Metronome Magazine Nov / Dec 2016
CD Review of Big Blue World May 2016 Release
CONOR O’BRIEN BIG BLUE WORLD 11-SONG CD
• CHANCE • LET THE DOOR SWING WIDE • RED LIGHTS
• AL VAIVEN DE MI CARRETA
• INTO THE BARDO • WHEN DARKNESS FALLS
• DON’T RUN AWAY
• BOSTON (She Speaks To Me) • ANYTHING BUT YOU
• TELL ME A STORY
• CHANCE (remix)
Conor O’Brien is the heart and soul behind his band Big Blue World and proves to be a talented singer, guitarist and songsmith on his latest release that bears the same name as his band. Handling acoustic, classical and electric guitar, mandolin, piano, shaker, iPod organ and theremin on Big Blue World, O’Brien stays busy filling the arrangements with his superb playing and tasteful sound bytes.
It is his vocal prowess however that really sets him apart from the local din. As talented as he is singing in English, O’Brien exhibits a natural ability to sing in Spanish as is evident in his beautiful rendition of Antonio Fernandez’ “Al Vaiven de Mi Carreta” (To The Rocking of My Wagon). His classical guitar work is exquisite as well as his diction and attention to detail in the performance.
O’Brien is joined by some top notch players that include Keith Kirkpatrick on upright bass, Chris Chitouras on electric guitar, Frank Laurino on drums, Rob Duquette on drums & vocals, Jason Roseman on steel drums, Scip Gallant on organ & piano, Kristen Miller on cello, Chris Magruder on loops & synthesizer, Jimmy R. Landry on Fender Rhodes, Dave Gerard on vocals & guitar and Michito Sanchez on congas, timbales & percussion. This diverse cast all adds color and depth to O’Brien’s otherwise marvelously crafted songs making for a lush, full bodied sound.
Best tracks: the uplifting “Let The Door Swing Wide,” the gorgeously executed “Al Vaiven de Mi Carreta,” the brilliant “Into The Bardo,” and the refreshing Island vibe of “Anything But You.”
A truly gifted performer, singer- songcrafter-guitarist Conor O’Brien brings 110% of heart and soul to his music. Believing deeply in the spiritual manifestations of life, Conor’s music transcends conventional boundaries while carrying a universal message to all who listen. We spoke at length one evening in late October about his life experiences and the amazing music that has come from his trek...
METRONOME: You did a great job on your new album, Big Blue World. How long have you been playing and singing? Conor O’Brien: I grew up in a musical family. My dad was a singer. Both my parents are from Ireland and he was a classic, Irishman storyteller, singer, entertainer type. He was also a psychiatrist. Both my parents were singers and influenced me.
My mom is a bit of a poet and she’s exploring that more now in her eighties than she ever has. I don’t think I ever knew I got my lyricism from her until recent years, which is funny. I’m close to her, but I never really connected that for some reason. I was a full time musician for about four years in the 1990s...
METRONOME: Who were you playing with during that period? When I was doing it full time, I had three different things going. I had a 4-piece jam- rock-funk band called Hemlock, I had a duet called Allegory Stew with a woman named Wendy Smith and I did a lot of solo shows, so I was playing 250+ gigs a year. Even though it was only for a few years, I felt like it gave me a solid understanding of performance and paying your dues (so to speak).
I don’t think I really had a full understanding of songwriting back then even though I started writing songs in high school. I’ve been writing now for about thirty years. This is my third CD and I finally feel like I’ve found my own voice.
METRONOME: When you were working in the 1990s, were you playing mostly cover songs, all originals, or a mix? It was 75% original and about 25% cover. That was always my focus and intent and what I pushed for. There was the occasional gig where people wanted more covers like weddings and events of that nature.
METRONOME: Even at that point, you didn’t feel as if you had harnessed the songwriting thing? I was good at pumping out songs and I had built a good methodology for myself, but I don’t think I really studied
arrangements. That was something I think I lacked in my early material that has really come alive in more recent projects.
