Nora O’Connor – Cutting the mustard
If you’ve hung around Chicago’s rock clubs in the last six or eight years, you know Nora O’Connor. She’s been the girl with the quick grin drawing your draught, or the woman walking by you in the bar in a particularly noticeable scarf of her own design. Most of all, she’s been the vocalist with brass enough to match Neko Case and Kelly Hogan for every coo and wail.
Much as she’s been in the thick of things, though, she’s rarely stepped into the spotlight. O’Connor jokes that she’s “always been the support staff,” but that’s too boring; better to say she’s been the Watson to several of the scene’s Sherlocks, or the mustard on its hot dogs.
For a while she sang and played guitar with the Blacks, but that mix proved too combustible. On disc and on tour she provided counterpoint harmonies to Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire, but recently he’s been a solo act. Last year she and Mount Pilot’s Matt Weber played Mondays at the Hideout as a duo called Cantina. But now O’Connor is ready to step out with her solo disc, Til The Dawn (released in August on Bloodshot Records).
Words that accurately describe this well-played and expertly sung collection of country-and-soul-tinged folk-rock: charming, familiar, polished, mature. A word that, official bio material notwithstanding, does not: debut.
O’Connor would sooner forget her true debut, an audibly naive 1996 disc called Cerulean Blue. “When I made that record, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she explains. “I feel like I didn’t really start playing music professionally until I started going on the road with the Blacks, recording with Bird, and meeting people like Hogan, Case, Robbie Fulks and everybody, playing with them. I feel like this [album] represents who I am, and where I come from.”
Geographically speaking, O’Connor hasn’t come that far. Born to Irish-American immigrant parents and raised with her siblings in Oak Lawn, a blue-collar suburb on Chicago’s southwest side, she attended Southern Illinois University in downstate Carbondale. Building on a childhood passion for singing with her father and in stage musicals, at school she learned to play guitar and formed a band. After graduation, she returned to live in the Windy City.
It’s in her development as a musician, songwriter and performer that O’Connor has traveled great distances. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to look up to a group of friends like those she mentions above. “I always had in mind who I wanted to play on the record,” O’Connor says. “It was like putting my fantasy band together: Ryan [Hembrey, on bass] and Gerald [Dowd, drummer] laid down the rhythm tracks for eight songs in a day. Scott Ligon came in one day; I’d tell him what I had in mind, then he’d hear another song and say, ‘Oh, let me play piano on this!’ or, ‘Why don’t I try playing guitar on this?’ And then Andrew Bird came in and laid down all these tracks.”
Also taking part in the recordings were Mount Pilot’s Weber; Grant Tye, guitarist in Fulks’ band; Andy Hopkins, guitarist for Hogan; and Hogan herself. In all, the group took nine days to track an equal number of songs. They include two O’Connor originals and an eclectic selection of covers: “Love Letters” (made famous by Ketty Lester), Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright”, Lori Carson’s “Down Here”, and a handful of songs penned by such certified Friends of Nora as Weber, Kevin McDonough of Chicago band the Drapes, and former Squirrel Nut Zippers leader James Mathus.
“I love singing songs written by people that I know,” O’Connor says. “I enjoy taking a song and making it my own, arranging it so that it comes from me differently than it comes through them.”
Now O’Connor, who nearly put her music on the back burner not so long ago — “I just felt like, OK, I’ll settle down, look for a job with health insurance; that’s what you’re supposed to do” — is eager to take this material on the road.
“I don’t feel like I’m trying to prove anything big,” she says. “I just want to play, want to share my music. I’ve been off the road long enough that I’m ready to do some traveling again. I like that part of touring: I like driving the van, like knitting in the van while someone else is driving, like greasy eggs and hash browns in the morning.
“I don’t feel like I need to decide how long I’ll play music. It’s here, it’s with me, and I’ll always have a show, always play the Hideout — even if I have a job and health insurance. With the people that I know and technology, it’s easy to make a record. You just need good players, a couple of good mikes, and good music.”