“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong” – words of wisdom from the great Ella Fitzgerald. A fitting quote for me to come across this week after spending some time getting to know Tara O’Grady, a remarkable musician, storyteller and writer; a true artist in every sense of the word.
Tara tells a story familiar to any kid with a good singing voice and Irish parents – mom and dad pestering her to sing at family parties – “The Black Velvet Band,” “I’ll Tell Me Ma,” “Danny Boy” — when all she really wanted to do was sing an American song. Although Tara has Irish music in her blood (her father is the great fiddler Tom O’Grady), she has blues, jazz, and big band music in her soul. It’s a passion that she attributes to watching her brother perform in his high-school jazz orchestra. From her childhood home filled with Irish music, Tara would go on to learn to sing like her heroes Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in her own jazz band, but she admits that it wasn’t long before the Irish songs she grew up with crept back into her life and her repertoire. What she discovered is that she could have her cake and eat it too. She began singing classic Irish songs in a blues/jazz/swing style, a delicious combination, I must admit.
I caught up with Tara over the phone a few days ago, eager to hear how her musical career singing in this unique style took flight. There was a smile in her voice as she recalled the day that an office co-worker caught her singing to herself at work. When he asked what she was singing, Tara simply replied: “I can sing Danny Boy like Billy Holiday.” With those eight words and some encouragement from her co-worker, Tara decided to take her music to the recording studio. She researched songs that her grandparents sang to her during her childhood summers in Donegal and came up with jazz arrangements for them. She laughed as she told me about the trickiest part of the process – teaching a pure jazz band an arrangement of a bluesy version of an Irish song that they had never heard. “I had to tell them not to look up any Chieftains or Clancy Brothers versions of the songs. They would have been so confused!” Despite the challenge, she did it, and she did it well, releasing two full-length albums that feature her fusion of jazz, blues, Celtic and pop – “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait” and “Black Irish” and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Tara was eventually laid off from the very job where her office singing set her on her Celtic/jazz musical journey. With her adventurous spirit and plenty of time on her hands, she set out to replicate a cross-country road trip that her paternal grandmother took in 1957, even getting Chevrolet to loan her the wheels she needed to make her dream a reality. She traveled and blogged and met relatives she never knew she had. She gained new fans and new friends, sold CDs, and booked gigs along the way as she chased her “grandmother’s spirit” from the South Bronx to Seattle. Tara treated me to a few of her stories from the road that were so captivating they sounded like they were ripped right from a best seller- and they very well may be some day. She’s written a book based on her travels, “Transatlantic Butterflies and the November Moon,” a novel that she describes as: “‘Angela’s Ashes’ meets ‘Eat Pray Love’ meets ‘Thelma and Louise,’ but nobody dies at the end.”
And so I go back to Ella’s quote. Tara’s story exudes love, love for music, love for her family and her roots, and no shortage of inspiration- from her Donegal summers, to her brother’s high-school jazz band to a 1957 Road Trip. I have the feeling there will always be a song to sing, a story to tell, and a bright road to travel for Tara O’Grady.
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Tara performs on Sept. 12 at Mary O’s, 32 Ave. A in Manhattan, and you can read more about her at taraogradymusic.com.
This week Padraig Allen will be at the Pig n’ Whistle in NYC on 8/16, Black 47 performs at The Towne Crier Café in Pawling, NY on 8/17, and The Prodigals take the stage at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar in NYC on 8/17.