Mark O'Connor Comes Home with the O'Connor Band
There are some albums that are so sonically gorgeous, they sound as if the music has arrived from another plane; the players are so connected to each other, weaving their own parts so tightly together, the sound encloses you in its warmth and beauty. With music like this, the tightness of the band is palpable: you can feel the players' connections to one another coming through the speakers in the music itself.
Very few bands can achieve this sense of playing-as-one so completely, so effortlessly that the entire force of the music — the vocals and every instrument — settles into us physically and emotionally as we listen. But Coming Home, the debut album by the O'Connor Band — the family band led by Mark O'Connor — is one of those albums.
The twelve songs on Coming Home display the elegance, polished style, and supple songwriting of a group that's been playing together for years. "I'm surprised," chuckles O'Connor, "that this is our debut album because it sounds like number 3."
O'Connor's son, Forrest (vocals and mandolin), returned to the musical fold recently after graduating with a business degree from Harvard, seemingly destined for the MBA program there. Kate Lee, his fiancé, joins the group on vocals and violin, and O'Connor's wife Maggie (violin and vocals) completes the family part of the band. Rounding out their contributions, Joe Smart offers up virtuoso bluegrass guitar performances, while Geoff Saunders keeps the bottom line moving crisply playing upright bass.
Every song on Coming Home is a treasure. The album opens with Smart's bright arpeggios on the Jim Shirey-penned tune "Always Do." The harmonic pulls of the fiddle quickly follow Smart's runs; Lee's plaintive vocals match the tone of the instruments. The holding-onto-the-eternal-flame love song promises the sweetness of falling into the comfort of a lover's arms and the ceaseless feeling of newness that love brings:
When I'm lying in your arms
and feeling like brand new
That we'll fall in love again
we always do.
Forrest O'Connor's lively "Coming Home" features Smart's dazzling guitar, weaving under and around the triple fiddles and Forrest's bright mandolin. The instrumentation itself captures the urgent feeling of the singer, who's ready to return home to his love after chasing a dream that's turned out to be an illusion:
I'm coming home to you with the next sweet sunrise
'Cause I'll be dead before I die
If I'm on my own, so I'm coming home.
The O'Connor Band delivers a rousing, frenetic version of the old Osborne Brothers hit "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?" The fiddle work is impeccable with never a wasted note, and the vocals match the fiddles' power. This single song showcases the tightness of band, which also shines brightly — well, as bright as can be on a tune written in minor chords — on Mark O'Connor's arrangement of Bill Monroe's "Jerusalem Ridge." Every instrument receives a showcase on this tune, and the doublets and triplets of the fiddles give this song its beautiful voice.
The tune of "The Sweet Ones" (written by Kate Lee and Jon Weisberger) recalls the very music of the records about which the singer so fondly reminisces:
From those old records, we can pick and choose
And just replay the songs that made us smile…
Oh the sweet ones never go out of style
The sweet ones never go out of style.
"The Sweet Ones" is a love song with more than one layer. "Blacktop Boy" has the hallmarks of a classic country song — a star-crossed love between a stranger and a local girl:
He was a blacktop boy tearing
through the heart of a dirt road girl.
The smartly told story gains in power through the sparseness of its musical arrangement, and the story grabs us in its simple, musical telling.
The album closes with the simply gorgeous orchestral "Fiddler Going Home." It's a fitting end to an album that opened with the graceful promise of sonic beauty delivered through the tightness of a family band that's as comfortable delivering bluegrass as orchestrally-inflected Appalachian music.
With Coming Home, the O'Connor Band hands us a stunning debut, filled with moments of quiet beauty, lovingly played with passion and delight.
I caught up with Mark O'Connor recently by phone to chat about the new album.
Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of the album.
Mark O'Connor: Well, when my son Forrest decided to dive into music full-time, it was thrilling and surprising. He was a gifted academic, but one day he came to me and started talking seriously about music being his life's passion. That was the beginning of the collaboration.
The next thing that happened is that we both met our spouses — well, Kate is Mark's fiancé — and we started to play music with them. Forrest and Kate started writing and playing and singing, and Maggie and I started playing together. Finally, a few years ago, I put a band of young musicians together to tour behind this Christmas compilation I did. When the four of us started playing together, we decided we should continue playing behind that compilation, and this family band blossomed out of all that activity.
How did you select the songs?
