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Mary Margaret O'Hara


Country of origin:

Canada

Type of music generally:

A very individual jazz-influenced alternative pop

Status:

Most recent release, apartment hunting (soundtrack to the movie of that name, 2001). Only full-length album under her name is Miss America (1988, re-released 1995).

See also:

An unofficial site

A Fan Page

The Ectophiles' Guide entry for The Henrys, a band Mary Margaret O'Hara frequently sings with.

Comparisons:

Defiantly original. Jane Siberry to a small extent. Perhaps a little like Victoria Williams? (Neile)

Covers/own material:

Own, sometimes co-writes, and contributes cover songs to tribute albums

General comments:

Mary Margaret O'Hara has a totally individual and unmistakable vocal style which works as an instrument in and of itself. Her own songs are wonderful confections of her brilliant lyrics and her delivery style, which nearly defines the word "quirky" but is still delightfully listenable. Her solo album is currently available through Koch International's re-releases, but don't overlook her many contributions to compilations (such as September Songs: A Tribute to Kurt Weill, Count Your Blessings and Sweet Relief II: A Tribute to Vic Chesnutt) and her vocals for other artists—even her backing vocal work is worth tracking down! So sad to know that she recorded another full album that was never released. (Neile)

makes sense through nonsense, and sometimes doesn't, yet always makes an intelligent and masterful noise. (contzen@sfu.ca)

She's not of this plane. I truly, truly believe that in years to come, if there's any justice at all (which there obviously isn't), Mary Margaret will come to be seen as one of the greatest avant-blues jazz artists of all time. (lissener@wwa.com)

Mary Margaret O'Hara is a *wonderful* talent. (alundra@netos.com)

She stutters the way a ballerina pirouettes. (tugboat@channel1.com)

Mary Margaret O'Hara is widely recognized here as brilliant. You can have a good time tracking down all the little odds and ends she has appeared on. She's out there more than her meager discography suggests. Plus, she's been covered by some interesting folks (This Mortal Coil, Cowboy Junkies, Sue Garner). (neal)

Mary Margaret O'Hara's contributions to the music world have been undeniably massive. Her strikingly original, exceptionally superb vocal and songwriting styles have had a tremendous influence on countless artists who've come after her, including Kristin 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 and one ep, Christmas since her emergence 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 his inability 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 repertoire, which reveals strong and knowledgeable 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. 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 neurotically 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 unpredictable, the record was constantly shifting between dusty, country-flavoured ballads ("Dear Darling", "Body in Trouble"), sporadic, 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 1980s 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 (R.E.M.), Kristin 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's Scarf" from The Weedkiller's Daughter. She has also appeared on records by Gary Lucas, SF 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 hobby 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 1991 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. (RedWoodenBeads@aol.com)

Mary Margaret O'Hara sometimes sounds like she's throttling herself, and other times as if she's ascending to heaven. (adamk@zoom.co.uk)

Comments about live performance:

I could not possibly urge you too strongly not to miss this chance for a rare sighting of Mary Margaret O'Hara. I could set aside a week to write this, enlisting every possible lexicographical resource, entirely exhausting the language's stores of superlatives and absolutes, and it would be as free of hyperbole as a description of the universe's breadth or of love's depth.
     For anyone who has the means and geographical fortune to get to a show to be anywhere else that night would quite simply be wrong; a mistake that would, if there is any justice in this world, hound you to your grave and haunt you beyond.
     Don't anybody ever miss the chance to see her perform. (lissener@wwa.com)

She's one of the few artists I would stay up until 3 am on a Monday night to see perform in a subway station. I've seen many an artist much more with it and together on stage, but that's not what Mary Margaret O'Hara is about. It was a rare evening of musical stream-of-consciousness, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. (meth@smoe.org)

The night peaked with Mary Margaret O'Hara. She was savagely jazzed. Intermittently clutching the mike like it was the doorjamb to the gates of hell, her grip the only thing keeping her from slipping into the phantom-zone. I don't know if it was a funky xlr connector on the Beta-58 or static discharge from a manic Ms. O'Hara that was causing a crackling in the house and the monitors but it clearly contributed to her mania. I got a chance to attempt conversation with her backstage after the show but quickly we both realized that the attempt was an act of futility. She wasn't trembling but rather vibrating. Were it not so pure I might have suspected her condition to be drug-induced. It seemed like each and every molecule in her body was resonating at a frequency reserved for matter that exists only outside this dimension. As soon as we realized that conversation was not possible with my being human and her being a dyslexic hummingbird we both laughed and gave up the attempt. I resisted the temptation to grab her by the shoulders and to scream in her face, "Dammit Woman, Calm Down!" for fear that were I to do so, her atomic bonds might break down and she'd dissolve into a puddle of quicksilver at my feet. Got to keep my eyes open to see if she does any shows here in New York. She was very cool, very weird. It was an extraordinarily bizarre encounter.
     I've had the surprising pleasure of having seen Mary Margaret perform twice since that magnificent first occasion. Each show was more impressive than the last. She warbled, clucked and crooned in front of The Henrys. Mary wailed! And the next show was an unforgettable night. I rue the fact that she gets out so infrequently. Recordings can't usually do it the way a live show does, like seeing a Van Gogh print as opposed to seeing the original oil. 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. During Happy's recent road show I put over 650 miles on the Dodge, Mary Margaret O'Hara is another of a small number of artists I would consider making a similar hadj on behalf of. To salaam at her southernmost digits is what I live for. (6/98, jjh969@juno.com)

mary margaret o'hara was fantastic. she played most (maybe all) of the miss america album and a christmas song which i assume is on the christmas ep. she had a full band with her—the same group who played on the album: rusty mccarthy on guitar (who gets some of the loveliest sounds out of a fender stratocaster that i have ever heard), david piltch on bass, michael slowski on drums and hugh marsh on violin. they played for nearly two hours which seemed to rush by much too quickly. utterly utterly gorgeous. (woj@smoe.org)

i just want to gush briefly: last night's concert was one of (if not the most) amazing musical experiences i've ever had. the band was perfect, the church was beautiful, and mary was in excellent form. it's been a long time since i've been so absolutely blown away by a live performance. i just wish she'd come back here more often! (slambert@interport.net)

Recommended first album:

Miss America, though the apartment hunting soundtrack as many equally wonderful moments

Recordings:


Miss America

Release info:

1988—Virgin Records—7 91274-2; reissued 1996—Koch International—KOC-CD-7919

Availability:

Wide in the U.S.

