Kevin O’Donnell: The Irish-American Music Experience with Deep is the Well (Interview)

Kevin O Donnell
Kevin O’Donnell Photo courtesy of Noah Smulkis (Ceolwind Productions)

For years, singer/songwriter Kevin O’Donnell devoted his artistry on the stage and writing. The past fifteen years have been productive so far, spawning books called Fado and prior to that, he founded the Irish-American folk group Arranmore. He also played leading roles in several plays including Twelve Angry Men, The Sensuous Senator, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Flowers for Algernon, and Neil Simon’s, I Ought To Be In Picturestook off and life happened.

Deep is the Well is the return of Kevin O’Donnell to the musical spotlight. The Celtic Music Fan convinced Kevin to do this interview because this is an important project in terms of spreading the Irish-American experience out there. Those who love history will appreciate the richness of artistry that the project has brought to the fore. It also a snapshot of past lives. History is precious and it is a source of inspiration, a deep well of passion in which we drink to face the future. The Celtic Music Fan presents our featured artist Kevin O’Donnell.

     Now that Deep is the Well has finally got its official release, what’s the personal impact of the experience recording and then releasing this album?

The concept of this album has been gestating for a long time. So, it’s like giving birth! I am relieved, excited and a little bit nervous. It’s my first solo album and marks my public re-entry into music after being away from it for 15 years.

