May 25, 2002.

Maclean's, April 22, 2002.

San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 30, 1996.

Toronto Magazine, April 28, 1989.

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