Her love of classic music (both Irish and American), classic cars and an unwavering belief in the good old-fashioned American Dream has seen Tara O’Grady through three CD releases and a book deal – not bad for an Irish girl from Queens. With a touch of superstition and lots of winking charm, she shared her story with Kara Rota.
Tara O’Grady comes from a line of adventurous women on journeys. Her mother, from Mountcharles, Donegal, came to America on a boat in 1957. Her parents met at a dance in Woodside, Queens.
“[My mom] approached dad at the bar and said, ‘What county are you from?’ and he said, ‘The Bronx.’ She goes, ‘No, I mean in Ireland, what county are you from?’ and he said, ‘The Bronx!’ She said, ‘I hate when Irish put on American accents,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m American! I was born in the Bronx!’ His dad was from Roscommon, in Ballaghaderreen, and his mom was from Waterford, in Kilmacthomas. Mom swore he was Irish-born because he walked and talked like a farmer, and he was with his Roscommon cousins – they just kind of had a swagger.”
Growing up, O’Grady heard her father play traditional Irish fiddle at home. In high school, her brother took up clarinet, then saxophone, flute, and piano. He played in jazz bands in high school and college. “I was listening to jazz from the golden age of Hollywood, and traditional Irish music at home. Mom listened to Elvis and Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. All of that in my head, eventually I started singing. It took a long time.”
O’Grady didn’t start performing until after a life-changing visit to her eye doctor in 1999, and all because she mentioned that she liked the glasses he was wearing. “He said, ‘Only jazz musicians can wear these.’ . . . I’m the type of person who believes if you say something out loud, it becomes a reality, so I said, ‘Well, I’m a jazz singer.’ He tested me and he said, ‘Well, sing something.’ I wasn’t shy, I could imitate anybody’s voice on the radio. I said, ‘What do you want to hear?’ and he said, ‘How about something by Billie Holiday?’ I said, ‘Who’s he?’”
O’Grady’s musical education followed quickly after that. Her eye doctor referred her to a weekly jam session near Wall Street with a collection of bankers who were weekend warriors in the jazz scene. She learned songs by Billie, as well as Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. “They were just throwing titles at me and I was researching it all. So for a year of Sunday school, let’s call it, I learned everything that I could possibly learn. Then I went back to my eye doctor for my annual appointment, and I said, ‘I not only know who Billie Holiday is now, I’ve earned my frames, and do you want to start a band with me?’”
She played with her eye doctor for over a decade, and they collaborated on her first album, Black Irish, released in 2010. “I was at work, preparing for a meeting, just singing to myself. This jazz pianist was in the office and he said, ‘What are you singing?’ I said ‘Oh, I’m just preparing for a gig.’ I always sang “Danny Boy” in my jazz sets, because I heard Harry Connick Jr. sing it in Memphis Belle. It was the first time I ever heard a traditional Irish song performed in an alternate way. He swung it up-tempo and I thought that was brilliant. So in addition to all the songs by Nina, Billie, and Ella, I was always doing “Danny Boy” with my eye doctor. The jazz pianist said ‘Look, you should record that.’ I was like ‘Oh, yeah, right, sure, I’ll just record “Danny Boy” and a bunch of traditional Irish songs and swing them like Billie Holiday. He’s like, ‘That’s a great idea!’ And then I thought, my God, you’re right, that is a great idea!”
Black Irish was recorded in a studio near Wall Street and includes Irish classics like “Molly Malone,” “The Water is Wide,” “Nora,” “Peggy Gordon,” and “Wild Rover.” Serendipitously, a group of producers in Nashville heard the album and invited O’Grady to record an album of originals in Music City, only a few months after making Black Irish. “They asked me to come down to Nashville to have a brainstorming meeting, and within two weeks I wrote 12 songs and brought them down with me. They were like, ‘We thought you were going to write with us, not write them in advance!’ I was just like, ‘Well, I love a good challenge!’ They set a recording date a few months later with some of the top guys in Nashville, people who’d recorded with the Chieftains and Taylor Swift and a lot of country people. Guys they knew that could really swing and do jazz too. So it’s a blues/jazz album, but my dad was very adamant, he said ‘Look, you’ve got to have a fiddle on that album. And throw in a tin whistle and an accordion, just to still have some of those instruments.’” Then O’Grady’s story took a turn. In a tough economy, she was laid off from her dream job, as a program manager designing imaginative workshops for educators at Lincoln Center, one the top performing arts centers in the world. With a background in education, she was passionate about helping educators bring creative arts into their curriculums. When she was let go, she decided to take the opportunity to use her creative skills and her sudden free time to re-create a cross-country road trip taken by her paternal grandmother in 1957 – the same year her mother came to America. As the family legend goes, O’Grady’s grandmother married her grandfather because he was the only man she knew who owned a car during the Depression: a 1934 Chevy.
