The new album from the singer-songwriter whose voice can only be described as a Celt in the Cotton Club. This Irish-American lass swings original songs as well as some traditional Irish tunes and re-baptizes them to sound like Billie Holiday is back.
The title of Tara O’Grady’s third album comes from a bass player in Nashville who upon hearing her sing in the Tennessee recording studio, tweeted the above quote to describe her voice. Her original songs were inspired by Irish people she met from Belfast to Butte, and everywhere in between. And she throws in a few favorite Irish traditional tunes for good measure. Inspired by Belfast native Van Morrison, her brother Tom O’Grady composed the music for To Be Missing the Sun and La Dee Da, and the featured saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Hashim co-wrote That’s What the Miners Would Say, a tribute to the Irish immigrants who died in a fire in Butte, Montana. Tara’s Celtic connections are woven through every inch of this musical tapestry, including a tribute to Billie Holiday in the song Gardenia Girl, revealing Lady Day’s Celtic bloodlines. Traditional Irish songs include a swinging rendition of Go Lassie Go, a smokey version of Black is the Color bossa nova style, and a blues inspired Too Ra Loo Ra, the famous Irish lullaby that in no way lulls its listener to sleep.
The album features Michael Hashim on alto & tenor saxophone, clarinet and vocals, Justin Poindexter on guitar, banjo and vocals, Kelly Friesen on upright bass and vocals, and Andrew Burns on drums.
Her Nashville band includes Pat Bergeson on guitars and harmonicas, Alan Bennett on vocals, Chris B. Donohue on upright bass, Jeff Taylor on piano, accordian, pump organ and tin whistle, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and Derek Phillips on drums, percussion and glockenspiel.
Good Things songs include Shadow Blues, Trouble in Mind, Myth of Genius, Strady Teddy, I Want to Go to There, November Moon, Waiting for You, Let Me be Your Audrey, Your Eyes & Me, Think of Me, Goodnight Nora, Love on the Underground, and the title track, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait.
IN HER OWN WORDS
How did you begin to make a record in Nashville only two months after the release of your debut Black Irish?
Viagra! My old email account was sending out spam to everyone from my inbox in September 2010. Friends were emailing asking me to stop the spam. I sent out an apology email to everyone writing that I wasn’t in the business of selling pills, only CDs, since my Black Irish CD was released in summer of 2010. One of the recipients of that email was Alan Bennett, a musician I had performed with years ago on stage at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan. He filled in for my guitarist that night. And I never saw him again because he moved to Nashville and became a producer. He listened to my CD and thought it was special. So one day last fall he met me for lunch while he was in town. We had a great chat and he asked me where I envisioned myself in my musical future. I told him I’ve always wanted to collaborate with people. I knew I could write lyrics easily because I asked my friend Justin Poindexter for a melody and I put some lyrics to it in twenty minutes. That became the first song on the new album. It’s called Shadow Blues. So with this new found confidence, I bragged to Alan that I could write lyrics in twenty minutes. He then suggested I send him some “song starts” and perhaps we could work with his friend Pat Bergeson. I went back to my desk and wrote a song in twenty minutes, but with my own melody. That song was Your Eyes and Me. I recorded it on my computer and emailed it to Alan. He thought that was a great start. Inspired by his encouragement, I continued to write 10 songs over a period of a few weeks and sent them all down to Nashville. That’s when Alan suggested I fly down to meet Pat and work on some of my songs and perhaps write a few together. It all happened so fast.
What was Nashville like?
I had never been to Music City. My only ideas of Nashville were of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams performing at the Grand Ole Opry. I was blown away by the musicianship of practically everyone in that city. I think they were all born with a guitar in their hand. Music is dripping off every street lamp in that town. I was also very impressed by the friendliness of everyone. It felt like driving down the road in Ireland where strangers wave hello in a small town. Coming from New York, it was so nice to have people look me in the eye and smile and say hello or compliment my coat or my hair. That just doesn’t happen in NYC unless someone is trying to sell you something.
