Maura O’Connell

TrackAlbum
The Blue TrainBlue Is The Colour Of Hope
Half Moon BayStories
West Coast Of ClareWandering Home
A Far CryWalls & Windows
When Your Heart Is WeakA Real Life Story
Cast A Long ShadowHelpless Heart
Leavin' NeidinJust In Time
Up And FlyingDon't I Know
Send This Whisper (To Avalon)Maura O'Connell
Ae Fond KissNaked With Friends

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Contributor: Colin Duncan

Maura O’Connell is an Irish singer with a stunning voice, who I never tire of listening to. She doesn’t play a musical instrument or write songs, and is proud to be ‘only’ a singer and her repertoire comes from a wide background – Irish contemporary songs, American contemporary songs, parlour songs, traditional folk songs, rock songs, modern classics – a range of good songs. I was lucky to see her perform at Celtic Connections in Glasgow a few years back, where she gave an outstanding concert.

Maura began her professional career with De Dannan, featuring on the album, The Star Spangled Molly. Maura became interested in America’s New Grass revival and moved to the US in 1986, settling in Nashville. She has worked extensively with New Grass pioneers, Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas, both of whom have produced albums for her.

She is a my fifth post for Toppermost and a bit different from the others, in that she was well into her career when I came across her. I was watching “Transatlantic Sessions” on the the BBC in 1998, a show where leading musicians from both sides of the Atlantic come together to sing and play with a house band which includes Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham. Maura O’Connell’s singing was outstanding and I was particularly taken with her performance of The Blue Train with James Grant and Nancy Griffiths. I went out and bought the album, Blue Is The Colour Of Hope with The Blue Train on it, which was released in 1992. I wasn’t disappointed. Her voice is great, the musicianship is of a high standard and she sings a wide variety of songs. Another great song from this album is I Would Be Stronger Than That, but I could choose several songs from this piece of work, my introduction to Maura.

I then bought Stories released in 1995, an album with many stunning songs on it. Any ten of the twelve songs on this album could make up my Toppermost list but I am going to select Half Moon Bay by the Irish songwriter, Gerry O’Beirne. It is a beautiful song, perfectly sung, conveying a feeling that always leaves me wondering what happened to the girl when she returned to Half Moon Bay. Gerry O’ Beirne’s twelve string guitar playing is great.

Wandering Home saw Maura returning home to Ireland and recording this album in 1997. I really enjoy it with its songs from different genres. How do you select just one? I’m going for an Andy Irvine song, West Coast Of Clare, for the interplay between Maura’s voice, Jerry Douglas’ dobro and Ciaran Tourish’s violin. But I could have quite easily chosen I Hear You Calling Me made famous by tenor John McCormack or the traditional Down By The Salley Gardens.

2001 saw the release of Walls & Windows, an album which included songs by Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and John Prine. All songs are interpreted beautifully, but I’m going to select one of two thought provoking songs on the album by Malcolm Holcolmbe, A Far Cry, where Maura is accompanied by a trio of acoustic, classical and electric guitars and uilleann pipes.

I was also collecting Maura’s back catalogue. In 1990 she released A Real Life Story. From this album I have chosen Peter Kingsbery’s When Your Heart Is Weak; great singing and great guitar playing by Dean Parks ensure this is a classic. There is also a beautiful version of Tom Waits’ Broken Bicycles where Maura is accompanied by only a guitar and a quiet accordion.

In 1989, she released the grammy nominated Helpless Heart, an album produced by Béla Fleck, which gets a lot of plays in this house. It had previously been issued in 1987 under the title of Western Highway. Cast A Long Shadow by Henry Hipkens gets my nomination, but I could have easily picked songs by Paul Brady, Cheryl Wheeler, Nancy Griffiths or Gerry O’Beirne. Maura has recorded three great songs by Henry Hipkens during her career. The songs have a jazzy feel and demand a different dimension to her singing. Great harmonica playing on this track.

