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This article by David McDonough was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 13, 1999. All rights reserved.
From Ireland, a Clarion Call for American Music
Listening to Maura O’Connell sing is like hearing
a church bell on a cold, clear morning. Think of Patsy Cline and k.d.
laing in country music, and Ella Fitzgerald in the jazz idiom, and
you will have some idea of the purity and beauty of the instrument
with which she has been delighting audiences since she first came
to the public’s attention almost 20 years ago as the lead vocalist
of the traditional Irish band De Danann.
Maura O’Connell, backed by a four-piece band, joins Gael forces with
Irish fiddler supreme Eileen Ivers and her six-piece group and two
Irish step dancers on Friday, October 15, for an evening they call
"Celtic Heart," at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
O’Connell will feature songs from her latest album, "Wandering
Home," a 1997 return to the songs and evocations that marked her
childhood in Ireland’s County Clare. But don’t make the mistake of
classifying her as an Irish singer. Maura O’Connell makes her home
in Nashville, and has been known to record everything from Mary Chapin
Carpenter to Tom Waits to the Beatles. She has spent years defying
categorization, and in her pleasant but direct way, she will make
you understand the importance of that great notion.
"You know, when you start out singing with an Irish traditional
band, it’s common for people to get very comfortable with you in one
genre," Maura points out. "And if your natural bent isn’t
to stay in there, you have to distance yourself a little bit, and
see if you can be taken on your own terms, even if that means losing
a bit of your audience. Now my older songs are more familiar to Irish
music audiences, but overall I don’t think a large portion of my audience
would be considered Irish. It appears to be a broad section of people,
which is nice."
Not that Maura O’Connell has ever turned her back on her roots. It’s
just that her roots are more entwined than you might expect from a
girl growing up in the house on Market Street in Ennis on the west
coast of Ireland. The daughter of an office worker and a mother who
ran a fish store, Maura can’t remember when music was not part of
her life. "My mother never got paid for singing, yet she was known
as a singer all her life. If there was a gathering we always sang.
Ireland is a place where music is such a part of daily life."
Maura’s mother taught her daughters the requisite folk songs; "I
Hear You Calling Me" and "Down By The Salley Gardens"
on "Wandering Home" are proof of that. But Amby Costello O’Connell
also exposed her family to Gilbert & Sullivan, "Die Fledermaus,"
and Broadway songs of Lerner and Lowe. Add to that Maura’s growing
interest in the music that came over from America — Bonnie Raitt,
James Taylor, Little Feat — and you begin to see why Maura’s vision
began to expand beyond the narrow, albeit infectious horizon of Irish
"I was in boarding school and I called myself the human jukebox,"
she reminisces. "I was always piping up in the dormitory and they
would say, `Sing this, sing that.’"
Singing "this and that" — mostly traditional
music — got Maura work in the folk clubs, "for fun," she
emphasizes; taking off work from the fish store she fully expected
to spend her life running, running instead up to sing in the clubs
of Dublin and Galway, where, one night, Frankie Gavin and Jackie Daly
of De Danann heard her, "and I got a phone call," says O’Connell.
She joined the group in 1980, just 21 years old, and they took off
With Maura as lead vocalist, they made their best selling album to
date, "The Star Spangled Molly." The album featured Irish
reels and jigs and a heart-rending version, by Maura, of the tender
ballad "Maggie," one of her most-requested numbers, and one
that illustrates Maura’s matchless ability to rip out the heart of
the listener. She repeats the feat on "Wandering Home," with
more traditional numbers such as "Teddy O’Neill."
"I may have found the blues in Irish music," O’Connell admits,
when she speaks of the making of "Wandering Home."
"I had spent the afternoon with Dolores Keane [another former
De Danann vocalist] and her aunts. And when they sang the sad songs,
`keened’ as we say, it really evoked the blues to me. The songs are
so sad, and that’s what the blues is about — hard times, and pulling
the beauty out of something like that. In my show, I talk about the
fact that there are no traditional Irish love songs that aren’t tragic."
Certainly, Maura could have had a fine career if she had gone on keening
for De Danann indefinitely, not that she’s any slouch on the upbeat
numbers, either. But in common with Dolores Keane, Mary Black, and
other former vocalists for the group, Maura’s tenure was short-lived.
After two years, she left.
"Well, we’re larger-than-life women," she explains with a
laugh. "I think the band has a knack for finding people who are
pretty good with a song, and interestingly, that usually means that
person has a vision. I couldn’t commit full-time just to De Danann.
If I was going to be in the music business, I really felt that I should
devote myself to what interested me more than anything else."
In January, 1983, Maura made her first solo record in Nashville, all
contemporary music. She fell in with a group of the young Nashville
turks, the bunch that became known as the New Grass Revival, including
instrumentalists like Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, and Jerry Douglas.
Maura was impressed with what she heard.
"I was excited by the fact that they weren’t bound by what other
people thought their instruments could do. I felt the same way about
songs and singing and it was a good match."
One stigma that Maura felt she had to overcome was the fact that she
does not write her own songs. A supreme interpreter of other people’s
music, Maura says forthrightly, "There seems to be a notion that
if you write the material you are a little more worthy of being an
artist. `You’re such a good singer, why don’t you write your own songs?’
they say — and it’s not a compliment. Well, it doesn’t go hand
in hand, and there are dozens of songs that illustrate the point.
It’s not that writing doesn’t interest me, but sometimes you have
to acknowledge where your talent lies."
Maura made three more Nashville albums in the ’80s and ’90s, and one
in Los Angeles; and she gained the new audience she had been seeking.
Now 41 and living in Nashville with her husband and three-year-old
son, she fits comfortably into that middle ground of musicians who
may never break through into the Top 100, may never play the arenas,
but who make a living playing the music they like.
"As you get older," she says, "you understand that there
is an order to the music business that you must follow to have mega
hits, and you must fit into those boundaries. But if you choose to
opt out of that game, you can just play music, and there is enough
of an audience for that non-genre to keep it alive."
"Wandering Home," with its rich Irish flavor, has delighted
the traditionalists in Maura’s audience, and they will be well rewarded
in her "Celtic Heart" concert. But don’t expect another similar
outing in the near future.
"I have a natural instinct," Maura admits, "when someone
thinks I should go this way, then, by golly, I have to go the other.
My mother used to say to me years ago, trying to get me to be more
commercial, `You won’t be singing when you’re 40.’ I proved her wrong."
"I want to now go and explore the music that excites me about
America. I’m thinking about doing a record of the songs that really
drew me over here. Songs that I think of as truly American."
She doesn’t yet know what those songs might be, but there’s a mischievous
tone in her voice when she says, "The first record I ever bought,
when I was 10 or 11, was `I Think I Love You" by the Partridge
Family. And I’m not ashamed of it. I’m old enough, and it was a long
— David McDonough
New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $16 to $28. Friday, October 15, 8
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