“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.”
We just had Maura O’Connell on June 11, 2011 at the McKinney Performing Arts Center and in our five year history of concerts, by far, Maura’s is one of the best I have yet to experience.
I have to admit I happened upon her at an Arts Midwest Conference showcase and after her first song, I knew I had to bring her to Texas. I made the right choice, and my audience agreed.
From her first note to her last, she had the audience on the edge of their seats. She is captivating and has the stage presence that pulls you into one of the most memorable events you have the privilege and honor to be a part of.
I can only see her getting bigger, but unlikely better, as I cannot imagine how she could even do that. Her wit, charm and ability to establish a connection with the audience made you feel that you were in a living room and a part of her family.
David Taylor, Director of McKinney Performing Arts Center
Album Review-Naked with Friends
"Naked With Friends"
Kindred spirits: De Dannan, Mary Black, Alison Krauss
Performing a cappella requires a leap of faith for most vocalists, but for Irish-born Maura O'Connell, it's as natural as breathing. She sounds right at home on her new CD, the Grammy-nominated "Naked With Friends," performing traditional ballads and contemporary songs, mostly in English and Gaelic. Of course, even in an unadorned setting, a stellar guest list doesn't hurt. Dolly Parton, Mary Black, Alison Krauss, Paul Brady and Tim O'Brien are among the singers who lend their voices to this soulful collection.
Well-known for her wise choice of material and gift for storytelling, O'Connell takes full advantage of her remarkably resonant alto here. Elvis Costello's antiwar theme "Shipbuilding" triggers one of her most emotionally compelling interpretations, with help from the Settles Connection choir, and her take on Joan Armatrading's "Weakness in Me" is similarly moving. Looking to her Celtic roots for inspiration, O'Connell also turns in a breathtakingly lovely rendition of "Maidín I M'Béarra." Parton's unmistakable voice adds silver harmonies to the opening cut, "The Bright Blue Rose," but the standout tracks include a duet with O'Brien ("The Blacksmith") and the performances enhanced by Krauss ("Some People's Lives") and O'Connell's sister Áine Derrane (Holly Near's "Hay Una Mujer Desapercida").
As bold as it is, "Naked With Friends" isn't really a departure for O'Connell; it's an intimate homecoming.
Album Review Naked with Friends
Naked With Friends Sugar Hill Records ****
All bets are off on Maura O’Connell’s aptly titled Naked With Friends . Jettisoning all instrumental scaffolding, O’Connell has returned to her real roots. Her eclectic songs shimmer in the heat of their own forging: a visceral version of Anach Cuain , with Paul Brady, eviscerates the baggage from one of the tradition’s so-called “big songs”. Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding is remade in the image of southern gospel, and Jimmy McCarthy’s The Bright Blue Rose is invigorated by harmonies Kate Rusby and Dolly Parton as delicate as a butterfly’s wing with. The rest is a similarly stellar roll call, but what matters most is O’Connell’s musical equivalent of a parachute jump without a safety cord. Bold in conception, brazenly uncompromising in execution.