A chat with Irish-rocker Helen O’Shea, mainly about two things to which she has given birth: her music and her two children.
It’s Mother’s Day, and Princeton-based Irish rocker Helen O’Shea is enjoying her two children, Lauren and Luke, and her husband, Paul, while taking a wee break from making music with her two bands: the original “AmeriCeltiCana” act, The Shanakees, and the traditional Irish outfit, The Shenanigans.
Before balancing the life of motherhood and music, O’Shea also juggled a career in medicine as an obstetrician and then as a professor at Montreal’s prestigious McGill University. At the request of her two children, she gave up her medical and teaching careers to focus on them. But then Paul, a fellow native of Ireland, suggested that she dabble in the music of their ancestral homeland that they both cherished.
Now the family supports a dream that has blossomed with several recordings, including the 2017 LP, Turning the Tides …, produced by Long Branch-based Shorefire Recording Studios’ two-time Grammy winner Marc Swersky (Joe Cocker, Hilary Duff, Roger Daltrey, Natalie Cole).
In the midst of enjoying Mother’s Day, the dedicated O’Shea carved out time for this email chat about medicine, motherhood, music and more, including two special shows coming up: June 3 at The Saint in Asbury Park, and June 24 at the Community Park Amphitheatre in Princeton. Throughout, she proves that “it’s never too late to dream.”
Q: When did you come to America from Ireland?
A: We left Ireland for America in 1994, my husband. and 1995, myself.
Q: When you left Ireland, was it doing as well economically as it is now? If so, what made you want to leave for America?
A: When we left Ireland, it was before the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger, but we left for America because the company my husband worked for in Ireland offered him the opportunity to lead a project in Montreal, which required him to spend 18 months in New Jersey first to set the project up before moving there.
Q: Where did you settle in America when you came here?
A: When we first arrived in America in 1994/1995, we settled in New Brunswick. This was a temporary move with my husband’s company on our way to their base in Montreal 28 months later.
Q: How, when and why did you end up in Princeton?
A: My husband was transferring from his Montreal base to the New Jersey location of his company in summer of 2011. When we lived in New Brunswick before moving to Montreal, we had visited Princeton a few times, and we loved that it felt like a village back home with the town square in the center, as well as the beauty of the buildings in Princeton University. We also studied the school systems in New Jersey for the kids, and we were impressed with the setup and reviews of the Princeton school system, and we certainly have not been disappointed.
Q: How did you go from being an obstetrician to a Princeton housewife to a singer-songwriter with strong ties to the Asbury Park music scene?
A: Yes, that is the trajectory of my life so far: from medicine to motherhood to music!
In 2011, I was an assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology working on the faculty at McGill University when we moved our family from Montreal to New Jersey with my husband’s company. The move was very difficult for our kids, and they asked that I take a break from work so that I could be there for them every day when they came home from school. My husband was concerned about how I would make the transition from working full time to being home full time, and he suggested that I revisit my love of singing, so with the moving boxes still packed, I enrolled in an evening class called “Singing Is Fun” at Princeton High School. This led to my first performance in Princeton, which was at John Irving’s Cafe Improv in February 2012, followed by another a cappella performance at the Einstein Alley Musicians Collaborative at Arts Council of Princeton in June 2012.
Shortly after that, I started singing with other musicians in a number of music projects that I created with collaborators from EAMC. When I was ready to release my first EP, Mama Told You …, I put together musicians from my previous bands with bluegrass and rock musicians from two other bands to create The Shanakee Project and a smaller version of this ensemble with new musicians went on to become the current lineup of The Shanakees performing the new CD Turning Tides ....
The first time my friend Bonnie Itkoff took me to Asbury Park in July 2012 to see Southside Johnny at The Stone Pony Summer Stage, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I have always been someone who needs to be close to the sea, but the combination of the music and the seaside was intoxicating and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was home. To this day, walking onto the boardwalk in Asbury Park gives me chills. It is where I feel like I belong, and that is why the cover of Turning Tides … features the beautiful Asbury Park boardwalk. One day that will be my home!
Q: Now that you front two bands, does your family still support your musical endeavors?