My first night in Nashville, the producers took me to a private party. It seemed to be in a deserted area only because I didn’t see people on the street, which is rare in New York. We parked in a dark lot and entered what appeared to be the back door of an empty warehouse. But once that door opened, I entered music heaven. Dozens and dozens of musicians filled the place. Every nook and cranny had a live session going on, just a casual jam session. Bluegrass in one corner, Django-inspired swing in another. And a Japanese guy was making sushi in the open kitchen. Everyone brought their instruments and songs suddenly flooded every inch of space. At one point, I realized Bela Fleck was playing his banjo under a low hanging light. It was one heck of an introduction to music city.
Tell us more about who you worked with on this album.
Alan Bennett is an amazing musician/songwriter/producer/publisher originally from New York. He has a company called Real Actual, because he believes in the organic aisle of music rather than the processed aisle with expiration dates. www.realactual.com His friend Pat Bergeson is an extraordinary guitar and harmonica player from Illinois who was brought to Nashville by Chet Atkins. www.patbergeson.com He has been in the studio with Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Bill Frisell, Martin Taylor, Suzy Bogguss, Bill Evans, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald and many others. He has toured with Shelby Lynne, Wynonna Judd, Suzy Bogguss and then four years with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. Pat has been a teacher and producer and has appeared on many movie soundtracks. Pat and Alan have been wanting to collaborate and produce together and suddenly I came along. The three of us worked well together. We had a lot of fun.
I went down in November to flesh out some of the songs, and Alan also brought in Dan Cohen to see what would happen. www.dancohenmusic.com Dan, Alan and I wrote two songs one afternoon and that was exactly what I had envisioned when I told Alan I wanted collaboration. Sitting down with a guitar and a pencil and saying, ok, let’s write a song. We came out of that afternoon with November Moon and I Want to Go to There, two completely different songs. The first being about my mother and how she left Ireland, and the second inspired by a line Tina Fey says in the NBC show 30 Rock. I thoroughly loved the process of creating both songs. For November Moon, I had a bit of a melody and lyric that I often sang in the shower but didn’t know what I wanted to do with. So I started singing it for the guys, they began playing and I threw in some lines from a poem I had written over ten years ago because this one night in November I was standing outside my grandparents’ cottage in Ireland looking at the full moon over the ocean. My mother asked if it was the same moon we see in New York. At the time I thought her question was ridiculous, but I realized years later, that she was right to question the Irish moon. It looks different than the one we see in New York, which is hidden by smog and the bright lights of Times Square. So, suddenly, this song was created. We then took a short break, and Alan left the recorder on, which I was unaware of. Dan began strumming playfully on his guitar and I started to scat along with him and at the end of our silliness, I sang the words, I want to go to there, because we had been speaking of Tina Fey just before that. Dan said, that’s the name of our song. I said, what song? And he replied, the one we just wrote. I didn’t realize we were writing!
The musicians Pat brought in for the recording were so ridiculously good that they pretty much did everything in one take, with no rehearsal, and we had so much fun. They’ve worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Emmylou Harris, The Chieftains, Elvis Costello, the Neville Brothers, I could go on and on. Jeff Taylor played piano (gorgeous), and accordian, and I asked him to even add a little tin whistle for the songs inspired by Ireland. Andy Leftwich was brought in because my dad is an Irish fiddle player and when he first heard Shadow Blues, he started playing his fiddle along with the jazz guitar and he told me flat out, you need a fiddle on this record. So Andy blew my dad away when he heard him play fiddle and mandolin on the recordings. Chris B. Donohue is the man behind the bass. Great musician. He coincidentally was in the high school jazz band with my brother Tom who also contributed a song to this album. Tom not only does all my graphic design and music videos, but being a student of music, he wanted to get in on the action so he emailed me a few melodies he wrote and one in particular gave me an emotional response so I wrote the lyrics and we ended up with the song Waiting For You. I’m very proud to have my brother collaborating with me on this album. It means a lot. Finally, Derek Phillips killed on drums and percussion. He gave me the biggest compliment of the session. When we started recording the first song, Shadow Blues, after the take, he asked Brendan Harkin, the engineer with Donegal roots from Ramelton, could he please turn up the levels in his earphones so he could hear the singer. Apparently, drummers never want to hear the vocal. So I took that as a huge compliment. He’s also a good dancer, but he won’t let me share those videos on You Tube.
Speaking of song titles, how did the other song ideas come about?
