MAURA O’Connell loves coming home. All the better if there’s singing involved. It just so happens that the Nashville-based performer was going to be in Ennis this week for her holidays. By happy coincidence, an open-air concert – Clare Connections – will also take place in Ennis on Thursday. O’Connell jumped at the chance to be involved.
She says, “I’m delighted and this whole venture of trying to get people to come to Ireland is very important. Any of the gigs I do, I always encourage people to come to Ireland on vacation, especially in the last few years. The last time I sang (in Ennis) was about three years ago. They had this big welcome home concert in Glór. We had all sorts of folks come and sing, a whole bunch of singers I’ve known for years. Before then, it had been an awful long time before I sang in Ennis. I always love to come home. This just so happens that I’m coming into Ennis a few days beforehand for my holidays. This is my holiday but I don’t mind. It sounds like a great evening of craic. If there’s a session somewhere, I’m happy to go.”
One of Ireland’s most acclaimed vocalists, O’Connell grew up in Ennis in a home filled with music.
She recalls, “My mother was known to sing in musical societies. We were a family of singers involved in the light opera. Fairly often, the record player was on. We would sing and my mother would teach us a song. At any gathering, we would be pulled out to do our party piece. It was just the normal way; it’s just the way we are as a people or the way we were. If you’re known as a singer, you’ll be called on to sing a song at some stage. As for going out to make a living out of it, that’s just something that happened to me.”
O’Connell continues, “I was singing with Mike Hanrahan. We had a duo and that was fun. We sang all the time. Then he went and joined Stockton’s Wing and I tended to stay at home and mind the shop. The next thing I know, I’m singing out in Ballykilty Manor and I get a phonecall on a Friday asking would I go to America for six weeks. That was the beginning of the end of it! I would never have intended to go as a professional musician. That would have been foreign to me. To me, the idea of going professionally into music would never have dawned on me. But I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, when singers were still considered to be useful.”
After performing in Ennis, O’Connell returns to Nashville to sing at festivals before hitting the gig circuit again in autumn.
A long and successful career has seen O’Connell perform songs from household names like Tom Waits, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. She sang on the wildly successful Woman’s Heart album. Her most recent album, Naked with Friends (2009), was nominated for a Grammy award. Music, as it has done since those early days in Ennis, still excites her. O’Connell admits that her body “crumpled” when she heard Adele first sing. Records by Jerry Douglas, a long-time musical collaborator, and Declan O’Rourke are also firm O’Connell favourites.
She says, “I’m sometimes aware when I hear a song, I’m going to put it on a record. It’s interesting. It’s like falling in love in a strange way. You think, oh my God, this speaks to me, this is something I can feel and I know how to sing it and the melody is gorgeous. You’re not really aware of that but it’s all hitting you at the same time. When I’m making a record, I’ll be going around to different places gathering songs. I’ll go through hundreds of them.”
Her understanding of music and lyrics was shaped by the influence of her old music teacher, Harry Hughes.
“When I was in school, I did a few years in Spanish Point. I had a music teacher there called Harry Hughes. He is one the people who started the Willie Clancy festival. He was a tremendous English teacher. He, as much as any musical influence, showed me where to find myself in a poem. I think I’ve used that kind of thought process since then to find myself in the songs I choose. The magic comes from how well that message is put into music”
Maura O’Connell performs at the Clare Connections Concert in Abbey Street Car Park, Ennis, on Thursday, June 21 at 6pm. Also on the bill are Lúnasa, the Kilfenora Céilí Band and The Teetotallers (Martin Hayes, Kevin Crawford and John Doyle). Admission is free.