Naked With Friends
"A lot of people think every singer is someone's puppet," explains Maura O'Connell from her home in Nashville. "That they are not fully invested in the song -- that they are at the whim of a producer or a songwriter or a band. Singing has been denigrated like that for too long." Widely acclaimed throughout her career as a vocalist and interpreter of utmost grace and insight, O'Connell's latest album is a defiant, boldly undiluted statement on art of singing. Naked With Friends consists of thirteen tracks of singing -- and nothing more -- and is decisive evidence that singing is more than enough.
"The idea of doing an album like this has been with me a very long time," O'Connell continues. "In interviews over the years, I'm always being asked why I don't play an instrument to accompany myself, or why don't I write songs. I've gathered the consciousness that singing should be just fine, that it is a viable talent on its own."
Available June 16, 2009 on Sugar Hill Records, Naked With Friends features O'Connell both alone and alongside an array of vocalists representing her wide-ranging musical sensibility. Among the guest singers are Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Kate Rusby, Paul Brady, Mary Black, Jerry Douglas, Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, Aoife O'Donovan (Crooked Still), Sarah Dugas (The Duhks), Mairéad Ní Mhaorigh, Moya Brennan, Liam Bradley, Declan O'Rourke, and O'Connell's sister, Áine Derrane. "On this album," O'Connell says, "I just wanted to capture the feeling of joy that comes from people singing together."
Unaccompanied singing has been a part of O'Connell's music since her earliest days of performing in the folk clubs of her native Ireland. "When I first started, I had minimal skills on the guitar -- I still do, really," she says, laughing. "So I'd throw in an unaccompanied song. That's when I started singing Joan Armatrading's 'The Weakness In Me.'" Even before she began performing formally, singing was a simple joy for O'Connell, an elemental pleasure that didn't require instrumental accompaniment. "It was just the most natural thing in the world," she reflects. Growing up in a culture with a rich social tradition of unaccompanied singing further freed her, and the vast Irish repertoire is well represented on Naked With Friends.
Still, pursuing an entire project of such performances was something entirely new to O'Connell. "I recorded one a cappella song on an earlier album," she recalls, "and there were moments on other projects where I'd sing a verse or so by myself, and then the band would kick in. Sometimes, in concert, if the audience was especially receptive or if the room had a wonderful sound, or if the power went out, I'd walk out in front of the microphone and sing. But it was always something added-on -- it had not been the central focus, until now."
Captured in the studio by engineer and co-producer Gary Paczosa with riveting clarity and focus, Naked With Friends is a disarmingly intimate experience. In the absence of instrumentation, the usual trappings and signposts that often define a song's style and mood dissolve. It is O'Connell's burnished alto -- a full yet vulnerable and aching sound -- that is charged with conveying everything the song has to say. "My intention," she explains, "was just to sing the song clearly. I just wanted to be there to serve the song, rather than to show off a particular vocal style."
In this unforgiving setting, so much depends on the song. Over two years, O'Connell and the infinitely patient Paczosa recorded over thirty, and were surprised to discover that some very good songs could not survive the transition from a full band setting. "I'd record a song and listen back to it," O'Connell says, "just to see what the song sounded like. I wasn't really listening to me -- I was listening to the song. Once we knew what the material was going to be, the rest wasn't that hard. Once you get the rhythm of the tune into your body, it's really quite easy." Recording in Paczosa's home studio also gave O'Connell the luxury of working away from the clock. "I could just go there when I felt like singing. If I didn't feel like singing, or if I felt like stopping, I wouldn't sing anymore."
Featuring five traditional tunes in both English and Irish alongside songs by such writers as Darrell Scott, Janis Ian, Joan Armatrading, Elvis Costello, and Holly Near, Naked With Friends reflects O'Connell's longstanding commitment to seeking out powerful songwriting, regardless of genre. One of four sisters, O'Connell grew up in a musical household to the strains of her mother's record collection, which consisted mostly of parlor songs and light opera. She began singing in local folk clubs, eventually forming a partnership with guitarist Mike Hanrahan and performing a mix of contemporary folk and American country music. In 1980 she joined the Celtic group De Dannan, and went on to be featured on their breakthrough 1981 album The Star Spangled Molly.