Well, the title track, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, was written in bed one evening as I was brainstorming a way to come up with funds for the production. Alan suggested I get a corporate sponsor, and after my Black Irish release, many Irish organizations were interested in me. Someone had suggested Guinness and I got this crazy idea that perhaps I could market myself to Guinness and become their “Guinness Girl” the way Budweiser has a “Bud Girl of the Game” at baseball games. I also figured since there is nothing more Irish than Guinness, and it is the epitome of something that is “black Irish,” it only made sense that since I was the Black Irish girl…you get the picture. So I researched all these tag lines Guinness used in their advertising, and that old standard, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, caught my attention. I had a melody in my head for a good few months and this one night sitting up in bed I plugged in the tag line and the rest of the lyrics just poured out of me like a proper pint. In the end, I never got any corporate sponsors, and I decided to get my album funded through friends, family and generous strangers on www.kickstarter.com, but the song title stuck and it became the title of the album only because it seemed to weave together the other song ideas nicely. They are all pretty much about me being a single gal and also being quite optimistic. Even the one cover on the album is an optimistic blues song. Pat asked if I wanted to cover any standards. There are so many that I sing when I perform live, but this one song, Trouble in Mind, I found on a Nina Simone CD I have. It really connected to me emotionally when I heard it the first time. She calls it Nina’s Blues. She performs it live and I basically copied her arrangement, even how she speaks to her band. It seems to be an anthem at this time with the economy and the natural disasters and war. Even though we have all these troubles, she sings, the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday, so again, there is hope. And that’s what my whole album is about. Hope.
But there are some songs that don’t exactly fit in the category of a jazz/blues CD.
Yes, but why should everything fit neatly into one little box? As I sing in Myth of Genius, it’s ok to color outside the lines, that’s where the best pictures are baby! I wrote that song, which is indeed a blues song, because when I began this process, I realized, I can do anything I set my mind to. I was uninhibited when I wrote these songs. I wasn’t thinking, oh, I have to write a jazz album or a blues album. I just wrote any time a song popped into my head. And whatever came out, came out. So the bonus track just happens to be a pop song and Pat loved it enough to add it on this album. I wrote it on the subway. I’m amazed at how people go to bars and try to chat up strangers but they won’t talk to someone on a subway car who has been flirting with them for half an hour with their eyes. That song was inspired by people who post messages on sites like subwaylove.org or missedconnections.com, who never spoke to the person they were admiring but hoped the universe would lead them to a computer later that day and wonder if anyone caught their attention. What are the chances? But see, they all have hope!
Then the song Goodnight Nora, which I call a lullaby waltz, was inspired by the color of a turtleneck sweater I saw on a clothing web site. I was Christmas shopping online and saw this midnight blue sweater in the color of “Goodnight Nora.” Weird name for a color, but great name for a song! It caught my eye because as you know from my Black Irish CD, Nora was my grandmother’s name. So I quit shopping and wrote a song about the night my grandparents met at a crossroads dance in Donegal and about their wedding day. When we were arranging the music in Nashville, I decided Alan should sing the male part. And he did a lovely job. That song makes everyone in my family cry.
Are you a fan of Audrey Hepburn?
HUGE. I have images of her all over my apartment and at my desk at work. I became obsessed with her when my film professor in college invited me to her tribute by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I actually got to walk the red carpet with Gregory Peck and Sean Connery who were in her films. In one night, I not only saw her live in person, I saw clips of all of her films during the tribute. I then rented or bought all of them over time and I always watch one on the morning of my birthday every year. I find that when you begin your day with Audrey, you walk taller, with a skip in your step, and you tend to be more polite to people and have more patience. Plus her fashion sense just inspires me. Seven of her films are mentioned or elluded to in Let Me Be Your Audrey.
The Black Velvet Band performing on the Black Irish CD, or as Tara likes to call them, “the lads,” are Darren Wallis on guitar, Dave Hofstra on bass, Jordan Sandke on trumpet and Michael Hashim on alto and tenor saxophone.
Black Irish CD songs include Black Velvet Band, Danny Boy, The Water is Wide, I’ll Tell Me Ma, Nora, Wild Rover, Peggy Gordon, Molly Mallone and The Holy Ground.
IN HER OWN WORDS
How did you come up with the title of the debut CD?