A: There is no bigger or better supporter of my musical endeavors than my husband, Paul. I think initially he could see that having worked full time all my life, I was a bit lost and heading into an identity crisis when the kids asked me to stay home, so he thought that getting back to singing in the evening — while he was home with the kids — might cheer me up. I don’t think either of us ever thought that it would get to this point, but he has been my cheerleader and hand holder every step of the way. Sometimes I think he believes in me more than I do, and I certainly would not be able to put all of this time into music without his ongoing generous support!
I remember for the first show I produced, my son, Luke, worked with me for hours in the basement to help me overcome my nerves. He was learning public speaking at school at the time. Now that he is older, he comes to any of our shows that do not interfere with his hockey schedule, and he gives me really great, honest, constructive feedback on every aspect of the show.
My daughter, Lauren, is my rock. Whether I am running to rehearsal or a show, she knows how to pack the gig bag: the water, the tea. She takes video, sells CDs and even comes with me to the studio — all for what she describes as fair compensation, such as movies and trips to the mall!
Of course, I am also blessed to have support for my journey in music from my beautiful mother, Josephine, back in Ireland, as well as my godfather, Steve, and his lovely wife, Catherine, one of my biggest cheerleaders, who sadly passed away earlier this year. My newest song was written in her honor, “Someone Is Waiting.” And my first EP, Mama Told You, included the song for my mom, “Every Mother’s Prayer,” and was dedicated to my constant supporter in everything.”
Q: What is the difference between your bands Shenanigans and The Shanakees?
A: Shenanigans was formed in response to a request I received from Princeton Public Library to create a St. Patrick’s Day show that would replicate a traditional Irish kitchen party or sing song. I put together the best vocalists and musicians I could find who liked and performed Irish songs. The current lineup includes Fil Wisneski (musical director), Fiona Tyndall, Katie Wessinger-Bozic, Helen O’Shea, Marvin Perkins, Paul Bejgrowicz, Peter Guarnaccia, Mark O’Donnell, Bob Cole with special guests Barbara Esposito Paskin and Kara Lia Miller. We started with 10 performers, and I created a two-hour, 24-song show where each performer took the lead on two traditional Irish songs — mostly old, some new — with the remaining four songs as ensembles opening and closing the show. We have now performed this two-hour show in different formats — with and without Irish dancers — more than five times in different venues with different collections of songs, and it has taken on a life of its own!
The band I put together to create a live show around my original songs is called The Shanakees —derived from the Gaelic word for “storyteller,” which is “seanachai,” actually a career in old Ireland. The seanachai would go from house to house telling stories for pay.
Our current lineup is Marvin Perkins (dobro/bass), John Mazzeo (guitar/bass/mandolin), David Ross (drums/percussion), and Jay Posipanko (piano/keyboards). We perform story songs, originals by me and also Marvin, as well as duet and ensemble covers in the style of AmeriCeltiCana.
Q: What is AmeriCeltiCana?
A: It is a word I created to describe the songs I was writing. They were very Celtic and hymn-like at the core, but in live performance, I was veering towards the intersection of folk, country and rock — where I believe Americana actually sits — so I wanted to convey this combination of Celtic and Americana both in the recording studio and in our live performance. AmeriCeltiCana is perfect for what we do, but iTunes still calls it alternative folk.
Q: How did you meet Marc Swersky, and how did he impact you?
A: It was Labor Day Weekend in 2014, and I stumbled across a Groupon in my inbox for a session at a recording studio in NYC, and since I had just started writing songs, I thought, “Why not?” Well, it turned out that the studio in question was not for me, but I got to thinking what are my two favorite things? Music and the seaside, so I wondered if anywhere in the world there was a recording studio by the sea. I Googled “recording studio beach” and up popped Shorefire Recording Studios in Long Branch! On their website, there was an article about an amazing producer who had just brought a gospel choir into the studio to sing with Gideon Luke. He was two-time Grammy winner Marc Swersky. I found an article about how Marc developed a young local singer where he spoke about his love for mentoring talent in the music business, and I thought that is what I really need: a music mentor! So I found his website and sent him an email asking if we could set up a mentoring session. This was followed by an hour-long chat on the phone, and Marc agreed to meet with me for a one-hour mentoring session later that month.
In September 2014, I walked into that meeting as a shaky, conflicted dreamer who thought the dream might have run its course. An hour later, after a pretty spectacular session of chatting, mentoring and songwriting, I walked out a different person with a clarity and unwavering resolve that I was going to take this music thing as far as I possibly could. The song we started to write together that day eventually became the first original I recorded: “Moments,” featuring the line “You bring calm to my turning of tides,” the basis for the title of Turning Tides ….
