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Archive for Sunday, January 17, 1993

HOT IRISH SINGER HOPS POND FOR MIDWEST TOUR, LOCAL GIG

January 17, 1993

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Singer Maura O'Connell would have been perfectly content running her family's fish market in County Clair, Ireland.

"I was the intended heir," O'Connell said. "My sisters wouldn't go into the store. They didn't want to smell like fish," O'Connell said.

The Irish band De Danaan plucked her from the small pond. Hearing O'Connell sing at a party one night, the band members asked her to join them on their tour of America.

One taste of the bait was enough. De Danaan hooked her on the ego-boosting music business. O'Connell soon split from the group for a solo career, which has produced three critically acclaimed albums.

O'Connell's skyrocketing career brings her Wednesday to landlocked Lawrence for an 8:30 p.m. concert at Liberty Hall, the first stop on a Midwest tour.

She promises an intimate set herself and two acoustic guitar players with songs from her Warner Bros. album "blue is the colour of hope."

BUT INTIMATE doesn't necessarily mean quiet.

"Believe me, I can make a whole lot of noise with two acoustic guitars. I'm a singer," O'Connell said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Ireland, where she is wrapping up a tour.

Indeed, critics say her plaintive singing voice is as powerful as a train whistle and as rich as chocolate.

However, her admirers gush, O'Connell's greatest strengths are her gutty delivery and ear for well-crafted songs.

"I think she is very expressive. The delivery of her music is very heartfelt," said Kelley Hunt, local singer and bandleader, who will open for O'Connell Wednesday with a solo set.

O'Connell admits that her biggest influence is raw-edged blueswoman Bonnie Raitt. O'Connell picked up her albums on trips to London record shops in her youth, searching for music beyond traditional Irish fare.

"HER HONESTY affected me personally more than anything else I've ever heard," O'Connell said. "When she sang, I believed every word. She's uncompromising. That's what I like about her."

The spare songs on the somber "blue" cut through the chaff. She dwells on a friend's decision to stay with an abusive husband on "i would be stronger than that." She whoops up "to be the one," a head-on romp celebrating true love.

She enjoys genre-hopping, leaping from traditional Irish tunes to country, blues, pop and folk. There is no formula to picking the perfect song, she says.

"Sometimes a song chooses you," she said. "You hear it and say, `Oh, my god, I have to sing that.' It's a very instinctive thing for me."

O'Connell grew up in a working class family and always was surrounded by music. Her mother sang in local operas, and each O'Connell daughter learned the songs from mother's latest production.

MAURA'S first big public performance as a teen-ager was at a church service attended by Ireland's president. She found that American music was a little more her speed.

She'd sit around with friends and work through songs by Raitt, Emmylou Harris, and Mississippi John Hurt. She sang at friends' parties but had little career ambition beyond working in the family fish shop.

The offer to tour with De Danaan opened up a new world.

"I said to myself, `Hmmm. I get a free to trip to America and people will clap (when I perform),' " she said.

The band's album "Star Spangled Molly" spawned two hits and made her a star in Ireland. Then she broke off from De Canaan and fell in with bluegrass star Bela Fleck.

Fleck, with whom O'Connell had a two-year romance, convinced her that Nashville, Tenn., was the place to record. He produced her first U.S. album, ``Just in Time,'' and the second, ``Helpless Heart.''

THE LATTER was nominated for a Grammy in 1990 under the contemporary-folk category. Between touring and promoting the new album, she's planning a wedding to video-film producer Mac Bennett in Ireland next spring.

The fish market far behind, the only place O'Connell totally feels at home is on stage.

"To have that ego fed is a tremendous experience. It may sound conceited, I know, but to get up there and perform and have some people like it that is a tremendous experience."

"The only surety that I've felt has been on the stage. I don't have to question what I do," she said.

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