At one point between songs during her recent performance at The Burren, Róisín O’Reilly – more familiarly known as Róisín O – tuned her guitar, adjusted the capo, and gave the audience a sly smile.
“I assume,” she deadpanned, “that most of you know who my mommy is.”
There was applause and laughter from the crowd, because, yes, most of them do in fact know that her mother is Mary Black, one of Ireland’s most celebrated female singers.
“Well, I’m not going to do ‘Song for Ireland,’ ” said Róisín O, “but this is one of her favorites.” And with that, she launched into “By the Time It Gets Dark,” a Sandy Denny song that Black covered, to great acclaim, in the late 1980s.
It was a highlight among many on a landmark night for the 24-year-old singer-songwriter: her first solo headline show of her first US tour. [A little elaboration is needed here: “Róisín O” can also refer to the name of her band, although in this case she was accompanied only by Luke Nelson, a childhood friend now living in New York City.] The five-week sojourn, which ended in late August, was the latest milestone in what has been an eventful 12 months or so, during which she released her first CD, “The Secret Life of Blue” – it went into the Irish album charts at number 21 – supported Lionel Richie (yes, that Lionel Richie) at his Dublin and Belfast shows, appeared on a live St. Patrick’s Day TV broadcast alongside the likes of Bono, Christy Moore, Glen Hansard and Imelda May, and was invited to perform for Irish President Michael D. Higgins.
At this stage, Róisín O presents a fascinating portrait of an artist seeking to establish her identity, even as she continues to explore the fuller aspects of that persona. Grateful for the musical legacy with which she’s associated, Róisín O is canny enough to know that it is her own voice, and the words she sings with it, that will ultimately determine how far she goes. And in the meantime, it’s clear she’s enjoying the ride.
“I want people to take me for what I am,” she said, as she and Nelson relaxed over dinner prior to the Burren show. “I love having grown up in a musical family, and I love all that I learned and experienced from doing that. But I never got into the traditional stuff the way my mother did; I started writing songs at 16, and I just decided that was how I wanted to go. While I like the modern, I also like the older folk music as well, and I try to mix that in my own music.
“I’ve been very lucky to work with some wonderful people, and am really excited to have this opportunity to take my music to America.”
Personable, gracious and good-humored, with a radiant smile to match, Róisín O is by no means averse to talking about her musical lineage, which in addition her mother and grandparents includes her father Joe O’Reilly, of Dara Records, and brother Danny, a singer-songwriter who plays with the rock band The Coronas. She feels fortunate to have had the childhood she had, with a house open to musical guests and experiences unknown to most of her peers.
“I remember realizing at a very young age that my Mom was famous – people would stop her in the street all the time. I was quite proud of it, actually. My mother got to do bigger and bigger tours, and sometimes she’d take me out of school so I could go with her – she thought it was a good ‘life experience’ type of thing.
“But then when I grew older, I got rather embarrassed, and didn’t want people to know about her. I thought they would judge me just based on the fact that she was my mother. Now, I’m in the middle. I can certainly turn to her for good advice, and I can trust in anything she says. But I like people to make their own decisions about my music.”
Róisín O’s music is well balanced in form and content. Whatever the combination of genes and good, hard work, the fact is she has a great set of pipes, with impressive range and command, and the ability to convey the emotions and defining characteristics of the song in question.
Melodically and lyrically, Róisín O tends toward the alt folk-rock area of the musical spectrum, much like Joni Mitchell (whom she unabashedly cites as a major influence) and perhaps a less quirky Kate Bush – hints of pop and jazz here, but with a certain organic immediacy and intimacy. A lot of her songs speak of trusting in your emotions’ better intentions, taking chances and being open to all manner of possibilities, as opposed to shutting yourself off from the world; many of the song titles themselves – “Here We Go,” “Climb High,” “Find the Light,” “Hold On” – connote an active, supportive disposition.