METRONOME: I think that happens to a lot of songwriters. I would have to think that it does because it’s certainly an amorphous and hard to grasp element of why it always works in a certain pattern. The flavor of the song really dictates that and unless your listening, it’s easy to get in to a formulaic pattern and just stick things together. Once you start listening further, it’s all about the flow of the song.
The flow of a song, just like the flow of a music is just going to come out itself. The more you get in to thinking music like jazz, I feel it’s just so easy to over think it. Strip it back and simplify is often the better route, especially for the kind of music I write.
METRONOME: Where do you get your songwriting inspiration from? Is it observational? Personal? For me, 10% of the time or less, there’s something external that triggers the song topic. Recently the bass player in my band, Big Blue World, came to me and said, “Conor, I really want us to write a song about this specific topic.” It was about the planet Pluto and us landing a spacecraft write them down and try to learn what the song is going to be about. Those lines start to tell me a little bit about the story and then I fill in the blanks. It’s a very organic process. That’s where you have to become the songwriter and fill in the blanks and make it become really interesting.
METRONOME: How long does it take you to write a typical song? Currently, I’m mostly writing with the band. I’ve never done that before. The Big Blue World CD songs are all my original tunes which is part of the reason it is listed as it is. The band didn’t actually exist when I started that CD. I set out with my original tunes and the band formed around the CD. That’s why it was titled Conor O’Brien, Big Blue World.
Now that I’m writing with the band, it’s taking us about two months per song. That goes through different sessions where it will be the full band working on elements with suggestions and then the bass player and I will work together on harmonies parts and separate it out and put it all back together.
METRONOME: That’s a fair amount of dissection? Yes, absolutely. We’ve got one song that’s not done and we’re about seven months in to it. Then we have one song that almost wrote itself in one session. The lyrics needed more work, but the song just popped out. Everything just kind of wrote itself which I love when it just comes out of nowhere. I’m sure you’ve heard other songwriter’s say this, It was just kind of given to you.
I’ve had that experience a lot on my own, but not a lot with bands, so I’m really enjoying the songwriting experience with these guys. It’s also the best and most fun band I’ve ever played in. The only thing that gets in the way of practicing is that we laugh too much.
METRONOME: Would you agree that most of the songs that just come out of nowhere end up being the best tunes? I think so because often it’s so effortless. It’s not thought out, it just happened, so it has a flow to it because of that. Your frontal brain isn’t getting in the way, you’re just flowing through it.
METRONOME: You mentioned that Big Blue World is your third CD, correct? Yes, it is my third CD of this type.
METRONOME: What was the name of your first CD and what year did you release it? The first CD was called Her Eyes. That came out in 2001.
The 2nd was No Ordinary Day and was released in 2010.
Conor O’Brien Big Blue World Interview
by Brian M. Owens
Live performance is one of the most important aspects of the whole thing. It can have imperfections and all sorts of elements in there, but if you’re keeping the flow and the vibe of a whole night of performance or a whole song, that’s really the essence of what you’re going after. That’s what I think a good arrangement helps you do.
METRONOME: Isn’t it ironic that you can spend a lot of time on an arrangement even though the simplest arrangement can prove to be the best? Absolutely. I think that’s something all musicians struggle with to a certain extent. The more you know about music and the more you’ve studied music, the more you attempt to make something musical. The there and taking photos of the planet. He wanted to write about that. I wondered, How are we suppose to write about that? That was a real challenge for me. It ended up being interesting.
For me, most of the time, the process starts with the music. I, or someone in the band comes up with a certain set of chord progressions and patterns. From there, I will start playing through the progression and try to hum along to it. Sometimes that will go on for a long time. Occasionally a phrase will pop out and after a while I’ll be singing full steam ahead. I’ll go back and listen to the demo recording and if there are a few lines that pop out at me, either melody or lyric wise, I’ll pull those out. I
The second one was released in 2010 and it was called, No Ordinary Day.