O'Connell's restless muse could not be safely contained under the banner of Celtic music, and she soon discovered both an interest in and affinity for progressive American roots music. Following her self-titled solo debut in 1983, she collaborated with Béla Fleck (then of the NewGrass Revival) on 1988's Just In Time, which inaugurated a string of albums marked by O'Connell's tasteful, moving interpretations of songs spanning many traditions and authors. She recorded three acclaimed albums for Warner Bros. (including the Grammy-nominated Helpless Heart), before moving to Joe Boyd's Hannibal imprint and then to Sugar Hill, for whom she made the rattling, guitar driven Walls and Windows (produced by Ray Kennedy) and the more introspective Don't I Know, the fourth O'Connell album to produced by dobro maverick Jerry Douglas.
Douglas returns for a rare vocal performance on Naked With Friends, singing a forceful accompaniment to O'Connell on the Irish-language "Mo Sheamuseen," which Douglas learned phonetically. "I was complaining to Jerry that no one would sing the Irish song with me." Maura recalls. "I played it for him, and he immediately said 'I'll do it.'"
O'Connell traveled back to Ireland to record several tracks, including the duet with Paul Brady, "Anach Cuain," a lament inspired by a boatwreck in Ireland. The trip also enabled the contribution of O'Connell's sister Áine Derrane, on Holly Near's "Hay Una Mujer Desapercida." "That was easy for me," O'Connell says, smiling, "as I've been singing and fighting with my sister since I was born."
"A lot of the more traditional songs on this album I first learned when I was in a choir in Ireland," she continues. "At first I was a bit leery of doing 'Maidín i M'Béarra,' the song that has the same melody as 'Danny Boy,' which I learned at school. Yet it always struck me as being very beautiful. It is from the point of view of someone living in the city yearning for the quiet and calm that he can't get back to. The melody turns beautifully..."
"The Blacksmith" was among the very last songs recorded for Naked With Friends, and was ingeniously arranged as a duet with Tim O'Brien. "Songs like 'The Blacksmiths' are part of bones," she says, wistfully. "I learned it long ago, but this may be the first time it is done as it duet, as a dialog. I always thought it was a conversation."
The newer material provokes a similarly profound reaction from O'Connell. "I knew when I heard Darrell Scott's song 'This Beggar's Heart,' that I had to sing it," she explains. "I later found out that he had written it when he and I were touring with Tim O'Brien to promote Tim's record The Crossing. I would sing 'The Water Is Wide' in those shows, and Darrell loosely based 'This Beggar's Heart' on that song." Scott, alongside the Settles Connection choir, is featured on Elvis Costello's haunting, ominous "Shipbuilding." "I always thought that was a magnificent song," O'Connell says, "with a strong anti-war sentiment that is unfortunately still relevant." The Settles Connection are augmented by Dolly Parton and Kate Rusby for the opening track "Bright Blue Rose." "I've always loved Kate's singing," O'Connell adds, "and I knew Dolly would add that beautiful sparkle to the top."
"I've learned an awful lot making this record," O'Connell reflects. "The experience has taught me so much about the value and the power of a great song. Even without everything that tells the listener 'this is what kind of song this is.' On its own, a good song has power, poetry, and tragedy in it." Naked With Friends is a provocative, powerful exercise in pure singing that challenges a lot of preconceptions about vocalists and their role in shaping a song. "I may be trying to create a new idea," she concludes. "Because of the way the industry is set up, you have to be one kind of singer or another -- country, pop, whatever. But I think there is a role for singers that should not be defined.
Singers don't have to be tied to a particular style. They aren't bound to anything but the song."
Don't I Know
For a while there, Maura O'Connell's website brandished the subtitle "Just a Singer," but that ironic tag has evolved into an ever-changing set of comments from the cheeky (and accurate) "Just a Wonder" to the very sensible, lower-key suggestion that we "Just Listen."
From her first recorded appearance as a lead vocalist with the celebrated traditional Celtic group DeDanaan in 1981, to her tenth and latest solo disc, Don't I Know, O'Connell has married an unmistakable deep, rich, flexible voice and her signature talent for finding what's most potent in the work of a select but broad array of genre-jumping songwriters, to pull the listener right along with her--to the heart of a song.
Don't I Know, produced by her long-time collaborator, the dobro master Jerry Douglas, may be the most eclectic O'Connell collection yet, as it ventures from a contemplative turn on rising new singer-songwriter Mindy Smith's "Goin' Down in Flames" to a surprising, surging rock take on Nashville hit-maker Hillary Lindsey's "Spinning Wheel."
"This one does mark another transition," O'Connell says of her second Sugar Hill release, the follow-up to 2001's Walls and Windows. "I wanted to develop the area of singing harder, a little edgier, and with guitars. Still,for me, the song is always the main deal--rather than the style."
