Colm O’Brien zeroes in on economic crisis woes by doing what he loves – making music

It’s late in the afternoon of a mid-June day, and downtown Boston is positively basking in gorgeous, sun-dazzled weather – except for a metaphorical dark cloud over the Four Green Fields pub.

Only a little while ago, Spain completed its demolition of Ireland in the European Championship soccer tournament, and disappointed fans sporting Irish athletic jerseys are slowly trickling out of the Four Green Fields, whose TV sets were all tuned to the game. Needless to say, there’ll be no grand victory toasts tonight.
Into the midst of this somewhat somber setting strolls Dublin native Colm O’Brien, guitar case strapped on his back, ready for his weekly early-evening gig. O’Brien greets a member of the pub staff, and the two commiserate about the Irish team’s debacle for a few minutes.
“Ah well, in an hour we’ll have forgotten all about it,” says the staffer, “and Colm, you’ll be the man to help us.”
Win, lose or draw, good times or bad, sun or rain, O’Brien is always keen to do his job, which is to play guitar and sing songs, whether from Irish tradition or contemporary songwriters – especially including himself – in a voice often raspy and gritty, yet passionate and powerful. It doesn’t much matter how big, or how noisy, the audience may be, he’s out to show them a good time, even if they may not always be aware of it.
“When you’re playing in a pub, you have to remember the audience is there, primarily, to drink and talk. You go in with the understanding that you’re an accompaniment to their evening, and so you have to work a little harder to win them over than if you were in a concert hall. I’m absolutely fine with that. You just have to see how the evening’s going, and take it from there.
“In the end, I’m doing what I love, which is making music.”
Music wasn’t always his job, at least not a full-time one; in fact, once upon a time a little more than 15 years ago he was working at a computer company, until a revelation-and-departure scene worthy of a songwriter’s touch: “I’d been outside having a smoke, and when I came back in I saw the rows upon rows of desks – not even any cubicles – and it all just reminded me of battery chickens. I sat down, typed out a letter of resignation, handed it to my boss, and said, ‘I’m going to put my guitar on my back and see where it takes me.’”
Since then, O’Brien has performed far and wide, in pubs, coffeehouses and festivals, with bands – including a stint as a member of the Irish rock group The Prodigals – and, for most of the last several years, as a solo act. He has just released his second solo CD, “Back to Work?” O’Brien was assisted on the album by Mark Freedman, who, in addition to serving as producer and engineer, played lead guitar on one track and contributed backing vocals on five others; other contributions came from Martin Butler (bodhran, backing vocals), Sean Connor (fiddle, backing vocals), Leeanne Randall (vocals), and Eliot Jekowosky (flute).
“It had been so long since the last CD [‘It Is What It Is,’ released in 2005], I felt it was time for another,” says O’Brien, who also appeared on a 2008 recording as a member of the now-defunct band Rud Eile, whose members included Connor and Butler. “I’d had a lot of songs in me for a while, but there also was a motivating force in terms of what had been happening around us – the whole economic crisis and what that’s been doing to people, hence the name of the album.
“The biggest criteria for me was that it had to have a ‘live’ sound. I don’t really like recording, and I’m the kind of guy who, if I haven’t got it in three takes, I probably won’t get it. But I was very fortunate to have Mark, who knows his stuff inside-out and how to make you sound like you want to sound. He ‘got it,’ and all the accompanists on the album ‘got it’ as well, so I really tip my hat to all of them.”
“Back to Work?” is essentially a Colm O’Brien show from a studio rather than a stage: classic pub favorites, traditional songs, original/contemporary compositions. The songs are sometimes humorous (“Quare Bungle Rye”), often boisterous (“The Hot Asphalt,” “Paddy Lie Back”), while others relate to Irish history (“Deep In Canadian Woods,” “Dublin 1913,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) – but many, especially his own compositions, are concerned with social and economic justice on both a collective and individual scale.
O’Brien came from a family that had strong roots in the music tradition – his father a piper, his mother a singer – but found numerous influences across the spectrum, from “Motorhead to Mozart,” as he puts it. Still, his song “What Would You Do, Dear?” – the fourth track on “Back to Work?” – was inspired by a recording of legendary traditional singer Joe Heaney, and the connection to old songs like, for example, “Cunla,” is apparent. The verses all follow a similar repetitive structure even as they push the narrative along.
