Interview: Chicago session singer and multi-instrumentalist Nora O’Connor on finding her heart

Sharing band members with NRBQ and working with Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples.

If you think you haven’t heard Nora O’Connor, but you have enjoyed the music coming out of Chicago over the last twenty years or so, particularly during the golden age of Bloodshot Records, then you almost certainly have. As well as being an in-demand vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Nora O’Connor records and tours with the Decemberists and Neko Case and has her own band The Flat Five with fellow vocalist Kelly Hogan, Casey McDonough and Scott Ligon of NRBQ, and drummer Alex Hall. O’Connor has also just released her third solo album, ‘My Heart’, a mere seventeen years since her second. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Nora O’Connor over Zoom in a hotel in North Carolina while she was touring with Neko Case. It is clear that recording ‘My Heart’ was a labour of love that allowed Nora O’Connor to put her own stamp on a recording while still working with her musical friends. Though she is one of the most respected musicians working on the Chicago music scene, Nora O’Connor shares her own sense of awe at working with Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples. She also shares her own feelings of sadness when the original Bloodshot Records effectively ended in 2019.

How are you?

I’m fine, I’m on tour with Neko Case and we’ve just arrived in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ve just woken up next to the garbage dumpster, haha.

With everything else you are doing, how do you find time for a solo career?

Well, you know that little pandemic we had, haha. I had actually started writing again before the pandemic hit, and when my calendar got completely wiped, like everybody else I found myself playing these small little backyard shows for twenty people at a time when nobody was visiting family, or nobody was going out to eat. We weren’t doing anything that first summer, so we did these special little shows, everybody sat far apart, and we were only there for two hours, and I started playing these new songs I had started writing. I fell in love with playing solo again after spending a lot of time over the years being in other people’s bands, and I do still love reporting for duty, I love all that, but I guess I had some original music in me, and I wanted to see what it would sound like if I kept writing and recording. That is kind of how this record came about.

How much have your other musical activities influenced your own music?

I think it is separate in that it is uniquely me, it is what I’m able to make up. However, touring with Neko Case, Iron & Wine, and the Decemberists is just like being in a master class, so for all these years, I’ve been able to observe, take in and learn from all my favourite songwriters. It is different, you know, I have this unique kind of balance of a career, I can be carrying my own PA and all my instruments, microphone stands, and I’m setting up by myself and doing my own sound, to I’m on tour and I don’t even have to turn on my own amp and somebody hands me my guitar, haha. Also, there will be free salmon every day and catering, haha. So, I love harmony singing and having that role in a band and it is a good role for me, but sometimes I just get an itch to sing without being told what to sing or to just be in charge of the music, be the boss, haha.

How do you approach your own songwriting, how disciplined are you?

I think I had to work a little harder this time around. What I’ve never really been good at is writing the song and then going back and changing it. With the songs I’ve written in the past, I’d always kept them as they were because it was hard for me to go in and edit, but this time though, I worked a little harder at that and I spent a little bit more time with the song. I noticed that songs I was spending more time with, and they weren’t feeling good, then I was able to just let them go after a while if I wasn’t in love with the song. So, I wrote some bad ones as well in this batch, even with the bad ones it is like sometimes you have to write some shit before you get to something good, and that is something I noticed this time, I let myself finish shitty songs, the ones that were going to end up on the cutting room floor. I let myself finish those songs or I let them go so I could be open to the next thing that might feel a little bit better.

When you recorded ‘My Heart’ did you have all the songs and arrangements worked out, were you ready to go?

I was pretty much ready to go because I paid for it myself, I wanted to be really prepared like sending my songs ahead of time to my engineer and co-producer Alex Hall, and ahead of time to the bass player I worked very closely with on this record, Casey McDonough, but then I also left room for things to happen organically. I wasn’t too strict, I was very open to whatever people wanted to do, and if I had a particular vision or sound, or a particular microphone I wanted to use I did that as well.

What were the recording dynamics like, you’ve got some pretty impressive musicians on ‘My Heart’?

I’ve got my other band The Flat Five, with my friend Kelly Hogan, together with Casey McDonough and Scott Ligon, who are also with NRBQ, and then Alex Hall our drummer who also does J D McPherson and The Cactus Blossoms. Alex and I did a lot, and we also worked with Steve Dawson, I didn’t want it to just be Nora O’Connor and the Flat Five, so I just had Scott Ligon come in because I wanted some of his guitars, and he plays a little bit of Hammond organ and some guitar solos. I then had a couple of other people in mind like Jon Rawhouse from Neko Case’s band and he played pedal steel on the record. Another great guitar player is Robbie Djersoe, who plays dobro on the record. You know, I kind of made a wish list ahead of time and then started writing the songs, and then I just brought my friends in because I love the way they play, and they were so generous to do so.

What about your own instrumental contributions to the record?

I play a lot of the guitars, I play some of the piano, I play the acoustic guitar and all the rhythm guitars. That is how most of the songs start, they are born from the acoustic guitar, and that is a big part of my sound.

How does ‘My Heart’ compare to your other two solo albums?

My last solo record came out on Bloodshot Records in 2004, and 1995 was my first record. So, I never really think about that first record or sing songs from it because they were the first ten songs I wrote and I was so young and I had convinced myself I was an artist and I was going to record them and put them out, and they are OK songs. On my second one, there are not a lot of originals, there are songs that people wrote for me and there are songs that my friends wrote, and a couple of other covers, there are a lot of covers on my second record, haha. This time I just wanted to do one original album, though I do have one cover on this which is a Margo Guryan song, just because I’ve been obsessed with her for a couple of years and the way she arranges songs is way over my head so I wanted to put a hard song on there. I love interpreting songs and making my own arrangements of songs and I wanted to do that once, but mainly I wanted to do original songs. So mainly these songs are new and it’s been a long time since I’ve written any songs, so I don’t know if these songs would have been any different from what would have come out of me if I had made a record fifteen years ago. This is just what happen to be in there with me.