If the songs Maura O'Connell renders so affectingly vary across genres, from occasional tones of old Ireland to sparkling new jazz or pop, from revisited classics by Van Morrison or Lennon and McCartney to songs of new American songwriters unheard till she's found them, there is at least one recognizable pattern in most all of them -- lyrics that set the stage for the song, laying down a context, in surroundings, or mood, or the passing of time, then home in on a very specific vignette of love and life. (The title of one of the new songs "Love You in the Middle," pretty much nails the theme.)
O'Connell inhabits the song's situation; seeing the songs as drama, has led her repeatedly to certain writers, such as Patty Griffin, precisely because of their "ability to create characters" in swift strokes.
So maybe it's no surprise that Martin Scorsese cast Maura, scruffed up for the role, as an Irish migrant street singer in his recent 19th century epic The Gangs of New York. It's less known that the marriage of music and narrative was part of O'Connell's world almost from the beginning.
Born and raised in County Clare, Ireland, she was the third of four singing sisters, but it wasn't ancient Celt folk tunes in which that household was drenched--but their singing mother's collection of light opera, opera, and parlor song records.
"I'm sure that those have something to do with how I approach singing," O'Connell says now. "I was aware of singing as an art form in itself." With that awareness, and her focus on singing, she has always been most interested in tunes "that haven't been performed by other people." That was a key reason her first public role as lead singer with the tradition-oriented DeDannan never felt entirely comfortable, and the reason why, in the midst of that folk success, she was so attracted to the experimental roots music of America's New Grass Revival when the bands' paths crossed.
"They were instrumentalists who were not bound by the history of their instruments, from a generation who grew up listening to bluegrass, and the Beatles, and jazz. They brought all of that along, and pushed the envelope really far. There was an exciting feeling of creativity there--and a complete disregard for what anyone thought!"
She would follow that sound to America--and to Nashville, Tennessee. Newgrass masters such as banjoist Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas (who's appeared on all of O'Connell's discs but one) and a floating contingent of adventurous Nashville hands have provided back-up and production for most of her recorded work--including the Grammy-nominated Helpless Heart and Blue is the Color of Hope for Warner Brothers, Stories and the Irish-oriented Wandering Home for Hannibal/Rykodisc, and the two Sugar Hill discs. The very flexible--and ace--Bryan Sutton and Jonathan Trebing (on acoustic and electric guitars), Viktor Krauss (on bass) and Shannon Forest (on drums) are the core backing band on Don't I Know--with musical textures added by everything from fiddles, to clavinets, to lap steel and B-3 organ.
If today her songs are often from the pens of unclassifiable Nashville mavericks--Jim Lauderdale, Kim Richey and Tim O'Brien are three on the new one--it's only natural; O'Connell has made her home in Music City U.S.A. for some 18 years now.
"I'm a product of my environment, I suppose; when I was in Ireland, I knew many people from that scene; most of the songs I hear now, I hear here! People here know what I'm like;I've kind of grown up, and my point of view has changed, with life circumstances much different now than they were when I recorded my first album in '83. Changes have come, people have died, which happens as you get older. In fact, I'm looking forward to going out with the new songs on this record. I don't get out as much, since I've had a son--who's just turned eight."
There's a sense of the passing of time and the losses that come along with it in Maura's music now--and certainly, a higher percentage of tunes that look at the perplexities of life. But even that tone sends her back to the song as song.
"Songwriters become more lyrical and poetic, more ruminative, and more in touch with the world's soul, when they're nice and depressed and pondering about it, O'Connell laughs.
If her broad musical interests have been essentially consistent over the 20-plus years of her recording career, the more mature Maura O'Connell is also sounding more self-assured than ever before, utterly ready to take us on that voyage to the center of the song one more time.
And by now, we're assured that she'll get us there. Just listen.
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Below are Archival Biographies
MAURA O'CONNELL, captivating
stylist ...introspective chanteuse ... musical explorer... songwriter's
Whatever label one attaches to Maura O'Connell, there are precious few
singers with the natural ability to delve so deeply into a vast array
of musical material, inhabiting each note and every space between each
note with such conviction that both performer and listener are left unquestionably
moved and unexpectedly exposed.
With Walls and Windows, the Irish-born
O'Connell continues to build on the strong foundation that is her spectacular
voice, and reinforces that foundation with delicate glimpses both inward
and outward, thus earning her latest album--her first for Sugar Hill--it's
She's also satisfied eager fans awaiting a new release since 1997's
much-heralded Wandering Home, the luminescent valentine to her birthplace.