METRONOME: There was a long time between those releases. Why? I was doing a lot of playing and there was about two years where I stopped playing completely. I took a break from music.
METRONOME: Did you go to Hawaii? Actually that was before that. In 1992, I lived in Waimanu Valley in Hawaii, built a hut, and lived off the land. For about six months I was a hermit.
METRONOME: What was it that made you do that? I was working through some personal stuff you know, the difficulties of my life. I don’t think I knew that at the time. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but in the long run it certainly was extremely therapeutic living by myself, meditating everyday and doing yoga. I did a lot of spiritual work and really found my spiritually for the first time since I was a small child. It was the beginning of a different path for myself.
Hawaii was a very effective, beautiful and incredible place to live. I was about fifteen miles to my closest neighbor hiking. No roads. No electricity. No running water other than the waterfall in my back yard. I hunted my own food and lived about 85% off the land. I wouldn’t see anyone for six weeks at a time until I hiked out of there to get supplies. I couldn’t live without peanut butter (laughs).
METRONOME: Did a similar thing happen when you took a break from music again in the 2000s? No. I bought a house in Boston. The only way I could fix it upon the cheap was to do it myself. I gutted it and redid it all myself. I was working full time and spending about sixty hours a week on my house. I did that for two years.
All of my instruments got packed away in to the closet and didn’t see the light of day for two years. It was difficult to do that. I missed it terribly. When I got back in to it, music was exploding out of me. I was writing songs and jumped right back in to it.
METRONOME: You must have had a lot of good fodder for your new ideas? Absolutely. The pain of major construction and living in it (laughs).
METRONOME: Are you still in that home?
Yes. I’m speaking to you from here in Somerville. We love it. It’s a great place and Somerville is a beautiful, artistic community which I love. You can find artists of all types here.
METRONOME: Was the house project the genesis for your second album? Yes. The 2010 project took me about 3-1/2 years to record. The writing took longer where as this new project, Big Blue World, I’ve been working on for seven years. I wrote the songs over a two year period, was in the studio recording for four years, and then mixing for almost a year.
METRONOME: So this project overlapped your 2010 album? The 2010 CD was finished in 2008, but didn’t get released for a couple of years.
When I’m in the studio, I can’t write at all. My writing ability is completely shut down. Years ago, I tried to fight it but I gave up. It’s funny because the week I finished the CD, I started writing immediately for the new CD. It’s weird. It’s a little mechanism that helps get me out of the studio (laughs).
METRONOME: Where did you record Big Blue World? All three CDs were done up north. The last CD was done in South Berwick, Maine at Thundering Sky Studio with Chris Magruder. It’s beautiful because it’s up in Maine, there’s a rolling grassy back yard, beautiful trees right next to a beautiful river where you can see bald eagles and stuff like that, so getting in that space and being there for a few days totally feeds the studio spirit. It’s in a beautiful old wood barn that’s been converted in to a studio. He has a Neve board that was shipped out from Seattle that had done some big name projects. It’s the ideal setting for me.
METRONOME: Did you work with Chris on the two previous albums? Not on the previous two, but I’ve been working with Chris on and off for the past twenty years. Dave Gerard has been my musical mentor since the 1980s. He was in Truffle and my band was opening for Truffle. We became friends and I started sitting in with Truffle back in those days. On all five of Dave’s solo CDs, he invited me to do backup vocals. Chris Magruder has recorded a number of those dating back 20 something years. I met Chris in another studio while recording Dave’s stuff.
METRONOME: Who produced the album? Keith Fitzgerald has been the producer on the last two CDs. He’s been a major contributor both financially as well as in the studio sessions. I produce most of the music on the projects and he produces me.