“It was all about simplicity – I think I wrote it in 15 minutes. The melody came into my head, and then the words followed,” says O’Brien. He envisioned the song as “a young working-class fella trying to attract a high-class girl, and telling her what lengths he would go to to be her lover” – a timeless story, simultaneously modern and ancient.
By contrast, “Illegal in America,” with its jaunty 6/8 rhythm and made-for-singalong chorus, has the sound and feel of something from the ballad-group era, but its focus is quite immediate and topical, explains O’Brien: the need for a fairer immigration policy toward the Irish. “If you hear the phrase ‘illegal immigrant,’ chances are that you won’t think of somebody from Ireland. A lot of Americans don’t understand that this is a big issue affecting the Irish community; the assumption is, ‘Oh, the Irish, surely they’re all legal.’ But it’s not that simple.”
Two other O’Brien songs are companion pieces to one another, he says: “The Ballad of Little John” is about the pain a family man suffers over losing his job because of the financial crisis, while “Big Banker Man” touches on the all-too-common after-effect of the downturn, foreclosure of a family home.
“These songs were a way of registering my anger at the whole economic mess,” says O’Brien. “’Little John’ is specifically about being made redundant, and the shock to the system that causes. Where that song ends, basically, is where ‘Big Banker Man’ comes in, and the awful situation in which the house you’ve worked so hard for now isn’t yours anymore, even though you’ve done all the right things. It’s just incredible the way so many families and hard-working people have been treated – unfortunately, the mindset we seem to have is ‘profits before people.’ “
The sedate but haunting “A Tale of Indifference” – with O’Brien and Leeanne Randall sharing vocals – has a universal, if somewhat complicated, message to it. O’Brien originally wrote the song 25 years ago with his friend Stephen McGrogan out of sympathy to the plight of women facing very limited choices in the wake of dire circumstances.
“You saw stories of young girls giving birth in fields because of the stigma attached to being single, pregnant, and poor. And then, of course, there was the ‘X Case’ [in 1992, concerning a 14-year-old Irish girl’s attempt to have an abortion after being raped and impregnated by a neighbor], which brought world-wide attention. The song really has to do with how we treat each other, and reaching out to those who are in need instead of sitting in judgment; this time, it’s a girl who’s in trouble, tomorrow it might be you or someone you know who’s in trouble. Sadly, things haven’t changed that much in 25 years, so the song is as valid now as then.”
But when it came to finally recording “A Tale of Indifference,” O’Brien felt something special was needed. “It’s easy for men to talk about issues facing women, but to validate the song I really needed to have a female voice, one that could capture the despairing and atmospheric tone of the song. When I described what I was looking for, Mark thought of Leeanne, and she absolutely fit the bill.”
O’Brien is glad to have “Deep In Canadian Woods” on the album, since it carries a personal/familial significance: The song, which describes the attempt in 1866 by Irish Fenians to seize Canada, was his grandfather’s favorite.
“During the recording, I read that a memorial to the events described in the song had been unveiled in Niagara,” he adds. “Canadians apparently look on that incident as a kind of precursor to their eventual independence, so there’s definitely a bit of serendipity at work there.”
While music has a big place in O’Brien’s heart, these days something else shares the space: his wife, Mary, and eight-year-old son, Cormac. As in most any career or occupation, balancing family and work demands a lot of attention, communication, and patience, and O’Brien is fulsome in his praise of Mary: “We understand what we both have to do, and she is rock-solid behind me. I wouldn’t be at the point where I am without the support she and Cormac give me.”
With Cormac getting older, O’Brien is feeling encouraged to consider touring a bit more, and a bit farther, than in the past several years, when he tailored his commitments so as to spend as much time as possible with the boy. It’s exciting to contemplate, but O’Brien knows he can’t dream too far ahead, certainly not with a pub audience in front of him waiting to be entertained.
When O’Brien tunes up his guitar, adjusts his microphone and prepares to start his set, Four Green Fields is sparsely populated and relatively quiet, awaiting the dinner hour crowd and the post-dinner arrivals after them. A cluster of customers in business suits on the other side of the room provides an ambient buzz of conversation, but O’Brien is unperturbed as he welcomes the handful of people looking on – “There’ll be no mention of soccer here tonight,” he quips – and then launches into “The Good Ship Kangaroo.” The evening is just under way, and he has plenty of songs to sing.