MARY MARGARET O'HARA
place of origin:
jazz, country, reggae, pop, improvisational, sophisticated influences (highly original)
Billie Holiday, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground
Miss America (1988)
"she might have her rhythm section switching beats, bass playing backward... or bass in 3/4 time and drums in 4/4 with my guitar bridging the intersections."
"I have a long history of being told I have no rhythm, and of people saying 'I've heard chickens sing better than that'".
-Mary Margaret O'Hara
"Seeing Mary Margaret O'Hara let fly elicits a level of emotion not unlike that of being witness close up to the product of Van Gogh's madness."
-JJ Ecto, writer
Mary Margaret O'Hara's contributions to the music world have been undeniably massive. Her strikingly original, acceptionally superb vocal and songwriting styles have had a tremendous influence on countless artists who've come after her, including Kristen Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Cowboy Junkies, Guided by Voices, This Mortal Coil and Liz Phair to name a few. Interestingly enough, she has only released one full length album, Miss America (1988, Virgin/Kotch) and one ep, Christmas (1996, Kotch) since her emergance in 1984. This is no doubt due partly to her unusually eccentric ways (Andy Partridge once abandoned a production project with O'Hara after but one day due to to his inabilitiy to cope with her unorthodox recording approach). She is an artist who has trouble operating within the music industry norms, strongly dictating her musicians during recording. She also refuses to record anywhere that is not within walking distance from several Catholic churches, as she claims these are her favorite places to "hang out". Although there are certainly many individuals who would love to work with Mary, there are few individuals Mary feels comfortable working with. No doubt she is most at home on stage, where her soaring, utterly gorgeous voice comes across unbridled amidst her far-reaching repitoire, which reveals strong and knowledgable roots in jazz, reggae, folk and country.
Mary Margaret O'Hara was born in Toronto to a large Catholic family. Her sister, Catherine O'Hara has experienced a successful acting career, most notably for her role in the box office smash "Home Alone". After graduating from Ontario Art College, Mary began acting and singing with the pop/soul group Dollars, covering songs by the likes of Etta James and Otis Redding. By 1976 she was lead vocalist for rock band Go Deo Chorus, where she developed her unique songwriting and vocal techniques. Audiences were stunned as she would flail neuroticly on stage, ad-libbing songs into a bewilderment of repetitive confusion and then suddenly bring it all down into an acoustic subtlety over which her voice would become awe-inspiringly pure and elegant. She was clearly out of this world.
By 1983 Mary had left the band to pursue solo prospects. She was signed to Virgin on the strength of a Go Deo Chorus demo tape in 1984. She entered the studio that November, with a few members of her old band and XTC's Andy Partridge at the knobs. Phased by her unorthodoxy, Partridge abandoned the project. Over the next three years, the O'Hara sessions yielded some of the most interesting and fantastic moments in musical history (having a profound impact on the musicians she worked with), yet the tapes remained unmixed and it seemed the project would fizzle.
That all changed in 1987, when innovative guitarist/songwriter Michael Brook caught Mary performing in Toronto with Hugh Marsh. Thrilled by the very thing that had irritated Partridge, Brook took on the role of co-producing what would become Miss America.
The final product emerged at last in 1988 on Virgin. It was brilliant, like nothing else ever before heard, bending all the norms of arrangement and structure. With some of the best and most innovative musicians around participating (including Rusty McCarthy), the record displayed O'Hara's love for solid, steady rhythms, jazz basslines, innovative instrumentation, slow, sad waltzes, jazz grooves and contrasting jerky, improvisational abstractions. Completely unpreditable, the record was constantly shifting between dusty, country flavoured ballads ("Dear Darling", "Body in Trouble"), sporatic, demented free-for-all over tight rhythms ("Year in Song", "My Friends Have"), jazz shuffles resembling old standards ("Keeping You in Mind") and folkish, melodic pop songs ("To Cry About", "Anew Day").
It was one of the most exciting and powerful records of the 1980's and won O'Hara an instant, captivated audience, convinced of her genius and a deep respect from her fellow musicians. Some of her more famous fans are Michael Stipe, Kristen Hersh, Alex Chilton and Tanita Tikaram and her songs have been covered by Cowboy Junkies and This Mortal Coil. Her live shows continued to stun the average pop fan and thrill enlightened listeners and the demand for a new record was massive. Yet, it became clear as the years rolled by, and nothing new surfaced, that it would be a while before a follow-up record would emerge.
Instead O'Hara has been involved in the work of many like minded artists and has racked up a tremendous guest-appearance discography. She has often served as lead singer to folk rockers The Henrys and contributed a track to The Paul Haines Album (1993). She added backing vocals to Morrisey's 1990 single "November Spawned a Monster" and John & Mary's "Clare Scarf" from their 1993 record The Weedkiller's Daughter. She has also appeared on records by Gary Lucas, S.F. Seals, The Walkabouts, Holly Cole, Meryn Cadell, and Bruce Cockburn among others and she has toured with The Lost Dakotas and Blue Rodeo. She has also made a hobbie in films, namely appearing alongside Tom Waits in Candy Mountain (1986) and composing the soundtrack to The Events Leading Up to My Death (1991).
In 1996 a new record finally did emerge, albeit a short one, the ep Christmas. It appeared not long after Koch re-issued Miss America on the same label, much to the joy of O'Hara's fanbase. Since then enthusiasts travel far to attend her Canadian shows. Her performances have been called "life-changing".
Mary Margaret O'Hara remains one of the most respected and powerful figures in recent music history. She may very have garnered more interest on the strength of the least amount of material than any other artist. Rumors still circulate that she is recording a new album, and little could be better for the music world than if they were to turn out true.