METRONOME: One of the songs on Big Blue World that really knocked me out of my chair was “Al Vaiven de Mi Carreta.” How did you choose that song originally written by Antonio Fernandez? That was influenced by my guitarist Chris Chitouras. He brought it to the band suggesting that we cover it. He was bringing it along more to jam. We were also doing another Spanish song that I had brought to the table, “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club. I often bring Latin influences to the band and Chris brings the West African influences to the band. Chris is trained by some great West African guitarists and played with Baba Olatunji for over ten years on the West Coast which was a huge influence on his playing. We also play a Congolese song that I sing in Lingala which is a Congolese language.
On the song “Al Vaiven,” it’s in two languages. It’s in Spanish, but it also has a verse in Bambara. I’m playing Latin sounding guitar riffs through the song when I am singing in Spanish, but when the song switches to Bambara (Mali) in the 3rd verse, I am actually playing African flavored riffs as a contrast.
METRONOME: “Let The Door Swing Wide” was an beautifully uplifting song. What inspired that? “Let The Door Swing Wide” is about opening yourself spiritually. It’s really about finding your path in life and what you’re uniquely meant to do. I really feel strongly that each of us have a unique set of traits and if we can just find the correct niche for ourselves, we can explode with success. If you don’t, know matter how cool you are, know matter how smart you are, no matter how talented you are, you’re always going to be fighting the flow of life. You don’t have the right job. It’s as simple as that.
The song is about opening yourself up to those kinds of possibilities and believing that, despite your qualifications. I think that’s also a key to being a good performer. It’s one thing to be in the studio, but being on stage, you only have one chance for each song. If you can believe in yourself from the first note to the last, other than the expression of that emotion, then you’re in it and the people will love you. It’s not always based on your talent. It’s really based on your willingness to be vulnerable and I think that’s what this song is about.
METRONOME: “Into The Bardo” was a brilliant tune. Can you tell me more about that song? Latin stuff has always been close to my heart. During college I always wanted to play music taking in sounds of the world and infusing it in to a rock format. I feel like this CD has finally done that for me and now my band has taken it to the next level because we’ve brought the African continent in to that mix.
The Bardo in Buddhist thought is the in-between time after death where you potentially spend forty nine days in a limbo space or purgatory. If you haven’t been spending your life doing the right things and meditating and being conscious of your actions, you will suffer through this period.
It’s a period of dream-like experiences and nightmarish experiences. Along that pathway you can lose the energy that you’ve built up during your lifetime. It’s like a spiritual obstacle course and if you can navigate this obstacle course you get to bring your life spirit with you in to your next life and you get to start where you finished. If you stumble, fall and fail, then you can’t bring that energy with you. That’s what the Bardo is.
There’s a background for this song even though I wrote it like a love song. There’s a double meaning to it. That song changed most during the mixing phase. Right toward the end of the process, I started playing instruments on my iPad using Thumb Jam. All of a sudden, it gave me other ideas. I thought, This song should really be like a classical guitar song. That’s what spurred me on to strip out the drums in the first half of the song and just allowing the shekere to be the one percussion instrument throughout; which is played by Michito Sanchez. Michito’s resume is as long as your arm. He’s played with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Denver, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and a huge list of amazing musicians. He plays percussion on five of the songs on the album.
METRONOME: I loved “Anything But You.” What is that song about? I wanted to do something quirky with that and play a mandolin as the lead reggae instrument. I’ve never heard anyone do something like that. I really like how that flavoring changed the song. The mandolin is not used for the island thing, but because of its pitch and frequency, it lends a nice flavor to it.
I started writing it on a trip to Hawaii a few years ago. It’s a love song, but it has a lot of imagery of being on the beach. It was really inspired by Hawaii.
METRONOME: Did you write the song “Boston (She Speaks To Me)” with something bigger in mind?
“Boston” is a song that if the right person hears it, could become a cool thematic song for some purpose in the Boston area. It’s really just a love song about Boston.
METRONOME: Where can people go on the internet to find out more about you? www.bigblueworld.net is the band web site. We are on CDBaby, iTunes and we have a YouTube channel. You can also find stuff on my web site at www.conormusic. com.