BY SEÁN P. FEENY
SHE is probably one of the most talented best kept secrets New York City has to offer and although she grew up in the US, she’s a Donegal girl at heart.
The daughter of a Donegal woman, Tara O’Grady is what can only be described as a Celtic Jazz singer who burst on the scene a mere two years ago.
Currently on her annual trip back ‘home’ to Donegal we caught with the New York beauty to find out all about her music and the influence her Donegal roots have had on her.
“My mother Mary was born in Gortward, in Mountcharles, Inver Parish. I spent every summer there on my grandparents’ farm, Nora and Pat Conaghan,” said Tara.
Having had a passport since she was one, Tara has been coming to Donegal to visit her family ever year, keeping up strong ties to the county.
Tara was, in fact, also the New York Mary in 1993 when she came over to take part in the annual Mary From Dungloe International Festival.
“My mam was always very close to the Donegal Association and went to all the dances and functions and when I came of age she told me that I was entering this competion that I knew nothing about,” she laughed.
“I didn’t understand the significance of it until I won the New York selection and my mam got me to phone my grandmother in Gortward and the rest of the family.
“I remember being on the tour bus with the other girls and they would stop purposely so Tara could meet with her family and there’d be 20 people there in the Diamond waiting for us.
“Where ever ever we went Tara had a story of who she knew or was related to until they said ‘right, enough with the New York Mary and her connections already’,” she laughed.
Tara said she still has a lot of fond memories of that time including posing for a picture with Daniel O’Donnell’s mother sitting on her lap as they were both wearing black and white polka dot dresses.
This year she was part of the judging panel to select the 2012 New York Mary with fellow celebrity judge, Derry boxer John Duddy.
Tara is actually only relatively new to the professional music business, but already she is causing a bit of a storm with her music and it all very much came by chance.
She said: “I was singing with my own Jazz trio in New York doing mostly standards, gigging part-time, but for some reason I always had Danny Boy in my set.
“I don’t know why I had it in my set, but one day I was singing it my old place of work at the time, the Lincoln Center where I managed an arts education programme, and a jazz pianist heard me singing.
“He heard me sing and told me I had a good voice and I told him I did Jazz standards part-time, but could also sing Danny Boy in the style of Billie Holiday,” Tara said.
After hearing her sing Danny Boy jazz-style, the pianist said she should do a whole album of those and the end result was Tara’s album Black Irish which is a totally refreshing way of looking at old Irish folk songs. Who would have ever thought that songs like I’ll Tell Me Ma, The Water Is Wide or Black Velvet Band could work as jazz arrangements and the honest answer is that they sound absolutely fantastic.
The name from the album didn’t come from the common phrase you sometimes hear American call dark-haired Irish, but rather from the fact that when you look at Tara you would never believe that this voice comes from her.
“The boys in my band always say I have the voice of a black jazz singer and don’t sound like I look at all.”
A few months after recording and releasing the nine-track album, Tara was contacted by a producer in Nashville who was interested in working with her.
“He asked me if I would like to write songs and record them with him and I said, ‘why not’.
“I had never written songs before, but I’ve always been creative and although I didn’t think I had it in me I decided to challenge myself and within two weeks I had written twelve songs which I sent down to the producer in Nashville.”
Next Tara travelled down to Nashville to work with producers and musicians who have work with everyone from Alison Krauss, Emylou Harris to Elvis Costello.
The end result was my second album Good Things Come To Those Who Wait which features several songs which were inspired by Tara’s Donegal roots.
“My song Goodnight Nora on my second album is about my Donegal grandparents and how they met at a dance in the 1930s.
“November Moon is about my mam leaving for America. She left Gortward in November 1957.”
Some years ago Tara was in Donegal over the Thanksgiving holidays and as she looked up at the November Moon she thought of her mother’s journey and was inspired to write a little poem.
When it came to recording in Nashville that poem resurfaced and was turned into a beautiful song.
It was while she was working with the Nashville musicians that one of them tweeted, I’m sitting her with Tara O’Grady, A Celt in the Cotton Club, the only way he could describe what he was hearing and seeing in the studio for the first time.
This incidentally is going to be the title of her next album which also ties in with a memoir that Tara is currently working on.
“The new album will be a mix of original jazz, blues, celtic, and more trad Irish songs that I swing,
“But I am also working on a book about both my Donegal granny and my Waterford granny and how she drove across America in a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. I replicated her journey last autumn and got Chevrolet to sponsor me,” she laughed.
It’s this journey and book that have also brought Tara back to Donegal and she is bringing the story and the journey to a close as she goes to meet relations of her other granny, Catherine O’Donnell.
Chevrolet just happened to be celebrating their 100th anniversary and when Tara got in contact with them they gladly agreed to provide her with three classic cars to undertake the road trip from New York all the way to Seattle, Washington.
The cars included a convertable Camero, a Silverado Pick-up and an SUV, all of which Tara drove while recording her trip.
“All these stories led me to writing this book and I wanted to go to back to Waterford as I hadn’t been there in such a long time and just wanted to see the house that my Waterford grandmother lived in.
“Sadly she died before my mother even met her so I never got a chance to get to know her like I did with my Donegal granny, Nora.”
Tara love coming to Donegal and catching up with old friends like well-known fiddle player Martin McGinle, whom she met for a music session in Glenties on Friday.
“He wrote a tune about me called The Fantastic Luminosity of Tara O’Grady. We are good pen pals since we met at a festival in Canada a few years back.
“He teaches that tune to students in France and the Netherlands, and coincidentally, it is now being backed by another tune called, Fr. O’Grady’s Trip to Bockagh which was written in the 1930s about my grand uncle from Roscommon.
“European fiddlers are unaware that the two tunes are about the same family. While I was in Butte, Montana at the An Ri Ra Irish music fest, Chicago born trad musician and sean nos singer Kathleen Keane played Fr. O’Grady’s Trip to Bockagh not realizing he was connected to me, or that he used to go to Butte often as he was a Jesuit priest stationed out west. Amazing connections. I love how the universe works,” said Tara.
She also takes the opportunity to drop into her 95-year-old cousin in Ardara, Packie Manus Byrne.
“I only got to know Packie after my grandparents passed away, but we have kept in contact since calling each other once a month and he is probably the only person with whom I still have mail correspondence which is really nice.”
Tara has several projects that she is bringing to a close and she is definitely hoping to bring her music to the North West in the New Year.
“I’m definitely hoping to perform here in the near future when I complete my book and the new album. Donegal is never far from my mind.”