“People often ask me where the name Black Irish comes from. It has a number of meanings so the origin is not 100% clear to historians, or Irish people for that matter. I was originally aware of the term because people have called me black Irish since I was a child due to my coloring – the dark, curly hair. Legend has it the dark haired Irish were descendents of Spanish sailors who arrived in Cork in the southern most tip of Ireland hundreds of years ago. Another story is that the native Irish called people black Irish who were foreign to the original Celtic tribes on the island, so Vikings from Norway would be called this term even though they were fair-haired blondes or red-heads. More recently, friends and musicians have been calling me black Irish because when I sing they say I sound like my music idols – Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. So the title of the album is a combination of all three ideas – my look, the choice of traditional Irish songs arranged in a ‘foreign’ style, and how my voice is perceived by others.”
Why did you choose to perform traditional Irish songs in a jazz/blues style?
“When I was a child, my mother sent me to Irish step dance classes. I hated them. I could not for the life of me stand straight with my arms at my sides because I wanted to flail my arms and shake my hips. The same is with Irish music. I could sing in the traditional style, but my voice wanted to go in another direction. At family parties I was always asked to perform, but when I became interested in jazz as a young adult, Irish people would ask me to perform, but order me not to give them any of that ‘jazz shite.’ So I decided to sing what they wanted to hear, but in the style that I preferred.”
How did you come up with the idea to make this CD?
“The making of the CD came out of a conversation with a fellow musician at Lincoln Center. I always had Danny Boy in my repertory because it’s a classic song in any genre. It’s just one of those songs that can cross borders and make grown men weep. Plus, I’ve heard other jazz musicians perform it. I was bragging one day to this musician that I could sing Danny Boy like Billie Holiday. The musician replied, ‘I didn’t know Billie Holiday recorded Danny Boy.’ ‘She didn’t,’ I laughed, and started to sing, and his face lit up and he said that I should record that song. I didn’t give the idea half a second before I agreed with him, and added that I could record a bunch of traditional Irish songs and call the CD Black Irish. It was just an idea created on the spot. When I chose the songs to record, I obviously couldn’t find charts for the way I heard them in my head, so I had to sing the arrangements and solos to the musicians for them to learn because whenever they tried to find one of the songs online, they could only come up with versions done by the Chieftains or the Dubliners, and those versions were not what I was hearing in my head. The funny thing is, when I performed at local gigs with different musicians who had not heard my arrangements or were not familiar with any of the songs on the CD after it was recorded, I would sing the melody so that they could get the key and the feel for the song, and they would immediately say, oh, that’s black Irish, without even knowing the name of the project I was working on. So the term is out there in the world and I’m happy to hear people using it and connecting it to my work. It just seems natural.
“While I was preparing for the recording, I read somewhere that Frank Sinatra would record everything live in the studio, meaning no separate tracks for vocals, trumpet, bass, etc. It was like a live gig. And that’s what I’m comfortable with. Sinatra also said that if there was a mistake or someone laughed in the studio, he would leave it on the recording because it was natural, like being live on stage in front of an audience. Whatever comes out comes out. My band often performs songs together live on stage for the first time without rehearsing it, and it’s an organic experience. I love it. So when we went into the studio, we actually hadn’t even rehearsed the songs! Danny Boy was pretty much the only tune we all knew well. I had an idea of what tempo I wanted and which keys to use on the other songs, but we basically went in there raw and did most songs in one take. It was actually a lot of fun. And I’m happy with how it came out.”
Tara’s repertory for gigs and private events include jazz standards from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, as well as country and rock and roll oldies from the 1950s performed in her unique retro swing and blues style. So in any given set, you may hear Elvis’ Are You Lonesome Tonight, Etta James’ At Last, Patsy Cline’s Crazy, Peggy Lee’s Fever, Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, Ella Fitzgerald’s Cow Cow Boogie, Nat King Cole’s Frim Fram Sauce or Route 66, Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose, Audrey Hepburn’s version of Moon River from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Billie Holiday’s Stars Fell On Alabama or All of Me, Nina Simone’s Since I Fell For You, Hank Williams’ Tennessee Waltz, Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, or Dean Martin’s You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You. As well as Blue Moon, Cheek to Cheek, I’ve Got the World On a String, On a Slow Boat to China, Black Coffee, Lullaby of Birdland, Stairway to the Stars, Pennies from Heaven, Why Don’t You Do Right, and You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.
If you can sing it, she can swing it.