I asked Forrest and Kate to bring me all the songs they had written over the past five years, and I selected eight songs for the album from that group. I felt like I was in a good position to choose the final selections, and I thought I could tie these songs together thematically, very nicely, with other tunes on the album. In selecting the songs, I was thinking about what would work well live and on record. I wanted to make sure that the songs were some of the best for this band. And, I chose the songs with some instrumentations in mind and was also thinking about the commercial appeal of the songs.
Did you record the songs live?
Yes. I got my friend Gregg Field to help produce and we used House of Blues. Gregg has this great mic-ing technique, and the work he does with vocalists is really amazing. It's been a while since I've been in a studio in Nashville, so I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Once we started recording, it was amazing; we realized that this really is a band. We didn't use any other players.
Joe Smart on guitar and Geoff Saunders [on bass] turned in simply amazing studio performances. I would put them at the top of their game. Gregg told me that Geoff has the best upright sound he'd ever gotten on record, and Joe turned in a virtuoso bluegrass guitar performance on "Coming Home."
What does each member bring to the band?
One of the features is duel and triple fiddles; that has to work really well. Maggie and I have a really beautiful sound together. I decided to have each of us in a separate role supplying a separate texture: long notes, faster solos, rhythm.
Maggie and Kate grew up playing in family bands. They're cognizant of how vocals fit into a band setting. For them, innovation and texture comes from attention to vocals.
Forrest's ability to play the mandolin: with his technical training and his musical sense, he can carve out ideas and play with that gorgeous sound. It's been a surprise to see that come in, too. He's a late bloomer in that he wasn't very interested in practicing when he was growing up. But, he absorbed the music along the way. He'd be humming licks that he heard his dad play on stage. [Laughs.]
There are so many layers to Kate's ability to emote a lyric. With Kate and Forrest, I think it's more about the lyric. They really sing the lyrics that they write. They have this kind of communication that developed early on.
To the sophistication of the fiddles and the mandolin you add that singing talent, and this debut album is really surprising because it sounds like it's our third album together. [Laughs.]
Tell me a little bit about your approach to songwriting.
I got to writing so much that I write most of the music in my head before I write it down.
I'll tell you how I wrote "Fiddler Going Home." I decided to take one piece and score it. I created it as if it were an orchestral score. I got everything else ready, up right until the sessions. We didn't look at this piece until the day before we went into the studio. The compositional concept is done in the language of a fiddle waltz. They played it beautifully. It's amazing for a bluegrass group to be able to do that. Each piece on the album has either a sonic or a fugal concept. Every tune has an instrumental capacity that blends in with the sophistication of Forrest and Kate's lyrical ideas.
And you're continuing to teach the O'Connor Method?
You know, we've had 7,000 students in my 20 years of teaching students. I can't tell you how many Suzuki students came through our camps and tell us how their lives were changed. Actually [almost] everybody in the group is a certified O'Connor Method teacher and has taught in our music camps.
Even though Forrest is not a certified teacher, he helps me edit the texts, and he teaches songwriting at the camps. We want kids to broaden their horizons and to be able to participate in music like this band: write a tune, improvise, write other tunes that would go along with the violin. We're using American music to inspire a new generation of children to succeed in the violin, in all of its ways.
How have you evolved as an artist?
Musically, I've gotten to live out all my dreams. I've had a chance to play in groups like the New Nashville Cats, the Dixie Dregs, and Strength in Numbers, and with people like Yo-Yo Ma, David Grisman, and James Taylor. I wanted to compose in jazz, orchestral [music], and fiddling; I've had the chance to play with some of the top singers and had the chance to add the voice of my fiddle to those recordings.
This band — the O'Connor Band — is a kind of culmination. It's really invigorating to play in it. The last time I played with this kind of bluegrass orientation was Strength in Numbers. I feel like I'm coming home: to country bluegrass family, to look up old friends again.
I was on Rounder when I was a teenager, so even though they've changed a great deal, it's like coming home.
What's next for you?
We've all decided to make this band a priority. We have an agency that really supports us, and Forrest and I are managing the group now. We're looking toward a second record.
There maybe could be a growth toward using electric instruments, maybe adding some drums, perhaps, something that opens up the sound. Everybody in the group has commercial sensibilities. The young people in the group grew up in an environment that's ideal for the O'Connor Band. Their palettes have really widened now.
We can just be ourselves, and I feel I've had a part in it. I don't think that we would have done this if we didn't think we could so something that we could do better together than we'd do separately.