When Irish singer Maura O’Connell announced that she will be retiring from solo performances after this year, she didn’t expect much of an uproar.
But after 30-plus years straddling the line between traditional Irish music and American roots music and interpreting everything from standard Irish songs to Beatles tunes, she has amassed a large following of fans, both in the U.S. and across the globe, that don’t seem quite as ready for her to retire as she is.
“So many people said, ‘Don’t!’ or, ‘You can’t,’ ” O’Connell said recently from her home in Nashville, just before heading out for another round of shows in the Northeast. She’ll return to The Egg one last time Sunday night.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal — I just announced it in case anybody wants to come see me one more time doing my own performance, presenting my point of view of music,” she said.
“I’m not giving up on music at all, but I’m just taking the burden of solo performance away from me — and not the burden; there’s also a lot of joys. But in these constrained times, as any musician will tell you, it’s an expensive affair to go out on the road.”
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
How Much: $24
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
‘It’s been a great road’
This isn’t the only reason she has decided to retire from touring. At age 54, O’Connell is also being realistic about her fan base, as well as her own long history as a performer and artist.
“I’d say that my great days, they’re all done,” she said. “I figured out after the last record I did that I’m what is known as now, a legacy artist, which means basically, you’re on your own. . . . It’s been a long road, and it’s been a great road — I’ve been very lucky so much over my life. But at this stage I feel like I’m only going backwards.”
“I love performing; there’s nothing I enjoy more in the whole world,” O’Connell continued, “but you must realize that I’m going to be 55 this year, and that’s sort of my demographic as well. And if they’re like me, they don’t go outside the door. . . . I still listen [to new music], but I’m hardly likely to go out to gigs, as most of my compatriots would be the same.”
O’Connell will be touring on and off for the rest of the year — because of her central location in Nashville, she is able to tour in short bursts. For these last go-arounds, she is offering a set full of old favorites from throughout her career, including Tom Kimmel and Jennifer Kimball’s “The Blue Train,” Cheryl Wheeler’s “Summer Fly” — one of her most well-known songs from her 1993 breakout album “A Woman’s Heart” — and Nanci Griffith’s “Trouble in the Fields.”
“I have so many songs over the course of years that are favorites of mine and the audiences, so what I’m doing basically is a portrait of a lot of the songs that I’ve been doing over the years,” O’Connell said.
“There are songs you don’t think — you never know until you gauge the audience, whether you think what is fabulous or not. Generally speaking, you can tell a lot from what an audience likes. I don’t always do what the audience wants, but I can recognize when they appeal to one song more than another.”
Comfortable with a cappella
O’Connell’s most recent album, the all-a cappella “Naked With Friends” (2009), will also be represented. The album features 13 songs ranging from traditionals like “Mo Sheamuseen” to covers of Joan Armatrading and Holly Near, with O’Connell joined on vocals by guests including longtime friends Tim O’Brien, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton and Jerry Douglas, along with new artists such as Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still.
On past albums, O’Connell recorded the occasional a cappella song, but she’d had a desire to do a full a cappella album for a long time. In many ways, this album brings her full circle to her early years growing up in Ennis in County Clare, Ireland, where she got her start singing without accompaniment.
“Having grown up in Ireland, it’s a normal function, as opposed to here where it’s a bit weird,” she said. “There are a lot of singers in Ireland that don’t play an instrument, don’t write music, like me — and we don’t wait around to find the nearest guitar player or piano player. We sing; that’s what we do. And having studied songs through the years, I’ve realized that the best songs that are written can, should and could be sung without accompaniment from beginning to end, and that includes everything from opera to the ballads. And I wanted to showcase that before I left the world of recording music.”
Working with producer Gary Paczosa, O’Connell recorded more than 30 songs, both in the U.S. and in Ireland. She has been singing some of the selections, such as the Armatrading song “Weakness in Me,” since her career first began in small clubs and bars in Ireland.
“The Joan Armatrading song, ‘Weakness in Me,’ is a song I had been singing a cappella from when I was about 18 years old,” O’Connell said. “In fact, I did it because I was a lousy guitar player, just terrible, dreadful, horrible. . . . And I did it just to give myself a break from singing and playing, so that the crowds didn’t have to listen to this awful stuff, and neither did I.”
Landing in Nashville
In 1980 O’Connell first hit the U.S., touring with traditional Irish group De Dannan. After appearing on that band’s album “The Star Spangled Molly,” O’Connell left to pursue her solo career. Fascinated by the “New Grass” bluegrass revival that was going strong at that time, she moved to Nashville in 1986 and hooked up with Douglas, O’Brien and banjo virtuouso Bela Fleck, with whom she toured and recorded for many years.
“When I first came over to America, Jerry had just left The Whites and started on a solo career, and Tim had moved on from upstate New York or Boston or wherever, and we happened to be all free at the same time,” she said. “We toured, not always like that, but for two years we toured, and it gave me great grounding as a musician as well as a singer — in my opinion, all singers are musicians.”
On “Naked With Friends,” O’Connell wanted to bring many of these former collaborators back, as well as highlight new talent in the folk and bluegrass scenes.
“For me, I also wanted to draw in some of the younger singers, like Aoife in Boston, and Sarah Dugas from The Duhks — people I hadn’t met,” O’Connell said. “Through the folk idiom, I’ve known Alison [Krauss] since she was 13. I met Dolly Parton eons ago, and she recently invited me to sing again on another record — she’s always so sweet and nice, and I thought she might do it, and she did.”
Speaking to human experience
With this record and 2004’s “Don’t I Know,” which tackled loss and death in O’Connell’s family, she feels good about wrapping up her career. Although she isn’t ruling out future recordings, she’s not focusing on that.
“ ‘Naked With Friends’ was definitely an ambition that I had for years that I decided, well, I can do this now,” she said. “But the previous record I had gone to the idea of loss and death in the area of my family and my own life, having lost both my parents and every uncle and aunt that I ever had. I think I’ve spoken to the human experience as much as I possibly can at this stage. If I learn anything else and find more songs to express it [I’ll record], but one can’t have this support for one’s entire life. There are others coming up with many new ideas, and I’m hoping they can find a space too — maybe another singer who doesn’t write can find a way, like I did.”