Emigrant returns to take centre stage at Temple Bar Tradfest


Fresh off a plane from Nashville, Maura O’Connell is tickled at the prospect of headlining on her home turf, writes SIOBHAN LONG

Social media is so pervasive these days that you’d be tempted to believe that five minutes’ respite from the blogosphere might be enough to threaten artistic annihilation. Maura O’Connell has been largely absent from our radar for a long number of years, bar a recent trip home as guest vocalist with all-female Irish-American band Cherish The Ladies.

Yet, ever since her sparkling debut as lead singer with De Danann back in the dim dark days of the 1980s, she’s garnered a loyal following who’ve happily followed her beneath the radar, largely by word of mouth.

Her Grammy-nominated 2009 solo album Naked helped sustain what was a formidable reputation for single-minded, straight-down-the-line songs delivered by a voice that’s steeped in the music of her home place of Clare, shot through with a healthy infusion of American influences. These were characterised by a belly-deep investment in the lyrical shape of a song, and a keen ear for buoyant melody lines that insinuate themselves into the subconscious faster than you can hum the opening verse of My Irish Molly.

Hot off a plane from Nashville, O’Connell is tickled at the prospect of headlining at the Temple Bar TradFest in Christ Church Cathedral. Long on road miles and short on naivete, she’s a realist who’s relishing the chance to headline on home turf, after so many years living and working in the US.

“I’ve learned that I ain’t no spring chicken, right?” O’Connell smiles, “and I’ve learned that in terms of the music industry, I’m what is known as a ‘legacy artist’ now. But I still do what I always did, which is that I sing, I pick my own songs and I have an emotional investment in them, and I try and treat them well. And even though it’s not on there, I probably co-produced most of my own records, too.”

We live in an age when singers often feel a certain pressure to write their own material, but O’Connell is adamant that “to sing is by itself its own art”. The art of interpretation is one that’s sometimes underestimated, she believes. And Bess Cronin, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday would most likely agree with her.

“I still believe that not everybody has a great writer in them,” O’Connell says, “but I’m a damn fine editor and I can spot a song that was written for me coming down Fifth Avenue.” And there’s nothing worse than an artist who tries to morph into what his/her producer wants, either. “I think there’s enough crap in the world, without me adding to it,” she laughs, with the heartiness of an artist with a healthy respect for boundaries.

This year marks a watershed for O’Connell, as she’s decided to seek out new musical horizons, which means parting from the musicians who’ve been in her band for so long. Bruce Springsteen did it with the E Street Band some years ago, for the same reason. Familiarity can breed discontent, particularly when it comes to creativity, where predictability and routine can anaesthetise rather than energise an artist.

“I need some excitement,” she says. “I need to interact with other musicians. When you’re younger, you’re hanging out with musicians and hearing everything that’s new, but when we all have families and get older, our free minutes are spent with our families. So you don’t have that sense of the melding of sounds and ideas – and I want to get some of that back. There are a lot of other people that I know I want to collaborate with, just for my own brain. You know at a certain point, I find that I even bore myself.”

Has O’Connell found it more difficult to sustain a career as a woman singer – who doesn’t write and doesn’t play an instrument – in an industry that’s renowned for wanting 24/7 access, regardless of family ties, parenting responsibilities or jetlag? “I think it’s more a question of personality really,” she says. “I’m fiercely stubborn and quite opinionated, and to be honest, it takes a crazy, single mindedness to do this. One important thing I have learned is that the more you worry about the condition of your voice, the more trouble you’re going to have with it.”

There is one key difference between the experience of male and female artists on the road, O’Connell says.

“One thing that I’ll tell you – and every girl singer will tell you this,” she says, “you know the way guys will always have these girls hanging around after a show? Well, that never happens to us girls. Oh yeah, the guys might come, but they’re never anyone you’d ever look at. That is the universal truth. Ask any woman.”

So no Robert Plant tales of groupie heaven backstage then? “No, the guys tend to be a little more wimpy. The big manly guys would never come near you – even for an autograph.”

Maura O’Connell headlines at Temple Bar TradFest tonight in Christ Church Cathedral, with support from Gerry O’Connor Trio. See templebartrad.com

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