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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.

What is the best thing a fan has told you after a show?
There was one lady that came up to me before a show actually. She had seen me play at a cafe years before and she had met her girlfriend there during my set. And this girl wanted to propose to her girlfriend that night. They got engaged at our show and danced to one of our songs right after.

But I think the main thing isn’t a specific thing someone had said to me after a show...moreso the excitement that this is the first project I’ve been a part of that gets this kind of feedback. A lot of people after shows have something really important that they need to tell us...that this song or that song meant something to them, and how touched they were during the performance. These are things that I’m getting to hear for the first time — that the music I’m writing or playing is really translating to people and it means something to them.

Because you’re self-released, you don’t have any label or anybody helping you.
No, that’s the thing. We don’t have anybody. We don’t have a label, we’re just on the cusp of getting an agent and a manager. We’ve been completely on our own and we’ve had to do all the footwork ourselves — all the management and all the booking. But it has made us much better at handling our own work.

What direction were you going with Pray for Rain — any particular underlying theme?
We had this thing going with the shows we were performing and I think our main objective, even if it wasn’t said out loud, was to get what we were doing recorded so that we could have this as the physical embodiment of what we were performing. We could have made the record so that it was more appealing to radio, that the tracks were shorter, but we wanted to create something that really captured the music when we perform live. This was our first stab at it.
How do you come up with lyrics? Are you inspired by anything in particular?
I think I write for a couple of different reasons. At certain times songwriting is sort of an exploration process for me. I have something I want to write a song about even though I don’t know anything about it. I want to learn about it so I’ll spend a day researching a subject about it and take everything I’ve learned, summarize it and turn it into a song. For example, the first song off of our album, "Dempsey." I wanted to write this epic boxing piece because I had been watching a lot of old Irish movies. Songs are sometimes more story-oriented and sometimes more emotionally-oriented.

What’s your dream venue to play?
Honestly, I’ve played my dream show many times. Not to say there aren’t shows that I dream about playing. But my favorite shows to play are in small venues without a stage and just a bunch of people packed in. There’s this place in Santa Cruz called The Crepe Place that I absolutely love to play in. It’s this tiny little bar that fits 100 people. When we play shows there it sells out. It’s stuffed full of people, it’s hot and muggy and the windows fog up. Everyone is super sweaty and it’s always the most high energy shows we play. The big shows and stages separate us from the audience I feel like but maybe because in my experience I’m used to playing smaller shows and it’s something I’ll overcome by playing bigger theaters more often.

We really want to get on the festival circuit in the area and in California. [I feel like] we really win people over in front of big crowds — we have a wonderful time and they have a wonderful time.

Any highlights from this Northwest tour so far?
We really love doing this circuit  — we come up every six months. And we have a really special connection with Bend, OR. When we went up to Bend this time, they just had a huge snowstorm and everything was snowed in so we didn’t get the crowd that we hoped for. But people that really wanted to see us still made it out. People were skiing to get there — seriously — it was ten degrees and everything was snowed in.

And in Astoria, OR at Fort George Brewery, it was our first time playing in that town. This place already had a built-in crowd because they expect whoever booking it to put on a good show, so there were 70 people there, which is a lot for the first time in a new town. They were all music lovers and it was the best set of our tour so far. But last night I was so sick and congested, I was worried about how the show was going to go but it went well. Now we’re off to Seattl,e so I’m going to try and power nap to get myself healthy again (laughs).

Marty O'Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra play Amnesia at 9 p.m. tonight, Nov. 25. $7;

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