What was the mood in Chicago when Bloodshot Records got into trouble?

I’m so disappointed and sad about the demise of blood shoot Records, I don’t really feel it is my place to talk about it but it was heartbreaking to see it fall apart the way it did, heartbreaking. That was my home, that is where I live, and that is where I’ve made records with people since the late ‘90s.

What is the story behind your new label, Pravda Records?

It is another local label that has been in Chicago for a very long time, a small, committed record label they released the last Flat Five record for us, and we put the first Flat Five Record with Bloodshot Records and when the craziness happened, we moved to Pravda, so I had a relationship with them. I told them I was working on some solo material, and I sent them some songs and they put the record out. It is small, we are tiny little machines but there is scope for us to grow.

Who are your own key musical influences both vocalists and songwriters?

I think singers like Linda Ronstadt and Donna Summer, and later Ann Heart, and singers like Annie Lennox who was a big influence in high school, ‘Revenge’ by The Eurhythmics is just a perfect record of songwriting, it has beautiful pop songs. As I got older I discovered The Indigo Girls when I was in college and I just loved that style of songwriting and harmony singing, they are a big influence, The Indigo Girls, and I first heard of them in 1990 or something. I don’t know, there weren’t as many women and a smaller grassroots level when I was younger as there are now. Now, no one is telling younger and female artists they can’t do it like they told women of my age and those older than me. There is this kind of confidence that I really admire in newer artists. But for me, it was Kate Bush and vocalists like Karen Carpenter, those are the women and voices I was trying to emulate when I was a kid. When I went to college, I discovered a lot of things, I mean, I really did discover a lot of things at college, haha, I did dive deep into The Beatles and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the Grateful Dead, and all sorts of like folk, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Then as a kid, just ‘70s soft rock is in my DNA forever and there is no getting around my love of soft rock, not yacht rock mind you, only soft rock.

Is there a subtle difference between soft rock and yacht rock, haha?

There definitely is a subtle difference, haha. Soft rock 1978 – 1982, it is a fine line, a fine line, we can go deeper into that another time, haha.

What was it like recording with Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples?

It was unbelievable. Jeff Tweedy recruited Kelly Hogan and me to sing on Mavis’s record that he was producing. It was a beautiful experience to be in the studio with Mavis Staples and her band and Jeff Tweedy at the helm, we recorded everything live just all standing in a circle in the studio, the drummer was in a drum booth. We would just do a handful of takes, and Kelly and I just couldn’t believe our dumb luck that we were there, and Mavis was just so gracious and treated us so kindly, and to this day Kelly is on the road with Mavis’s band right now. It was an honour of a lifetime, just unbelievable.

Did you learn anything particularly from that experience?

Getting to witness these masters at work is so influential, so just learning from the way Jeff Tweedy was treating us, the way he went about producing the record, watching how the band works together because Mavis’s three-piece band and one of her backup sings, Donny Gerrard who passed away last year, were there so it was an opportunity to observe and learn. When I show up for the next thing I do it helps me to be a little smarter, to have a little bit more knowledge of how things work and how to act and be to add to a healthy environment at a rehearsal in the studio, at a performance, you know. At some point, you can’t work with the arseholes anymore but with people who lift you up, haha. When I see examples of that I take note.

‘My Heart’ is your third solo album what are you going to do to promote it?

I finish this tour in a week, we have two more shows and before we finish in Anchorage, Alaska, and then I’m home for a couple of months so I will have a record release show at home, and I will go up to Wisconsin for a couple of shows, and I’m hoping in the spring I can piece together some shows on the East Coast. So, we’ll see, but I will definitely do a few things. I don’t know what it will look like yet, but I must say, booking your own tours is the pits, haha. I have a family so I can’t leave my house and drive around the country and come home negative with the dollars, I have to be really smart about it, so we’ll see. I just wanted to see if I could do it, can I write songs, can I record a record, I just wanted the experience and the joy of the journey of making a record.

Any plans to repeat the experience?

Yes, in seventeen more years, haha. I hope so, and I’m going to try not to forget how much I enjoyed it, how challenging it was, and how worthwhile it was.

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, your top three artists, albums, or tracks?

I can’t recommend too highly this Margo Guryan I discovered a few years ago and then recorded one of her songs. She only has two albums, ‘Take A Picture’ and ’25 Demos’, and she is kind of the pioneer of that melting voices kind of whispery soft Emo type singing. I can’t stop listening to the Fruit Bats and their whole catalogue, they are from Chicago and I’m kind of obsessed with them right now but I somehow missed it over the years. So I rediscovered them and I’m really into their new album ‘Pet Parade’. I’ve also been diving back into the first two Roches records, they will get me practising my harmonies, haha. The Roches are a great study if anybody wants to be a great harmony singer, listen to the Roches.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?

I’m ready proud of ‘My Heart’, and I find it very hard to be objective about my own music, so there is part of me who thinks it’s kind of a little all over the place, then there is another part that thinks it is uniquely me, that is the cohesive part, haha.

Nora O’Connor’s ‘My Heart’ is out now on Pravda Records.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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