Also, in 1999, Maura released Just In Time where again her singing is superb. A feature of this album is great guitar playing by Béla Fleck who also produced the album. It has wonderful versions of classic songs including, Lennon and McCartney’s I Will and Edith Piaf’s If You Love Me. There are great version of Paul Brady’s Crazy Dreams where Béla Fleck’s banjo playing and Jerry Douglas’ dobro are brilliant, and Jonathan Edwards’ Another Morning which has a guest appearance by the legendary Albert Lee. There are great songs by leading contemporary Irish songwriters, Charlie McGettigan, Gerry O’Beirne, Jimmy MacCarthy and Thom Moore, an American who has spent much of his time in Ireland. I have selected a contemporary Irish song, MacCarthy’s haunting Leavin Neidin, but my selection could have been one of any of the Irish songs on the album. The emotion in Maura’s voice, Béla Fleck’s guitars and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle on Leavin Neidin ensure this brilliant song reaches the heights it deserves.

From the 2004 Jerry Douglas produced album, Don’t I Know, I’ve gone for Up And Flying, a song by Gary Burr and Patty Griffin, where Maura portrays a woman still suffering as her former partner is thriving. I feel the emotion in her voice, and this ability to convey feeling is an integral part of her singing, and always present. A B-3 organ and beautiful acoustic guitar playing contribute to the woman’s bitterness. This album contains many great songs, has grown on me over the years, and I still find new things in it everytime I listen to it.

From her first album, Maura O’Connell (1983), I’ve chosen Send This Whisper (To Avalon), one of three Thom Moore songs on the record. The one is perhaps a sign of things to come with Béla Fleck (mandolin) and Jerry Douglas (dobro) in a brilliant acoustic rendition, with two acoustic guitars, a drummer and a percussionist. The playing all comes together seamlessly to serve this great song well. On this album I also really enjoy her version of the Simons and Marks classic, All Of Me.

In 2009, Maura brought out an a cappella album, Naked With Friends, celebrating her singing. A favourite song of mine is the unaccompanied The Water Is Wide from the album Just In Time so I looked forward to hearing the album. On some songs, she is accompanied by friends singing, but I’m going to select Ae Fond Kiss where she sings alone. A Scotsman picking this song is perhaps not a very adventurous choice, but I love Burns and this song is a difficult song to sing. It is a moving, powerful rendition.

I remember years ago seeing the singer, Jack Jones and the legendary songwriter, Sammy Cahn on the Parkinson show, a British chat show, where each spoke clearly of the other’s need. The role of a singer is to interpret a song, bring his or her talent to the song and make the song as oustanding as it can be – not an easy task. Maura O’Connell does this every time. Although I have selected ten songs in line with Toppermost, on another day I could have selected another ten, or just recommended one of several albums, such is the quality of her work. I’ve nominated ten songs from ten albums released throughout her career, and because of the Toppermost restrictions, I worried about omitting the work of several songwriters. One album is not mentioned because I don’t have Always (1989) – so I can still look forward to it!

Such is the range of her work, there could be Toppermost lists for her ten best Irish contemporary songs, ten best American contemporary songs or ten best classics. Maura O’Connell – a great singer.

Maura O’Connell official website

Maura O’Connell – Half Moon Bay (on YouTube)

Maura O’Connell biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #437

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Apr 22, 2015

    Does Bela Fleck really play guitar on that album? Must check it out. He is of course one of the greatest banjoists of his generation. Humility prevents me mentioning my own toppermost on New Grass Revival, a band I deeply admire 😉 so I’ll enjoy this play list many times.

  2. Peter Viney
    Apr 22, 2015

    An opportune one, Colin. Last year I was working on a story about “Down By The Salley Gardens” and I downloaded half a dozen versions. But I found the best inspiration was just to let the Maura O’Connell version play on “repeat.” It was easily my favourite. I knew nothing about her, and made a mental note to investigate further. I promptly forgot, so thanks for the guidelines.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Apr 23, 2015

    Colin – thanks for this fine list. I saw Maura play several times both solo and with De Dannan in Galway in the late 1980s. Have not really kept up with her career since and this list gives me a very useful entry point for doing so… And, Peter, my favourite version of the ‘Salley Gardens’ would have to be the one by Clannad early in their career – before they were Bono-fided and Celtic Twilighted close to extinction. It can be heard here.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Apr 25, 2015

    Thanks, David. Read your article on ‘New Grass Revival’ and will check the band out. Bela Fleck plays guitars on many tracks on ‘Helpless Heart’ and ‘Just In Time’. His banjo work features on several albums.
    Thanks, Peter. I agree – a great version of ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’.
    Thanks, Andrew. I envy you seeing Maura with De Dannan. You’ll enjoy her later albums. I think Maura can sing in any genre. I would like to see her work with a big band, doing classics such as ‘All of Me’.

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