Maura O’Connell Bio

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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."

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Maura O’Connell Bio

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

music.

"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

for America.

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

time ago."

— David McDonough

Celtic Heart, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $16 to $28. Friday, October 15, 8

p.m.


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