The best way to explain Marc Swersky’s impact on my music and music career is to say that my musical life is clearly delineated into two parts: there is “‘before Marc” and “after Marc.” His most impressive quality is his integrity. He makes me want to give 110 percent in the writing room and the recording studio, not because he demands it but because he inspires it. He is a kind, creative, generous, no-nonsense collaborator, and we work extremely well together. He is just a genius in the studio, and the combination of Marc’s magic with the wizardry of sound engineer Joe DeMaio at Shorefire has to be seen and experienced to be believed!
Q: What do you love most about your album, Turning Tides …?
A: What it represents for people who have had to defer their dreams for one reason or another. It is tangible proof that it is never too late to dream or to take your dreams into reality. Your tides may turn because of life circumstances, as in my case, but that may be your opportunity to ride the unexpected wave.
Also, I like that Turning Tides … is made up of songs that reflect a stage in life and relationships that is not reflected in current pop songs for tweens or even in the nostalgic songs we listened to as teenagers ourselves. We need more songs that reflect our real lives at all stages to help us through the hard times and to celebrate our good times in every aspect of life!
And I love the fact that Marc Swersky — a two-time Grammy winner — was able to weave such a beautiful tapestry of music around my simple songs, yet still leave them very much intact and true to who I am at the core. I truly believe that my father somehow engineered my meeting with Marc, and I cannot wait for our next collaboration to be released!
Q: Which song on the album resonates with you most and why?
A: “Aftermath.” In July 2008, while living in Montreal, I got the call I had always dreaded, to tell me that my beloved father had been killed instantly in a car crash back in Ireland. My world fell apart that morning, and I barely made it through the daze of the following days: the airport, travelling alone to Ireland for the funeral, him not being at the airport to pick me up, going straight from the airport to the funeral home with my brothers to see him, coming face to face with a bronze plaque on the wall that bore my father’s name … and so on. But of all the horrors of that week, the phrase that stuck in my head many years later was “writing on the wall …”
In summer 2016, I walked into Marc Swersky’s writing room with scraps of notes and melodies for five songs that would become the second half of the CD, joining the previous songs from my EP. Marc says, “Tell me which one you least want to write,” so I said, “The one for my father.” So he said, “Okay, let’s start with that one then.” So I sang him the melody, which became the lyric-less chant contributed by Leo and Max from The Chordaes, and Marc created the whole vibe of the phone call: the horror, the hope, the desperation, the never-ending relationship. I went home and wrote the lyrics, and we went into the studio on my birthday — June 29, 2016 — and recorded that song for my father.
I need to write another one for him on the next album. That one will be more upbeat and lighter, about his life and maybe his lovely smile.
Q: What is the status of the follow-up record?
A: I need to decide if I want to follow the same model as we did for Turning Tides … or if I want to release the songs as singles first — since music is being listened to more as singles now — and then gather the next 10 singles together as an album at the end of the process. One thing I know for sure is that the next project will once again be created in collaboration with my mentor, co-writer-producer Marc Swersky and his dream team, and will be recorded with Joseph DeMaio at Shorefire just as soon as I have the songs and funds ready. The sooner the better for me!
I have a working title for the next project, Diving Deep …, since it will be addressing some hard issues and experiences, but also, much to the relief of my wonderful bandmates in The Shanakees, there will be some catchy upbeat songs in there, too. Right now, I have six solid drafts and one completed song. Much more to come …
Q: What is special about the show you’re doing on June 3 at The Saint?
A: The Saint is such an iconic venue in the New Jersey music scene. Since I am coming so late into music and from a different country, it was a real leap of faith for The Saint to book us on the strength of the Turning Tides … CD for our first CD launch show in one of my favorite places in the world: Asbury Park! And then to go further and offer us a full afternoon so we could invite our good friend, the super-talented Dave Vargo, to play with us. Dave, in turn, introduced us to Dan Rauchwerk (Lords of Liechtenstein), who completes the lineup for “An Afternoon of Americana — Jersey Style.” Of course, it takes a village — my girlfriends organizing a bus from Princeton for the show makes it even more special. And we mustn’t forget the signature cocktail, “The Shanakee,” that is being created especially for this event!
Q: What is special about the show you have coming up on June 24 in Princeton?
