It just popped out, as if from thin air. After pausing momentarily to describe the repertoire that will guide her farewell tour this fall, Maura O’Connell hit upon just the right tag. She knew it, too.
“It will be a mélange – ooh, that’s a good word – of many songs from many different records,” said the acclaimed Irish-born songstress who will give make her final Lexington appearance as a solo artist on Thursday at Natasha’s. “The performances are always about the songs obviously. But I have a good bit of fun with the audience, too – all the stories and craic (the Irish term for fun and entertainment). So it will be my show. It will be what I do, which is sing a bunch of songs, talk about them, make fun of them and me and the audience. It’s the same as ever, basically, except that I’m changing from being the leader of the group.”
Captivating as words like “mélange” and “craic” might be in referencing O’Connell’s current tour, the description that undeniably carries the most immediate weight is “farewell.” After winning acclaim in Ireland with the champion folk group De Dannan (and especially its revered 1981 album The Star Spangled Molly), O’Connell relocated to Nashville and teamed with the leaders of the city’s famed new grass community (Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Russ Barenberg, to name a few). What resulted was a borderless brand of progressive folk and Americana that would fuel her career for the next three decades.
Then she realized it was time to stop. Ask O’Connell why and the answers are equal parts necessity and reluctance.
“I’m realizing that there are more interesting people coming up behind me,” she said. “That’s the nice way to say it.”
“It’s more on an understanding that I don’t understand the business anymore. My audience is my age or around that. I’ve always played to a mixture of people, which has been nice. But today you’re not getting guarantees from the clubs because they are under pressure. There is the cost of touring. There is all the traveling. It’s all of the above, really. I’m not even playing the folk festivals now because I don’t get called to do that. I just don’t know where the place is for me anymore.”
“So I would rather just decide myself that it was time to sort of hang up my shoes than have it decided for me, so to speak.”
But O’Connell promises her farewell is conditional. She still hopes to collaborate with other artists, as she has of late with the all-female Irish-American troupe Cherish the Ladies. Projects under her name and leadership, however, will cease.
Then again, O’Connell’s career has always welcomed collaboration, be it through her work with De Dannan, gigging and recording with the new grass gang or interpreting songs by some of the most artful singer-songwriters of our time. Among the latter group are John Prine, Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, The Beatles and fellow Irish songster Van Morrison.
“Some of it is just the wisdom in the words, or the humor,” O’Connell said of the qualities that have drawn her to songs she has recorded over the decades. “For me, I suppose I approach singing songs by first seeing the poetry or the story behind it. It’s an instinctive thing but I think everybody who appreciates a particular song, appreciates it the same way that I do. It’s just that I’m the one who decides to sing it.”
“I’ve been extraordinarily lucky throughout the years in that I never intended to become a professional singer. I was just going to do it as a hobby because there were so many folk clubs around the country back then. You would only get enough money to go there and come back home. So that was going to be my hobby. Then I got kidnapped by DeDanaan for two years.
“De Danaan gave me a platform to launch a solo career. I realized that I really couldn’t sustain a career in Ireland. So when I moved to Nashville, Jerry Douglas had just left The Whites, Russ Barenberg had just moved down from the Northeast and Edgar Meyer had just left the symphony. There was just this magic moment when we all got to perform together. Of course, by association, I’ve been lucky through them. I think if I hadn’t been surrounded by those people, I wouldn’t have ever been signed to Warner Brothers (which released O’Connell’s Helpless Heart and Blue is the Colour of Hope albums in 1989 and 1992, respectively). There was a tiny window open when the label was looking for alternative music, or whatever they called it. Then that window closed immediately.
“Saying all this that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop. I’m certainly not quitting. I just want to explore new things and just do it for the sake of exploration. I want to do it to satisfy my own interests.”
Maura O’Connell performs at 8 p.m. Oct. 3 at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 259-2754. www.beetnik.com