You have worked with amazing talents in this album, especially with Maurice Lennon and the gang. How was the experience working with them?
I have this theory: surround yourself with the best musicians you can find – they can only make you sound better and elevate your compositions. There are so many talented performers on this album. I feel very fortunate that they thought enough of my songs and believed in the project so strongly as to want to be a part of it. Maurice was personally responsible for getting his friends Finbar Furey in from Ireland and Jessica Willis up from Nashville to participate. 
  • Maurice is an amazingly creative person to work with and we connected right away with a similar musical vision. That’s really important. He was, as producer, able to commit to the tracks how I hear, as the writer, my own songs in my head. That’s what a good producer does. He is a consummate professional and gentleman. He possesses a keen and rare sense of what works and what doesn’t before it’s even recorded. He pulled things out of me musically that I didn’t even know I was capable of and I’ve been at this for nearly 40 years. He has all these musical ideas floating around in his head at once that he doesn’t tell you about, you just wait to hear them fly off of his finger tips in the studio. We had a great time together over the 11 months it took to record this album. He’s a phenomenal talent and the best producer I have ever worked with – bar none. 
  • I’ve known and performed with Kathleen Keane over the years and always admired her trove of talent. I actually wrote the song “She” several years ago specifically with her in mind to sing. It’s the first and only time I wrote a song intended for someone else to perform. 
  • John Williams first recorded with me back in 1989 – I think he had just become old enough to get his driver’s license. A master of the “less is more” philosophy, he has an uncanny sense of knowing what to play and what not to play rather than thinking he gets paid by the note. He also takes direction well in the studio. When Maurice told him he wanted a “Flaco Jimenez feel” on the accordion track for the song “Girl From Durango,” John responded, “Got it. Just enough taco sauce to make the listener want to go out to a Mexican restaurant for dinner afterwards.”
 Deep is the Well calls to the fore the distilled experiences of Irish immigrants to the United States.
(One specific family, to be more precise) 
The songs are very intimate.
 Thank you. 
Was choosing every material to record a hard task for you?
Yes. There were three additional tracks planned but we did not record them. After careful consideration and much debate, Maurice and I agreed that the additional 3 songs would make the album too long and detract from the general melancholy theme of the album.
This album celebrates the deep connection between Ireland and the United States. What’s the significance of the title Deep is the Well for you?
I would like to turn the tables: what does it mean to you? In the context of the project, it has many meanings on many levels for me. When I began this endeavor in 2010 I just referred to it as t”he concept album”. Even in the studio, we had no  title for the project for the first 6 or 7 months . Then, one day Maurice and I were engaged in a discussion about, whatever, and he used the expression “the well from which we all come from is very deep, Kev.” As soon as he said it I said, “that’s it Maurice. We’re putting that into  the track “A Letter Home”, and that’s the title of the album right there – Deep is the Well.” 
What are your top 5 albums this month?
Frankly, I haven’t had time lately to listen to much music. 
These songs are sad. In The Ballad of Jackie Ryan Fagan, tells about a musician who passed away. Most of the songs seem like a lament. They are sad but the melodies are beautiful and hopeful. In a way this is very Irish to me. Was it your intention to make it this way?Deep is the Well
Absolutely, it is thematic of Irish folk songs. And it pleases me to know that you picked up on that. My natural musical inclination is deeply rooted in both Irish and Americana/Folk music. The album is a compilation of one Irish family’s experience in America over several generations. I wanted to I wanted to capture that aurally –  make sure that each song conveyed elements of Irish and American influence in their content, arrangements, and instruments; countering tin whistle with dobro, for example, concertina with cello, electric tremolo guitar with Spanish guitar, and so on.  It was also important to me that within the context of the album to have a cross-section of musical performers from both sides of the Atlantic, bringing with them their unique and wide variety of musical styles. For instance, in addition to including 4 all-Ireland performers (Maurice Lennon, Finbar Furey, John Williams, and Jessica Willis), I reached out to:
  • Larry Gray, (double bass) who was born in Chicago and is considered by many to be one of the work’s foremost Jazz bassists. He’s also an Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana;
  • John Rice is a true Chicago legend – master of just about any musical idiom or instrument with strings attached to it;
  • Another Chicagoan, Bill Lanphier, toured with Madonna, performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and now lives in L.A. playing and writing books on Bulgarian and Macedonian Folk music;
  • And Haley O’Donnell, my daughter, a classically trained pianist.
It’s been fifteen years before you got back to the studio. How was the rest of those years prior to Deep is the Well?
Not just in the studio. With few exceptions (getting called up to the stage to perform a song or two every once in a while) , it’s been 15 years since I performed in front of an audience. I spent 22 years trying to become an “overnight success” as a songwriter, and the last 15 trying to forget it. After leading my own band for 14 years and playing on my own and in various groups for eight years before that, I grew increasingly disenchanted with that prospect. The last year or two had become sheer drudgery. I was miserable and I could see no point continuing. So I just stopped playing music altogether.
It was a chance encounter with Maurice Lennon about 4 years ago that began to turn the tide. We became friends (although we were acquainted with each other prior to that from playing festivals around the US in the 80’s and 90’s).
Could this be the start of more albums from you?
Hard to say at this point. We’ll see.
I see this album as something that Chicagoans can be proud of.
That’s very kind of you to say.  
This really shows the kind of great things that can come out of your area. How’s the overall Irish-American music culture over there?
A couple of years ago, my wife and I were in Ireland on a book tour promoting Fado. We were in Donegal town for the evening and I asked a local gentleman where could we go to hear some good traditional Irish music. He thought about if for a few seconds and said “Chicago, great music there, so there is,” and he walked on.  Very lively music scene here with plenty of great talent. The Irish American Cultural Center on the Chicago’s north side and Gaelic Park in the south suburbs are flourishing with cultural, literary, music and sporting events. There are many smaller Irish festivals throughout the suburbs during the summer months and nearby Milwaukee hosts the largest Irish music/cultural event in the world. It has been running for more than 30 years. And of course, there is no shortage of Irish pubs/music/sesiuns.
Live shows are coming soon. Are you nervous?
What do you expect as Deep is the Well is going to take a life of its own? 
I learned from releasing my book, Fado: if you set your expectation very low, you won’t be disappointed. Then, the book took on a life of its own with little meddling on my part,  and it has become quite successful. I poured the money I made from that into the album, Deep Is The Well. I’m at a much different place in my life now than I was when I was younger and what drives me as an artist and a writer is different too. I’ve learned not to try too hard, and to expect nothing. Let it run its own course and be happy with that.  With Deep Is The Well I just wanted to tell a story and engage the listener with some history, hopefully in an interesting way, that they might listen to it and enjoy the journey and be encouraged to explore their own family’s place in the vast American fabric. That is why the CD comes with a 20 page booklet and an interactive website with the Fagan family tree, history, character backstories, photos, lyrics, guitar chords, blog, videos and other interactive content.
 Where can listeners buy your albums and your books? Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes
Deep is the Well sampler:
Only 2 CD release shows!  Hear the entire album live!
“Guest musicians from the album: Jim DeWan, Larry Gray, and John Williams, along with fiddler Ian King.
Sunday, May 5th, Peggy Kinnane’s Irish Restaurant & Pub
8 N. Vail, Arlington Heights, IL 847-577-7733
With special guest musicians: Jim DeWan, Larry Gray, John Williams, and more.
And opening act: Cú Roí
$10 door / $8 online ($20 w/album package /$18 online)
Saturday, May 11th, Chief O’Neill’s
3471 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, IL  773-583-3066
With special guest musicians: Jim DeWan, Larry Gray, John Williams, and more.
And opening act, comedian: Mike Houlihan
$10 door / $8 online ($20 w/album package /$18 online)
Since we are celebrating the Irish-American experience with our featured artist Kevin O’Donnell, why not take a listen to this track? It’s a song originally done by American artist Belinda Carlisle, now covered and performed (with a new arrangement) by Northern Irish singer/songwriter and coloratura soprano Eve Williams.
“I don’t record a lot of covers but I really love this song.” Eve Williams.
Lá Bealtaine sona daoibh! Happy Beltane to all!

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