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Dallas Morning News (Oct. 8, 2004)
With Maura O'Connell, one of the best folk song stylists of the last decade, you get not only a passionate vocalist with a knack for interpreting powerful songs but also a funny, no-nonsense woman candid and comfortable in her life and career.
In fact, she jokes about her long run of critically acclaimed but commercially barren albums, from 1988's Just in Time to the excellent new disc, Don't I Know.
"I'd love tons of money," she says by phone from her home in Nashville. "But it doesn't come in the slot in my door. It goes in somebody else's slot. That mailbox money thing. ... I've heard it of it, but it never happens for me."
She's realistic about her commercial appeal. She understands the limitations of being a song interpreter in a genre that cherishes its singer-songwriters, not to mention the hindrance of making thoughtful, adult music in an industry obsessed with youth-driven, disposable grooves.
"I'm 46 years old," she says. "I've caught quite a few waves, and for a folk singer it's been a pretty good ride. But it's never going to be mainstream unless some hot thing thinks I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I still do it the same way, and it's not that hard, really."
Her way works beautifully every time.
Ms. O'Connell finds herself in all the songs she sings. She doesn't write a word ("It's just not my talent," she says), but she searches for tunes that strike a resonant chord deep in her soul. Much of the time they end up being stirring ballads about emotional upheavals or life-altering choices.
On Don't I Know, she moves from the melancholy self-discovery of "Trip Around the Sun" to the quiet yearning of "Going Down in Flames" before she tackles "Phoenix Falling," a solemn tale about suicide.
"I try very much to mirror my age and my circumstance," she says. "There aren't many albums out there for the middle-age person. We are all trying to be young and hip. We need songs about rearing children, and relationships and parents dying. That's the reality. It's not jolly, but it's ever present and real."
She believes there's an audience out there starving for songs that convey their emotional state, no matter how gloomy the songs might be. "I really think people need something to hang their dark thoughts on. Not everybody has the ability to communicate. We don't know how to express ourselves. We get our emotional salves from different things. For some people it's a song. That is the universal expression for their emotions."
Finding the human connection in a song comes from a lifetime love of music and an ardent need for discussing the everyday issues that touch people.
In her native County Clare, Ireland, Ms. O'Connell grew up in a household filled with outspoken relatives. Frequently, the topic was politics. So it's no surprise she's an activist today.
She's participated in several local fund-raisers for Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. Dubbed "Kerryoke," they are held at clubs where people can come in and donate money to hear an artist sing a karaoke tune of their choosing. In a recent event, a patron plunked down $100 to hear her cover Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia."
Ms. O'Connell may not be able to vote in this election. She's in the process of becoming an American citizen, but, she notes, the wheels turn really slowly. "I did all my paperwork last spring," she says. "My lawyer is all paid up. At this point I'm waiting for the call for the test.
My 8-year-old son has been tutoring me on all the parts of the government. I'm always encouraging people to vote. It was always very important to me." In the meantime, she'll continue to sing, hoping her voice will serve as inspiration. During her concert tonight at McNair Studio in Fort Worth, expect to hear plenty from Don't I Know as well as material from other albums including the "The Blue Train," which she recorded for 1992's Blue Is the Colour of Hope.
Backed by a small combo, she'll perform in an intimate setting, the perfect showcase for her canon of affecting songs.
"I am taken with the songs when I first hear them," she says. "They strike a visceral something within me. There's a universal truth to them. You can direct the words of the songs to suit your life. Songs these days have more power than most other art forms that we have for people to express themselves more eloquently."
Tonight at 9 at McNair Studio, 301 E. Fifth St, Fort Worth. 1-877-212-4280 or www.basshall.com. $25.
2004 Dallas Morning News