Ecto priority:

Highly, highly recommended

Group members:

Mary Margaret O'Hara—voice

Guest artists:

Rusty McCarthy—guitar
David Piltch—Elias 5-string bass, string bass
Michael Brook—infinite guitar, guitar
Hendrick Riik—bass
Michael Sloski—drums
Hugh Marsh—violin, DX log rhythm
Bruce Moffat—drums
Bill Whelan—piano
Don Rooke—lap steel guitar, rhythm guitar
John Sheard—piano

Produced by:

Mary Margaret O'Hara and Michael Brook

Comments:

This is an absolutely brilliant album—a classic. This album alone is enough to put Mary Margaret O'Hara on my all-time favourites list—brilliant use of vocals and great songwriting. (Neile)

This album just about twisted my ears around and planted them on each other's sides of my head when I first heard it. (jzitt@humansystems.com)

The re-issue of the year, and the fact that its a re-issue is the only reason it didn't make my top cds of the year list. (mcurry@io.com)

This is pure music that you absorb through your pores instead of hearing with your ears. (tugboat@channel1.com)

Miss America is a cool title, being as Mary is Canadian :). It is one of the most eclectic, tight/loose albums ever made, and is one of my all-time favorites. Mary is another of those great Canadian female artists, like Jane Siberry and Veda Hille, who are simply over the head of the generic masses. (alundra@netos.com)

A classic among closing tracks: Mary Margaret O'Hara's "You Will be loved again" springs to mind, as it's always reminded me of a late-night bar, the cabaret over, just the singer and the bass player left in a single spotlight. (adamk@zoom.co.uk)


Christmas E.P.

Release info:

1991—Virgin Records, U.K.—VSCDG 1395/664 983; reissued 1996—Koch International—KOC-CD-7935

Availability:

Limited

Ecto priority:

recommended if you like Miss America

Group members:

Mary Margaret O'Hara—vocals

Guest artists:

Hugh Marsh—violin
Rusty McCarthy—guitar
David Piltch—bass
Don Rooke—lap-steel
Michael Sloski—drums
Jack Zaza—bass clarinet, English horn

Produced by:

Mary Margaret O'Hara

Comments:

Mary Margaret O'Hara's wonderful and strange takes on the holiday season. Includes Billy Hayes's "Blue Christmas", "Silent Night", Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and Mary Margaret O'Hara's own "Christmas Evermore". (Neile)

4 great songs. A must for fans. Kind of hard to find, unless you're in Canada (which is where I got my copy) but well worth it. (JoAnn Whetsell)


apartment hunting (soundtrack)

Release info:

2001—Apartment Hunting Productions

Availability:

Maple Music and other Canadian sources, or check with info@apartmenthunting.com

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Mary Margaret O'Hara—vocals, bass, international vocals

Guest artists:

Rusty McCarthy—guitars, bass, vocals
Mike Sloski—drums, percussion
Matt Horner—keyboards, piano
Russ Boswell—bass
Celina Carroll—vocals, percussion
Chip Yarwood—guitars,
Louis Simao—bass
Klave y Kongo—one song performed by them alone
Bill Robertson—vocals, acoustic guitar
Michael White—trumpet
Dennis Keldie—accordion
Phil Dwyer—clarinet, saxophone
John Johnson—saxophone

Produced by:

Mary Margaret O'Hara, Rusty McCarthy & Bill Robertson

Comments:

The disc is mostly Mary Margaret O'Hara's compositions (several are co-written) and her vocals, though there are a couple of others. Overall it's quite jazzy, with a couple of songs that sound like natural follow-ups to Miss America. It's lovely and odd and I heartily recommend it to any Mary Margaret O'Hara fans.
     It's a wonderful disc. (Neile)

Groovy stuff. Very jazzy. A fair amount of the trademark MMOH gibberish, but lots of sultry, smokey vox too. A very, very cool album. (burka@jeffrey.net)


Further info:

As well as singing on The Henrys' discs, she has sung backup for many artists including Jane Siberry, Morrisey, John & Mary, Meryn Cadell, Chris Lord Ideal, The Malones, Gary Lucas, SF Seals, The Walkabouts, Holly Cole, Meryn Cadell, and Bruce Cockburn. Her songs have appeared on The Hanging Garden and The Events Leading Up To My Death soundtracks, the Count Your Blessings Christmas album, The Paul Haines Album, Sweet Relief II: A Tribute to Vic Chesnutt, and on The compilation of Kurt Weill songs, September Songs. She also acted in various movies, including: Candy Mountain, The Events Leading Up To My Death as "Rita" in 1993; The Hunter with Steve McQueen, as "Child on Subway"; Candy Mountain as "Darlene"; The Shmenges, The Last Polka.

She also does theatre. In January 2005 she starred in Robert Williams the Black Rider, music of Tom Waits in Sydney Australia.

She just finished making a movie made for T.V. in Toronto in November/December 2004, acting and doing the soundtrack.


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