A: The June 24 show is sponsored by Princeton Public Library and hosted by Princeton Recreation Department. It is our first CD launch show in our hometown of Princeton for Turning Tides …. We have prepared a two-hour show of original songs, as well as some duet and ensemble covers from the Americana and Celtic genres. The show is taking place by the water in the outdoor amphitheater at Community Park, and we expect to play to local families and friends as we lay out our full-show set for the first time in our beautiful hometown.
Q: What else do you have going on that you want people to know about?
A: Helen O’Shea acoustic: June 8, Summer Festival at Hopewell United Methodist Church with Friends; June 10, special guest of Rick Winowski at Dragonfly, Somerville. with Jay Posipanko Piano.
Helen O’Shea & The Shanakees: July 15, Black Potatoe Music Festival River Stage, Red Mill Museum Village, Clinton; Helen O’Shea Presents ‘The Shanakee Sessions: Local Songwriters in the Round with the band, Aug. 12, at Community Park Amphitheatre, Princeton; “An Evening of AmeriCeltiCana,” Aug. 19, 1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, a CD launch show for Turning Tides …, and an “An Evening of AmeriCeltiCana” CD launch show in October at the Bitter End in New York City. The date is TBA. Also, Music for Moore Fundraiser, Nov. 17, Princeton Elks Lodge. We’ll also do another “Shanakee Sessons” in December at 1867 Sanctuary.
The Shenanigans will play a Celtic Christmas show in December at 1867 Sanctuary, and we’ll be there in March for “Ceol agus Cairde,” which we’ll also play in March at Princeton Public Library.
And I’ll be doing Ensemble Shows: “Tribute to the Million Dollar Quartet,” June 2, Hopewell United Methodist Church, and “Songs of Protest — Songs of Peace,” July 7, Cherry Hill Library.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask and which you would like to comment?
A: After my father was tragically killed in a car crash in 2008, and I started to revisit the idea of singing again — slowly at first — I knew that, given my background in medicine, I wanted my involvement in music to somehow heal. I had relied heavily for healing in the aftermath of losing my father on the music of Mark Knopfler (“If This Is Goodbye”) and Sarah McLachlan (“Angel”). The first performance that I did at McGill University in 2011 was part of a show created to fund the Blood Donor Service. This was followed in Princeton by a show to benefit Good Grief, where I experienced the gift of volunteering for a year following the sudden death of one of my dearest mom friends. In honor of my father, I created my music company, White Butterfly Music, and this year will be our third year hosting our backyard White Butterfly Music Festival in collaboration with my voice coach Rich Bozic and his students. We gather friends and have our favorite bands play, while we barbecue and raise money through tips for a chosen cause. Year one was Mothers Matter, year two was Light of Day, this year will raise funds for another charitable organization.
One of the most important stepping stones in my fortuitous journey from medicine into music was a meet-up group in Princeton called Einstein Alley Musicians Collaborative, which had been created by Steven Georges to bring local musicians together to collaborate. I wandered into the Arts Council in Princeton in June 2012 and joined the EAMC after performing that night. I am now one of the five leaders of the EAMC community of more than 500 members. I run a monthly Coffee House Open Mic with featured artists and support our other events. Since EAMC gave me my start in performing, I am committed to giving back and encouraging new artists to perform in our safe and fun environment where many collaborations and friendships in music are formed.
Also, it is a pleasure for me to produce shows on behalf of organizations, such as Princeton Public Library, McCarter Theatre, Arts Council of Princeton, Good Grief, Princeton Elks Lodge, and in collaboration with Rich Bozic of Bozic Voice Studio and Shenanigans.
After Marc Swersky sent me to work with vocal coach Rich Bozic, I had the honor of performing shows with the Bozic Voice Studio. At that time all of the other students were under 18, and then there was me! So I got to thinking how cool it would be to create a show that merged the talents of the kids I was singing with at Bozic Voice Studio with the talents of the more seasoned musicians I was performing with at EAMC. So I pitched the idea to Rich and then to the folks at Princeton Elks Lodge who are involved in an amazing children’s charity that sends children with special needs to summer camp at the Elks Camp Moore and in 2015, Music for Moore was created, now entering its fourth year. Each year, we have raised $4,500 or more, which sends a minimum of nine local kids with special needs to camp in summer with one on one care. This year’s event is Nov. 18 at Princeton Elks Lodge. Maybe we’ll see you there!
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.