O’Grady made a YouTube video featuring one of her songs, “I Want To Go to There,” asking Chevy for a free ride to help her on her journey. It also happened to be Chevy’s 100th anniversary.
“When my father’s mother, from Waterford, came to America, she always had this desire to travel and see the West, but she didn’t have a driver’s license. . . . [My grandfather] would say, ‘You don’t need a license. You can walk to church, walk to the school, walk to the shop.’ When he went home for Easter to Roscommon one year, she secretly got her driver’s license. And when he got back she told him, ‘I’m taking the Chevy and I’m driving across America.’ He said, ‘You won’t get over the George Washington Bridge.’ And she said, ‘Watch me.’ She didn’t know how to turn around the car, but she knew how to go straight. She took my dad, who was 16 at the time, and my aunt, who was 14, and she drove all the way to Washington State, stopping in Yellowstone, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Montana. She slept in the car, and dad had a tent that he slept in next to the car. They caught fish, bathed in rivers, saw Native Americans on horseback, a whole extraordinary adventure. They were on the road for 7 weeks.”
The stated purpose of the trip was to visit O’Grady’s granduncle, her grandfather’s brother. Father Peter O’Grady was a Jesuit priest from Roscommon stationed in Spokane, Washington. “He called at one point saying, ‘They haven’t arrived yet – did they die on the road?’ because it was taking them so long. But she was lingering. She was in Yellowstone for two weeks. She was having a ball. She called my grandfather from there, the first call after four weeks on the road. He’s like, ‘I thought you were dead!’ She said, ‘We’re having a blast! We’re fine. How’s cooking for yourself?’ In the ’50s, a housewife, leaving her husband to fend for himself – you didn’t do that, you know? Highways had only just opened up, and women did not take to the road yet. If they did, it was with their husbands at the wheel.”
Chevy was moved by O’Grady’s family story and helped her re-create her grandmother’s journey in a borrowed Silverado pickup truck and SUV. This trip is the subject of a book she’s getting published. “I was interviewing people across America, from farmers to truckers to retirees to teachers to cowboys, about the American Dream. I bumped into so many people connected to Ireland. When I got to Montana, I met people who knew my grandmother or who knew my family or who were related to me. I found all these people on the road that I feel like my grandparents led me to.”
I asked Tara if she felt that there might be some innate similarity between American jazz and traditional Irish music, a similar soul that connects them and makes her versions sound so meant-to-be. She had recently shared her interpretation of “Danny Boy,” perhaps the most well known Irish ballad, for a BBC/RTV documentary. “Not only is the melody so powerful and memorable, but it became an Irish-American anthem when it left Ireland, as the immigrant does, and makes its way in the new world. It’s taken on in a different way. There’s a whole segment in the film that shows African Americans taking this song and putting their own intentions to it, and rhythms. Hollywood took it and swung it, in the ’40s. Then in the ’50s Elvis took it, and then African American R&B artists took it. They kept changing the tempo and the feel . . . things change when they’re in a different culture. It works because every culture has that loss and longing. There’s a sadness about it, but there’s a soulfulness.”
Whether performing at jazz clubs in New York or Irish music festivals, Tara O’Grady takes it upon herself to help her listeners hear things a little bit differently. Hers is a story of making something out of bits and pieces, of spontaneous creation and minimal rehearsal. When she performs live, she sings every request the audience throws at her – and if she doesn’t know it yet, she learns it for the next time. This can-do spirit has carried her far, and Tara O’Grady still has a lot of road to cover.