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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Marty O'Reilly on Northwestern Snowstorms, European Graveyards, and Capturing the Feeling of a Live Show

Posted By on Tue, Nov 25, 2014 at 8:40 AM

click to enlarge Marty O'Reilly plays tonight, Nov. 25 at Amnesia. - SHAWHEEN KEYANI
  • Shawheen Keyani
  • Marty O'Reilly plays tonight, Nov. 25 at Amnesia.
Maybe you caught them recently at Outside Lands, or one of the hundred-odd shows that Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra have played this year, stretching across the States to as far as Europe. Since late 2012, the unusual indie blues-folk orchestra — aka three musicians — has included O’Reilly on vocals and guitar, Chris Lynch on fiddle, and Jeff Kissell on upright bass. All three quit their day jobs earlier this year and are facing that challenge every musician faces at some point in the industry: committing 100 percent of their time writing music and playing shows. And it’s been working.

The music is sweet and satisfying, led by the enchanting, sultry voice of 25-year-old Sonoma native and Santa Cruz resident O’Reilly, who makes it obvious from the get-go that the band demands something more than the traditional American folk label. There is a natural ebb and flow to each emotionally charged performance that has proven difficult for the band to adapt into recordings. O’Reilly happily chatted with us on the phone — despite his nasty flu — as they were driving from Portland to Seattle during their 10-day West Coast tour, relaying stories about dodging snowstorms and groups of fans doing whatever they can, including skiing to shows, to catch the band before moving on to another town. Catch Marty O’Reilly and The Old Soul Orchestra as they finish up their tour in San Francisco tonight, Nov. 25, sharing a bill with Whiskerman at Amnesia.

How did you all meet?
I lived in Santa Cruz while I was attending the university there and I met Chris [Lynch], my fiddle player. I was working for him in the Environmental Studies Department, where I worked as an environmental interpreter at Natural Bridges State Beach, teaching kids about tide pools and doing restoration work. He and I knew off the bat that we were both music lovers, so we started playing at a few coffee shops around town together, just a casual thing. Then I got asked to do a show at Kuumbwa Jazz club in Santa Cruz. They wanted me to do a show as a trio so I thought I could do it with Chris and the logical third instrument would be upright bass, so I asked if he knew any upright bass players and he knew of Jeff [Kissell] from previous bands in the area. After we played that show, we realized there was some real musical chemistry happening between us. So we kept playing shows and a year later we had all quit our jobs and were playing music full-time.

And you're still doing that?
Yeah, we’ve all quit our jobs. We went on tour in Europe for six weeks this past summer and we all phased out of our day jobs completely by then, so we’ve been full-time musicians since May.

Were you guys nervous to take that plunge and commit to the band full-time without any other source of income?
Totally, and it meant different things to each one of us. Jeff has a wife and a house...and we sort of needed a gradual process, not phasing out of it until we were ready and knew we could pull it off. To make sure we were playing enough shows and had the momentum to get by with just our music. The turning point was this opportunity to go to Europe. We have a band that we tour with a lot called Rainbow Girls and they tour in Europe every summer. They invited us to come with them. It was at that point we said, well, we either have to quit our jobs or not do it, 'cause we can’t really take six weeks off and expect to have our jobs when we get back. We decided to just go for it, and it’s been working out.

What’s your best European tour story?
Oh, there’s so many stories. We called it the “We’ll sleep when we’re dead” tour. It was wild. We had a booking agent out there and he booked us on 28 shows in 35 days. Every day was an adventure. Late one night after a show we didn’t have a place to crash so we decided to drive through the night to the next city we were going to. We left at 2 a.m. for a four-hour drive. We almost ran out of gas at 5 a.m. and we accidentally put regular gasoline in a diesel engine in this nine-seater van with both bands packed into it. We broke down in the middle of the highway and we had to get out and push this giant van. We had all the musicians kind of passed out in the grass at the gas station and we were getting all these funny looks from all the Englishmen. We managed to get the gas pumped out and fixed...then we got to the next city at 7 a.m. and fell asleep in a graveyard there because we had nowhere else to sleep. And we managed to play one of the best and wildest and most packed shows of the tour that night.

How did you learn to sing this bluesy-folk music?
I grew up with my father playing a lot of diff kinds of music — jazz, classical — so I’ve always loved this type of music. Once I started playing guitar, my first teacher taught me blues, and it’s so accessible in a lot of ways. It’s really about playing it with your heart which makes it work or not work so I fell in love with that. Simultaneously, I discovered this recording that I accidentally downloaded by “Blind” Willie Johnson, who was an old gospel blues guitar player. I was trying to download something else and I ended up with that. It’s an amazing gospel song and I had never heard anything like it before. I fell in love with the music and started listening to all kinds of gospel music and blues. So after discovering it from a listening perspective and a playing perspective, I branched out to other types of music from there. But I always felt like that blues stuff was at the core for me.

You’ve said that your record Pray for Rain isn’t the ideal album for exposure because it’s too strange and the tracks are too long for most radio play — but it’s the album you needed to start with. What exactly do you want people to feel when they hear your record or hear you play live?
We feel like we’re a very live-oriented band, there’s a lot of improvisation that happens and a lot of live energy. We’re moving around a lot and it’s a very animated show for the type of music that we’re playing. What we wanted for the record was to capture that same live energy, so we recorded it live almost entirely in the studio. I don’t know if it really captured the energy of when we play live, but it was really successful in what we were trying to do. I think we want them to feel what we’re feeling. And we’re feeling quite a bit when we’re playing.

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Haley Brucato

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