(Special thanks to Bob Doerschuk)
Here’s what we learn from Holly O’Reilly’s unforgettable new release, Gifts & Burdens.
• There is magic in music – magic enough to sometimes see the future unfold in song.
• You can make your debut, starting fresh, more than once.
• Life can be generous, even in its cruelty.
Begin with the music. The melodies and words are magical enough. They speak with a folk-inflected eloquence darkened only slightly by modern ironies. “Your sickness is my weakness, ‘til you’re ready to say goodbye,” she proclaims on “Lay Them Down,” while on “One More Time” she ties passages of day and night, rain and sun, into seasons of the heart, always with a lilt that lifts each tune toward the light of gentle surprise.
It’s music like that that inspired critics to call O’Reilly “one of the best new songwriters around,” (Tret Fure) “a force to be reckoned with,” (Rockrgrl Magazine) “incredibly exciting,” (The Recording Academy) “criminally ignored and unjustly under-appreciated …” (Apple ITunes)
If all this sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve heard these same raves applied to Holly Figueroa. In fact, O’Reilly’s voice – alternately smoky, fragile, teasing, and earthy – recalls that of Figueroa, to an uncanny degree.
There’s good reason for this: Figueroa and O’Reilly are the same person – yet also different in more than just their names.
In this respect, Gifts & Burdens is both a farewell and an introduction. Much has changed in O’Reilly’s life over the past few years. And strange as it seems, she was forecasting these changes in these songs, without even knowing it at the time.
Flash back to 1996. Holly Figueroa has left her youth in Ohio behind and put a life together in Washington State that combined the pleasures of family with her love for playing music. Traveling often with her daughter and younger son, she grew a following one venue at a time. From the Bitter End in New York to the Sweetwater Saloon in San Francisco, she shared stages with Dan Fogelberg, Barbara Kessler, Rose Polenzani, and Caroline Aiken, or headed the bill herself. Word spread faster when NPR's "All Things Considered" discovered her and twice gave her national exposure. Her albums – Three Chord Plea, Dream in Red, How It Is, Live in New York City – inspired comparisons to artists whose only similarities are excellence and individuality: Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris …
This was her position last year as she entered the studio in Tacoma with a group of friends, including producer Evan Brubaker, and began cutting the tracks that would become Gifts & Burdens. She brought the best of her recent material with her and nestled it into intimate acoustic settings. The results were beautiful, sometimes almost painfully so -- yet even though she was performing her own songs, she had no idea that they were speaking to her about changes yet to come.
“All my songs on Gifts & Burdens were written between 2003 and ’06,” she says. “Looking back on it, I can only say, ‘Wow, how could I not know I was in trouble?’ I had no idea that in writing these songs, I was writing about my own life.”
That revelation hit in September 2006, one month after finishing the final tracks, as her husband announced his unhappiness and asked for a divorce.
“I listen now to ‘One More Time’ and it’s like … duh,” she says, laughing. “I know that duh isn’t the most literary way to put it, but it says a lot. Or I listen to ‘What You Wanted,’ which I thought I was writing about some friends of mine who were separating. Eventually I realized that I was writing about how I thought my husband felt about me and how I felt about him a lot of the time.”
With this perspective, these songs began to feel more like messages, though at first O’Reilly was in no mood to listen. The project gathered dust as she reassembled the pieces of her life. Each day felt like a step forward, from trimming down to the point that this summer she will run her first triathlon. At the same time she pulled back from music, focusing her energy where it was most needed. A feeling arose that her days as a musician were past.
“I couldn’t even look at my guitar,” she says. “I just wanted to concentrate on my kids and my health. I had toured so much, especially with my daughter since she was little, and I wanted to make that up to them. But then Evan kept after me. He said, ‘You know, you need to get this record out.’ And preorders kept coming in, around 600 after a while, some of them for as much as $300. So I had to do this. It was really difficult, but we took care of the mastering, figured out the artwork … and we did finish it.”
She finished something else too, as she traded her married name for one that honors her lineage back to her Irish forebears. And with her family’s encouragement, she has transformed the difficulties of 2006 into a process of rebirth and reclaimed the place she had once nearly left behind.
“I realized that when I stop performing, it’s like I’ve stopped breathing,” she explains. “It’s like, I have to eat. I have to breathe. I have to perform. But if I had to choose between performing and writing songs, I would definitely pick writing. Of course, I’m fortunate in that this is a choice I don’t have to make.”
The Seattle Weekly says of “Gifts and Burdens”, “the tunes often have a wistful, lonely, late-night quality about them but, at the same time, are not really a downer,” O’Reilly is singled out as “sounding both compellingly contemporary and ancient simultaneously” by the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange. Gifts & Burdens has already inspired a flurry of praise, though none closer to the mark than Seattle Sound’s review: “a gentle, moving example of well played Americana.”
For everyone who has weathered a storm and found the promise of peace in the light that follows, Gifts & Burdens bears special meaning. This music is about us as much as it is about the extraordinary Holly O’Reilly – and that, too, is magic.