“Here We Go,” the first track on “Secret Life of Blue,” is an exuberant joy ride inspired by an arts and music festival in County Laois. Róisín O fairly races to keep up with herself as she describes the rush of scenes and sensations [“There is a place you’ll find, you might find it when half alive/But it’ll make you dance and keep you dancing like it’s your last/Down and round and down and round, the trail will wind…”] until she glides into the chorus on the momentum she’s created. “Synchronicity,” by contrast, is more thoughtful and introspective, logically yet tenderly making the case for emotional connection, and climaxing with a joyous affirmation of “I’m home!”
“How Long” is a tour-de-force of empathy and passion, building from a plaintive, almost tentative beginning [“How long must we stand here? How long can you stand it?”] that showcases superb ornamentation, and then gaining strength with a cathartic declaration – “That’s all I want” – during which she unerringly jumps up an octave, then back down. And just when you think it’s over, she unleashes a jubilant world-music-style scat that intertwines with two other vocal components to create a warm, energetic coda.
“I used to write only when I felt the emotion to write a song,” she says. “Most of my songs were about heartache, or feeling down, or feeling upset – or feeling upset about not being able to write. But I’m really a happy person, and I don’t lead a terribly hard life, so I decided I’d better change my approach or else I wouldn’t have enough to write about. So I started to tap into different areas of my life; I always try to keep it as natural as I can – especially in terms of lyrics, I try to write only when I feel something’s there. If not, maybe I’ll focus on writing a good chord progression, and then figure out something that will work with it.”
Being a thoroughly 21st-century performer, Róisín O has made use of video in promoting her music, and has come up with some clever, engaging, and distinctive results, often involving a group-identity theme. In “Here We Go,” a man finds himself out in the woods, pursued by creepy, mysterious masked figures, only to discover that neither they, nor he, are what they seem to be. A forlorn animal puppet is the central figure in “How Long,” seemingly alone in an uncaring, even hostile world until salvation arrives.
Probably the most notable and accomplished Róisín O music video is “Tea Song,” which was actually written by former bandmate Brian Murphy (he and she do a mellifluous duet of it on the CD). “Brian played it for me, and I wanted to do it right away. I asked him what the song was about, and he said he wrote it about being very hung over, and the only thing that makes you feel better is drinking lots of tea. But to me it sounded like a love song, even if he didn’t see it that way.”
Talking with her manager about the song and how it might translate to video, she says, the idea of depicting tea as a universal creature comfort came about. “We were saying how there were so many Irish abroad, so we sent out messages through social media inviting people to send us clips of themselves drinking tea – which, of course, is what you do if you’re Irish.” The “#teaspora” video is a loving, amusing, even touching collaborative effort.
The recent tour was not Róisín O’s first time in America – besides accompanying her mother on a few tours, she spent a year in San Jose during college (she has a musicology degree) – and however much she wanted to assert her own musical identity, she also recognizes that there are certain expectations in the US about Irish female singers and what they bring to the table repertoire-wise. So, for The Burren, in addition to “By the Time It Gets Dark” she mixed in with her material covers of popular hits by Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac, Dougie MacLean’s anthemic “Caledonia,” and a few well-known traditional songs, including “Mary and the Soldier” (“I heard Paul Brady do this,” she said in her introduction. “I’m not going to be as good a guitar player as Paul, but I’ll do my best”) and the sorrowful “Siul Aroon.”
And whatever she played, the audience responded heartily. As the show continued, her comfort level grew exponentially, and the tint of nervousness evident at the beginning dissipated completely.
“It was a great night, loads of fun,” she said, after the house lights came on and the crowd began to filter out the door. “I really loved how the audience got into it, and started singing and clapping along. It’s a great way to do your first solo gig.”
She expects to be back in the US sometime next year, not least because she’ll be performing on her mother’s tour. Who knows what will happen in the interim, but she feels about as ready as can be. To paraphrase a certain song title, Here She Goes.