Celtic-Americana vocalist and bandleader Helen O’ Shea — formerly known as Dr. Helen McNamara — hopes to combine her background in medicine with her musical talents and create programs that help people heal themselves through music.
But that day will have to wait beyond her upcoming series of concerts including those at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing on Saturday, December 8, and Friday, December 14.
O’ Shea, who adopted her husband’s last name after moving to Princeton in August, 2011, has recently gotten back to doing what she wanted to do when she was 17 and living in Limerick, Ireland: singing with local bands.
It is a journey that includes the sudden loss of her father, Joe McNamara, in 2008. A policeman who schooled himself at night and jumped into a second career as a lawyer at retirement age, he was killed in accident on his way to the law office where he worked.
“No chance to say goodbye,” she says, adding that she eventually healed her pain by writing a song about losing someone you love so much so suddenly.
“My father loved music, and my mother, Josephine, was a housewife who was a very good singer,” says O’ Shea about her early life in Limerick, where she says the radio was on all the time.
And while her mother inspired her to sing, her father had a different idea. “When I was 17 and said I wanted to be singer in a local band, my father told me to put that right out of my head. I was going to medical school to get a real job.”
So she attended a six-year medical program at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she met her husband, Paul.
Then she took a path away from music: working in obstetrics and gynecology in Ireland and England, and then for 14 years as a medical researcher and teacher at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
“My husband was transferred down here (to New Jersey) with Merck. He’s a scientist, and by that point we’d had two children born in Montreal,” she says.
Initially the couple lived in New Brunswick, where she worked at St. Peter’s Medical Center. They eventually moved to Princeton.
“The initial move was very difficult for the children,” she says. “I told them: ‘Whatever you guys want that we can’t do in Canada, I’ll do my best to make it happen after we get to Princeton.’ My son Luke was in 5th grade and my daughter Lauren was in kindergarten. They had a meeting, came back and said, ‘Mom, we don’t want to go to the after-school program anymore. We want you to be home when we come home from school.’
“That was kind of sobering for a person like me. I’ve worked in medicine, caring for people all my life. I called my husband expecting him to empathize with me. Instead he said, ‘You know, that’s not such a bad idea.’ ”
He also had another idea. When the family arrived in Princeton, her husband suggested she get back into her long-postponed singing career.
Still recovering from the loss of her father and not knowing anyone in Princeton, she says, “I found myself looking out the window, saying ‘What now?’ Literally that day, a catalog of courses arrived in the mailbox from the Princeton Adult School.” And she thought vocal lessons would be the way to get back into singing after a quarter-century hiatus.
“I marched myself over there and met this dear woman, Alta Malberg, a local vocal teacher,” she says, adding that she studied with her privately for a year after the course ended.
“With her guidance and a little more voice coaching, I talked to folks at Cafe Improv and said, ‘I don’t have an accompanist, but I’d love to sing, just one song.’ At that time I didn’t know any musicians. I went over there and sang just one song, and it was three minutes of terror.”
Then in 2012 she heard about the Einstein Alley Musicians Collaborative meeting at the Arts Council of Princeton, also the home to Cafe Improv, and made a visit.
“This woman I didn’t know was sitting beside me and asked ‘Are you here to sing?’ And I said ‘I’d love to, but I don’t have the courage.’ She lifted me out of my seat and said, ‘This girl is going to sing,’ so again I sang two songs a cappella.”
O’Shea says she is now proud to state she is one of the five leaders of the collaborative, which now has several hundred members.
O’Shea describes her original songs and the covers she carefully chooses with her band, the Shanakees, as “AmeriCeltiCana.” The band’s name comes from a Gaelic word for storytellers.
“My kind of music is Americana mixed with Celtic,” she says, “Brandi Carlile, the Cranberries, Sinead O’Connor, Emmylou Harris, and Roseanne Cash. I wore out a lot of these country-Americana records when I was in college.” She also loves Irish folk-pop vocalist Mary Black.
Through her current vocal coach, Richard Bozic of Highland Park, she met one of the most influential people in her now forward-looking vocal career, film score composer and Grammy Award winner Marc Swersky, based in Eatontown.
“I met him in September, 2014, and I swear my father put us two together,” she says, adding she recorded her first EP and full-length disc with Swersky at audio engineer Joe DeMaio’s ShoreFire Studios in Long Branch.
“I couldn’t love Joe DeMaio more. He’s an absolute joy to work with,” O’ Shea says. The results of her time and effort the last few years with Swersky, DeMaio, and others at ShoreFire are the EP “Mama Told You” and “Turning Tides,” her full-length CD.
Another development includes O’Shea’s husband launching his own company several years ago, Exemplified Biopharma. “He’s working all the hours so his wife can be a singer,” she says.
Asked what the audience can expect at the December 8 concert at the 1867 Sanctuary, she says, “They’ll get my original songs and some of the American and Celtic classics we all know and love.”
And with a band where everyone has a turn singing leads and backup vocals, O’Shea says she tries “to have a show that’s very different and unpredictable, so you don’t know who’s going to start singing at any minute.”
The Friday, December 14, Sanctuary concert is billed as “A Celtic Christmas,” featuring traditional and modern songs from Ireland.
Looking far beyond her current gigs, including a December 30 show at the Bitter End in New York City and an appearance in late January’s Light of Day Marathon in Asbury Park, O’Shea sees another turn on her artistic path, “I would really like to create a program around music and healing. It would bring back my education skills, clinical skills, and research skills and blend them all together. That’s my goal.”
Helen O’ Shea and the Shanakees, 1867 Sanctuary, 101 Scotch Road, Ewing. Saturday, December 8, 8 p.m. “A Celtic Christmas,” Friday, December 14, 8 p.m. 609-392-6409 or www.1867sanctuary.org
More on Helen O’Shea: www.helenosheamusic.com