Lauren O'Connell does it old-school
Even if she’s a little too far out of town to enjoy daily trips on the cable cars, long lunches at Fisherman’s Wharf, and boat rides to Alcatraz, Lauren O’Connell has landed herself in a pretty sweet spot. The singer-songwriter was raised in small-town New York but now makes her residence about an hour outside San Francisco, living in a house in a rural area where her home-recording sessions are in no danger of disturbing the neighbours, mostly because there aren’t any. The reason for her moving? She had things she seriously needed to get done.
“A lot of it was just sort of mental,” O’Connell says on the line from her California home. “I was still in the town where I grew up, working one retail job to the next, essentially. I really just needed to put myself somewhere else. Also, the fact that I was going to be in a situation where I’d be sharing these home studios with my friends meant I knew I’d be able to put in full days. I’d be able to treat music as a job, and that’s sort of what I’ve done.”
O’Connell’s latest album, Quitters, suggests she’s found not only a job she loves but also one she excels at. The record is nothing less than gorgeous, the songs based on plaintive folk and unvarnished country, but not dogmatically limiting themselves to either of those genres. In some instances, the singer proves herself a master of the slow build, with the kickoff track, “Every Space”, starting out with church-service organs, metronome-steady percussion, and restrained vocals, and then bursting into an ethereal rocker halfway through.
Elsewhere, the shimmering “If Found/Gravity” begins as a dusty-roads country record before ending up in a discordant collision of military-tattoo drums and free-form piano, while groaning strings elevate the already great jazz waltz “I Belong to You” into something sublime. Cementing the album as one of the year’s great releases are lyrics like “I am making some new friends here/Who I can like and then avoid/So I can reaffirm my reasons/For calling loneliness a choice”.
The challenge for O’Connell, she says, was to step outside her comfort zone for Quitters, beginning with changing the way she recorded her previous two albums. That started with booking a working studio instead of doing things at home.
“I have a pretty great home studio, but it’s only a home studio, and there’s only so much that I can achieve sonically,” she says. “I wouldn’t call anything that I can do lush. At worst, I felt like my past recordings have been kind of sterile—sonically, they weren’t as immersive as I wanted. The studio I found is close to my house, so it’s also in the middle of nowhere. Tom Waits used to record there. It’s rooms built into an old barn, with lots of wood and old instruments, so the space sounded really alive.”
Quitters had O’Connell deciding to go analogue instead of digital, which gave the songs an old-school, mistakes-and-all warmth. Most important, she finally accepted there’s nothing wrong with taking outside input during the creative process.
“It was really hard, and maybe the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. That’s the really appealing thing about working alone—I don’t have to run ideas by anyone else or live with anyone else’s bad ideas. Or get used to them, until I realize they are really good ideas, which is something that happened a lot on this record. I was tearing my hair out, trying to get other people to understand my vision.”
The challenges didn’t stop there. There’s an adage that people from the East are far more inclined to get shit done than folks on the laid-back West Coast. From the way that O’Connell describes things, you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take the take-charge New Yorker out of the girl. Well, sort of.
“I had to keep everyone focused in the studio,” she says, laughing, then continuing with: “It was like, ‘Okay, I’m paying by the hour, and I’m paying you by the hour, now stop chatting.’ Unfortunately, I’m not exactly an iron fist when it comes to managing people.”
Lauren O’Connell plays Little Mountain Gallery on Saturday (December 1).