Country music is not the first thing to cross most people’s minds when they think of Chicago, although it is home to crooners, honky-tonkers, and outlaw rockers alike. In fact, one of the best country records of the year belongs to the South Side’s own Nora O’Connor. Recorded for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, one of the nation’s last bastions of roots music that hits the trifecta of smart, fun, and down-to-earth, Til the Dawn runs the gamut from countrypolitan ballads to shuffling, upbeat twang-rock.
I recently spoke with Nora via e-mail and telephone, following two performances. The first opening for Wilco in Milwaukee, the second her own super-sold-out record release party at Chicago’s best venue/kickball runners-up, the Hideout.
PopMatters: After many sessions recording and playing with Andrew Bird and others, what was it like having all of those friends and musicians in the studio for your very own project?
Nora O’Connor: It was really comforting. We had a great time, we did. I remember at one point I was just sitting back watching Scott Ligon lay down some killer leads and then jumped over to the Hammond and then the bell piano. I was like, “Wow, this is so easy watching all my friends make my record for me.” These are people that I love and trust musically, and let’s face it, they owed me one!
PM: As there’s no formal production credit in the liner notes, were the songs all arranged by consensus, or were there specific ideas that you directed, or both? It seems that with such a veteran group, much could come from spontaneity, but the songs also feel individually assured and thoughtful.
NO: Indeed there was a lot of spontaneity. For the most part everyone plays what comes to them first and I’ll give them my ideas if I’m just set on something specific. We usually end up meeting halfway. I left the string arrangements to Andrew, naturally, but we were together and talked through everything. Again, I’m a fan of these guys.They can do whatever the hell they want (for the most part!) Some of the songs we’ve been playing live for a long time and have taken on a life of their own.
PM: Those friendships figure prominently in the theme of “My Backyard.” Your other original on the record, “Tonight”, also speaks of the famous Chicago three-flat, and to me is very evocative of the city. Is that sense of place something you consciously work for in your writing?
NO: As far as my songs go, I am usually sitting in my living room playing and writing or walking around w/ my guitar strapped on looking out the window at my very active Humboldt Park neighborhood. Though I don’t know how conscious it is. I’m in the process of moving into a very different neighborhood, we’ll see how that effects my inspiration.
PM: Now you’ve gone through record release dates for other albums that you’ve been on and worked on, does it feel different now that it’s your name on the spine?
NO: Well, about ten years ago I did do a record. My friend Michael Cameron, who owns Uncommon Ground, he put it out under Uncommon Underground Records. I kind of put that behind me. I feel like I’ve grown a lot since I’ve done that record. I never really toured or tried to do any press, or go on the road or go overseas, which I’m trying to do with this record. So this is really exciting. It’s a whole different ballgame, because these are things that I’ve been doing for a long time, like touring and stuff, but to be doing it on my own is challenging.
PM: Because all the attention is right on your shoulders. (laughter) What changed for you in the ten years since that first record? What was the point that you decided, “Okay, it’s time for me to do this again?”
NO: It just kind of got to the point where, I had all of these songs that even though I had stopped touring (w/ Bowl of Fire), I was playing live at the Hideout, and I really wanted to record them. I really wanted to get them down on CD and see what they would sound like with different arrangements and all my friends playing on them. And I do like to do it cheaply, and Bloodshot was willing. It’s not something that I would have done on my own, which is great that Bloodshot was willing to say, “Why you go and record a record and we’ll put it out.” Just a good old-fashioned handshake record deal. I don’t think I would have done it without them.
PM: The songs that you chose, did you have it in mind before you started recording exactly which songs you wanted to include? Did you record a lot more or did you have a very specific
NO: We didn’t record a lot more. Although there were just a few, a couple more originals that I was working on that didn’t make it. There are a few songs that I’ll be recording a later time, because I really enjoyed recording the originals that I wrote, seeing them grow right before my very eyes. It was great for me. The other songs were just at the top of my list and songs that I’d been performing live. It was just a matter of jotting them down in my notebook in different orders and seeing how they would fit together, and then which would rise to the top.
PM: It’s not common, especially for independent musicians, I think to have a lot of covered material on record. There’s a lot of taboo about that, and I’ve always wondered about why that is.
NO: I think that’s so silly. I guess people are more impressed if you’re doing all the writing. But I kind of consider myself an interpreter of music, and a lot of the songs were written by friends of mine.
PM: I think it’s a lost art.
NO: I do too.
PM: I think that it does get kind of a bad rap.
NO: I just love music and it’s an honor to be able do a killer song that somebody else wrote, and make it my own.
PM: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to discuss the record with you, because of all the different songs on the record. There’s the Jim Mathus songs, there’s the Fleetwood Mac song, and there’s “Love Letters”. I think one of the big successes of it is that there’s such a wide variety of material but it doesn’t sound like each song belongs on a different record. Were there specific things about the songs you were looking for, or why you chose one Fleetwood Mac over another? Were they sheer favorites or are there certain things you look for, things that connect with you on a different level?
NO: Well I definitely wasn’t looking for a Fleetwood Mac song per se. That song came from Andy Hopkins, when we were touring with Bowl of Fire. He had it on a mix tape that we were listening to in the van, and I just couldn’t believe it. I said, “You’re kidding me. This is Fleetwood Mac? It’s so country.” It’s on Mirage from 1983. And it’s just got this great bluesy feel to it. And I think it’s just a really beautiful breakup song. And I just love what she’s saying. Whoever she’s talking to. I just think it’s so nice. “I hope you find the love you’re looking for, and I’ll be all right over here.” I think that’s sweet, and touching. And I just thought “Oh my god I have to sing this song” because I could connect with that. And I didn’t feel like I had anything holding me back from just doing whatever songs I chose. I’m glad it worked out the way it did. It helps that I recorded them in the same place with all those musicians.
PM: So what’s next, do you have a tour lined up right now?
NO: I’m going to spend the next couple months, September and October, doing regional shows, Madison, Milwaukee, St. Louis, some shows with Robbie Fulks, and then on the east coast, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York. In November, I’m going to try to go to the UK.
PM: This is kind of a silly question with Til the Dawn just coming out, but do you have ideas forming of another Nora O’Connor solo release?
NO: Yeah, I think I really do. It’s way back in my mind. There’s a certain amount work that I want to do that goes along with the release of this record. I’m hoping that at this time next year I can try to record some more songs. It depends on how much I want to go on the road.