Most significantly, once again, Maura O'Connell has assembled a collection
of songs to which she feels a deep personal connection. "I work very much
on how I feel about things, and different gut-level emotions," O'Connell
says of her organic approach. "I listen to songs, not looking to create
a tableau. I eventually find that the tableau has been created somewhat,
but I'm not aware of it at the time. I really just get together with a
bunch of songs that I really like, because I think that's a category all
by itself:"really good songs."
As with each of her previous recordings, the musical landscape of Walls
and Windows is varied and the sources of Maura's inspiration are
Chief among the many highlights are a heartbreaking take on
Eric Clapton's "I Get Lost," a driving version of Ron Sexsmith's "Don't
Ask Why", and a joyous reading of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love".
Although each tune has another artist's name attached, the true marvel
among the dozen tracks on Walls and Windows
is the effortlessness with which Maura molds them into her own pieces
of art, discovering untold beauty and nuance along the way.
significant are the multiple contributions of songwriters Patty Griffin
("Poor Man's House", "I Wonder", "Long Ride Home") and Malcom Holcombe
("A Far Cry" and "To the Homeland"), whose distinctive gifts are enhanced
by O'Connell's obvious regard for them.
"If you're a singer and you're
looking for songs", she says, "it's always going to be about the truth
of the words and the beauty of the music."
Once destined to take over the family's fish shop started by her grandmother
in the town of Ennis in County Clare, music was an integral part of Maura's
childhood, growing up the third of four singing daughters, with a mother
who also sang.
"When you had a voice and you could sing, you almost had
elevated status in the community. I guess I was aware of that in my whole
family, because of my mother. Everyone knew us. We were all "Amby Costello's
daughters." Not my father's, because he wasn't from the town that my mother
was! They'd say, "Oh, you're Amby Costello's daughter, you can sing. Sing
us a song."
Maura O'Connell began her professional musical journey during a six-week
tour of America in 1980, as vocalist for the traditionally-based Celtic
group DeDanann. The following year, she was featured on the band's landmark
album, The Star-Spangled Molly, which
became something of a national phenomenon in her homeland, not unlike
the 1993 compilation, A Woman's Heart,
(featuring Maura and several other popular Irish female artists), a copy
of which was estimated to be in every single home in Ireland.
felt like such a fraud the whole time," she says of he early days with
DeDanann. "Even though I was enjoying the gigs and all that stuff, I really
didn't feel it was me that was being represented."
Soon, Maura had left DeDanann and moved to a flat in Dublin, eventually
making her way to Nashville, to record her first solo album. Though she
says that record (little-known in the U.S.) proves she was "just flailing
around in the dark before I could focus on the songs themselves," her
time in Dublin and her early trips to Nashville were spent making important
connections that would eventually lead to record deals with independent
Philo/Rounder and, more significantly, with major Nashville label, Warner
Bros., though her tenure there proved short-lived.
Maura says of the experience:
"It had me seriously considering whether I should go home and get into
the family business...again, as I do in my life occasionally. I can't
anymore, because it's sold, but I was debating at that point whether it
was worth my while hanging around."
Hang around she did, earning a Grammy
nomination for 1989's Helpless Heart, and following it up with two more
acclaimed albums before moving on to the Hannibal/Rykodisc label in 1995,
for another pair of releases.
All the while, she collaborated with Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O'Brien
and other top-flight acoustic players, furthering Nashville's reputation
as a center of musical eclecticism. Throughout her career, Maura has also
made dozens of guest appearances on other artist's albums, including those
of Dolly Parton, Van Morrison, Rosanne Cash and her longtime producer,
Dobro player extraordinaire, Jerry Douglas.
Walls and Windows, her first album
in a decade not to be produced by Douglas, was produced instead by Ray
Kennedy. Known for his sparkling, inventive approach to acoustic music
ranging from rambling alt-country to all-out rock and roll, Kennedy's
producer credits include working with Steve Earle (as "the twangtrust"),
Lucinda Williams and David Allan Coe.
In recent months, Maura has also made four trips to Rome to be a "featured
extra" in a new Martin Scorsese film,
Gangs of New York, portraying, to no one's surprise, a singer,
(although she hasn't seen a "final cut" confirming that she'll actually
appear in it when it's released at Christmas time.)
Pretty heady stuff
for a woman who routinely proclaims she's "just a singer," but Maura has
rarely wavered from that notion in her lifetime. "Whether I was doing
what I'm doing now, or if I'd stayed in Ennis and had taken over the shop,
I'd still be a singer. I'd still have to perform somewhere. That would
be my identity. It's just that now, there's a few more people who know
about me." And those who don't will be catching on soon.
