Singer O’Connell to grace Birmingham stage

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 8, 2003

Singer Maura O’Connell will perform at 8 p.m. on September 11 in the WorkPlay Theatre in Birmingham.

Many music fans may not know who O’Connell is. You won’t hear her on commercial radio; you might hear her on public radio or a folk radio station through the Internet. "I’ve always been under the radar of mass media," she said. "…If I want to go and be famous I can go to Ireland."

A native of County Claire, Ireland and now based in Nashville, she has released nine critically acclaimed albums. Her last album was "Walls and Windows" in 2001.

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In the U.S., she considers herself "a working musician. It’s nice to get accolades…but I don’t have a yearning to be on the cover of every magazine."

She was influenced to sing by her environment at home. "My mother’s choice was light opera and musicals (Lerner and Lowe, and Gilbert and Sullivan). My father was more interested in Irish ballads."

Her home was a stronghold of Irish music. "It’s kind of like being from Appalachia." However, "I turned my back on traditional music, the music of Ireland, when I was a teenager…because it was so prolific."

She has concentrated more on American voices. Later influences would be as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Ma Rainey, Annie Lennox, and Bonnie Raitt (who has influenced many singers of the current generation, she said).

Have you tried to steer away from the "folk singer" label? "I think I may have consciously tried to do that many years ago, but I’ve gotten over myself. I actually have embraced the title. I think that it accurately describes me better than any other title than I could come up with."

She gave a caricature of a "folk singer" as a traditional singer of "songs of political and devotional turmoil….(the subject of the song) went out somewhere…saw somebody, he died and then I came home."

O’Connell views the term more as a singer who does not write their own material but pulls from the material of their time. "If the songs are any good at all, then they will last. The fact that you chose them means they have a certain significance."

Having come to terms with her Irish background in recent years, O’Connell is currently performing in concert chestnuts such as "Danny Boy," sung in Gaelic and English. She appears in and is heard on the soundtrack of director Martin Scorsese’s "Gangs of New York," now out on DVD.

She first came to attention in 1980 singing for two years with the traditional Irish band De Dannan, but she didn’t feel comfortable as the traditional Irish singer.

She became fond of the contemporary bluegrass band New Grass Revival (including musicians Sam Bush and Bela Fleck) and inspired her move to Nashville. Just as people has preconceived notions of what O’Connell as a folk singer would perform, this new generation of bluegrass performers were moving beyond the boundaries of that musical style, she said.

Another of the innovative Nashville musicians, dobroist Jerry Douglas, has produced several of O’Connell’s albums and is working with her on a new CD for Sugar Hill Records. She appreciates her treatment by the label. "The very fact at my age (in her 40’s) that I’m still being allowed to make records is a miracle in-and-of itself. So many people that knew when I started out – that were excellent performers, writers…are not doing what they were doing because of the realities of life."

O’Connell said she hasn’t been touring as hard in the last several years.

Has she ever been tempted to be packaged for mass consumption by a big time record producer? "I’m not packagable," she said. "I’m almost unmanageable." She was signed to Warner Bros. Records for three records. "You have to be aware when you go into something large like a big company, it’s a business….If you want to play the game, you have to play by their rules….I’ve never been one to play the game."

O’Connell believes an artist can be successful on a smaller record label. A case in point in Allison Krauss, who remains signed with Rounder Records.

She is "delighted with my place in the firmament. Being a singer who doesn’t write, the very fact that I’m still around is just delightful."

She has previously performed at the City Stages music festival in Birmingham. "I absolutely love being on stage," O’Connell said. "…(Despite her happiness with a small part in the music business) I have a fairly large ego…and it’s fed wonderfully by being on stage."

And writer Rob Patterson said of one concert, "her loamy Irish alto voice is the sort of magical instrument that can take possession of a song and then convey its full meaning in a fashion that’s profoundly moving."

Songs for her new album come from young songwriter friends of musicians in her current band. "I don’t make a lot of records so I usually have plenty of time to mossy around…and try to keep my hand in and know who’s coming up and doing well," O’Connell said.

There’s no particular plan for what material she chooses.

She wouldn’t solely concentrate on the work of acclaimed songwriters although she has recorded great versions of Richard Thompson’s "Down Where he Drunkards Roll," John Prine’s "Sleepy Eyed Boy" and Nanci Griffith’s "Troubled in the Fields."

Even though new CD will feature songs by new songwriters, the theme of the new album is "maturing as a person and the realities one faces in the middle years (including) parental loss and the losses around you….It’s about loss and life and living.

Her live band includes guitarists Dave Francis and Andy Mote, and bassist Don Johnson.

Tickets for the September 11 Maura O’Connell concert cost $20. For more information, call WorkPlay at 1-205-380.4082. The Theatre is located at 500 23rd South in Birmingham.