--Written by Steve Betts Autumn 2001. Return to top.
(Following is the "official biography" released
with "Wandering Home" in 1997.)
In times past they would have billed her as a "chanteuse."
"I'm a singer, a song interpreter" says Maura O'Connell.
Since her U.S. debut fourteen years ago, the internationally-acclaimed
stylist has applied her luminescent voice to the songs of John Hiatt,
Janis Ian, Tom Waits, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paul Carrack,
Karla Bonoff and dozens of other song poets.
Along the way, she has
earned a Grammy Award nomination and multi-platinum sales success in
her native Ireland. She continues to impress with the release of WANDERING
HOME, a selection of traditional Irish songs as extraordinary as her
"I have a mandate", says the critically applauded O'Connell, "and
that is to bring back honor to the art of singing. Not every singer
can write, just as not every writer can sing. Historically, what I do
has been proven as an art form on it's own. Nobody says to an opera
singer, "Why didn't you write that?"
"To me, being an interpreter is a tremendous art."
Through five esteemed U.S. releases, O'Connell has specialized in passionate
yet respectful renditions of lyrics that stand the test of time. Her
art has nothing to do with over-embellishing songs with vocal acrobatics
and everything to do with communication.
Her musical peers have led
the cheering section for this simple yet eloquent philosophy. O'Connell
has been summoned to sing with, among others, Van Morrison, James Taylor,
Nanci Griffith, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, The Chieftains and Roseanne
Cash - each a genre-defying stylist ideal for O'Connell's liberated
"A good song is a good song," says O'Connell. "That's why I sing songs
from such diverse corners of the globe and from such diverse corners
of the poetic spectrum. A good song doesn't have to be a 'country' good
song or a 'blues' good song. It can stand on its own. It can live in
the time it's written, in the time past and in the time future. That's
what I aim for."
As a live performer, O'Connell is well on her way to achieving that
goal. "My one vanity is that I can pretty much win over any audience
- just get me in front of them. When I sing live, it is more intense.
I am a singer who's like an actor. The emotion that comes from seeing
what I do - my body, my personality, the banter, the energy from the
crowd - has a much to do with how I sing a song as why I sing it."
In an artistic odyssey that has led from small-town Ireland (she grew
up in County Clare) to Music City, USA, O'Connell first came to prominence
as part of the traditional group De Danaan.
With O'Connell as lead singer, the band recorded THE STAR SPANGLED
MOLLY, it's most successful album and one that spawned two Irish hit
singles. When people began to refer to O'Connell as "Molly", she quit
the group and recorded her first solo album.
During this time she met and grew smitten with the virtuoso American
band New Grass Revival. Despite the fact that she had become a huge
star in her homeland, the group's dazzling instrumental skills eventually
enticed her to Nashville, where in 1987, she began a new phase of artistic
experimentation in the city's acoustic music scene.
Just as she had done in Ireland, O'Connell started sitting in with pickers she liked.
In short order she was the vocalist of choice among the musicians who
were redefining instrumental music - Mark O'Connor, Jerry Douglas, Edgar
Meyer, Russ Barenberg, Bela Fleck and other Nashvillians who were forging
the jazz-inflected style that became known as "new acoustic music."
"I grew so much during that period of my life," she recalls, "musically,
socially, in every way. Whole new vistas opened up to me."
This instrumental community also became a big part of JUST IN TIME,
issued by Philo/Rounder as her stateside album debut in 1988.
critical praise poured in, Warner Bros. picked up her contract and released
HELPLESS HEART in 1989. O'Connell was nominated for a contemporary folk
Grammy the following year, and the subsequent albums, A REAL LIFE STORY
(1991), BLUE IS THE COLOUR OF HOPE (1992) and STORIES (1995) added luster
to the singer's rising star.
O'Connell's versions of "Living In These Troubled Times" and Cheryl
Wheeler's "Summer Fly" became standout tracks on the 1993 album A WOMAN'S
HEART, on four all-female overseas tours and on the 1994 follow-up album
in her homeland. A WOMAN'S HEART 2 features her heartfelt renditions
of Nanci Griffith's "Trouble in the Fields" and Gerry O'Beirne's "Western
WANDERING HOME is O'Connell's Irish album, a record that took nearly
15 years to make and it seals her reputation as a modern-day chanteuse.
By transforming lyrics and music into intimate portraits of human life,
she offers soulful consolation on simply living it. The ultimate singer's
singer, O'Connell's gems are worth hearing again and again.
Written by Randy Moomaw
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