Nora O’Connor made a career out of performing in other people’s orbits, from Jakob Dylan, Neko Case and Andrew Bird to indie bands the New Pornographers and the Decemberists.
After long stints touring the U.S. and Europe, she would return home again to Evanston, where she’d reset into a more typical routine with her family.
The pandemic forced that familiar cycle to pause, leaving O’Connor to collaborate with a new artist: Herself. The result is a new album, My Heart (Pravda), her first solo album of original songs in nearly 20 years. Released Friday, the album is a set of reflective folk-pop songs that harken back to 1970s AM radio when Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, James Taylor and Stevie Nicks ruled the charts.
For O’Connor, 54, who lives in Evanston with her husband and two teenage sons, waiting so long to circle back to her own music had a lot to do with having her time occupied by touring in other groups and motherhood.
“But there was also a piece where I didn’t have a lot of faith in what I could do,” she said. Returning to writing presented an opportunity to say, “Let’s see what’s in there.”
O’Connor has been a fundamental presence on Chicago’s music scene for decades, but not in obvious ways. Her first two albums were released in 1996 and 2004, respectively, but audiences have grown to know her best as a harmony singer and guitarist-bassist in groups such as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire and the Blacks. She has recorded with stalwarts such as Robbie Fulks, the Aluminum Group, Archer Prewitt, Split Single and Mavis Staples.
Her talent for harmony makes her “a human overdub” when playing live, said Danny Black, who met her in 1997 and asked her to join his band the following year. With the Blacks, a rock band that infused elements borrowed from Hank Williams and Tom Waits, O’Connor served as “the shining light to the darkness” of the songs he was writing.
“She has the voice of an angel,” he said. “What bothered me with playing with other people is that people would overplay. But you don’t have to play all the time. You can sit back. And Nora was totally fine with that. She didn’t play all over the place, she was really tasteful. That’s why I love playing with her.”
O’Connor grew up in south suburban Oak Lawn with parents who had immigrated from Ireland to Chicago more than a decade before she and her three siblings were born. Her father sang Irish songs at home and she performed in musicals throughout high school.
With the Blacks she got her first taste of touring the country in a van. “It was a great way to cut my teeth and explore my edge,” she said. Years later, she joined the Flat Five, an artful harmony group of Chicago musicians that performs unheralded pop songs from over the decades as well as the songbook of Chicago songwriter Chris Ligon.
In between both bands, O’Connor started building a reputation as an auxiliary player for touring bands, with jobs that took her into the studio and on the road, all across the U.S. and Europe. Through a recommendation she ended up a touring member of the Decemberists for four years, which led to similar jobs. Through the years she discovered a calling as an ensemble member. “It’s a good fit for me. I’m a supportive person and I’m respectful of the process,” she said.
She’s also good. The work continues to pour in for O’Connor, said Steve Dawson, the Chicago singer-songwriter who plays on My Heart. “Her pitch is great, her tone is great, and she’s great to work with,” he said. “That’s a combination people want to work with.”
O’Connor considers the touring work her day job, which was not always easy when her children were younger. “I would come home and be super motivated right away and try to be super mom who does all this stuff, but I would crash,” she said. “I’m a little more mindful over the last few years of the transition between coming home and acclimating.”
My Heart is a product of the pandemic when tours were grounded. At the time O’Connor had started performing solo shows around the Chicago area and realized she wanted more original material. She started recording with familiar collaborators, including multi-instrumentalists Scott Ligon, Alex Hall and Casey McDonough of the Flat Five, dobro player Robbie Gjersoe, pedal steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse of Neko Case’s band, and singer-songwriter Steve Dawson.
Without needing to travel for a while, she leaned on trusting a process that she had neglected over the years. The songs flowed.
To Dawson, who helped record some of My Heart at Kernel Sound Emporium, his studio, “the melodies jumped out immediately” from the songs O’Connor showed up with to record. Due to her years of singing on the records of others, she appeared with the confidence to direct her own sessions. Every vocal on My Heart is her own. “She hears harmonies so easily and so beautifully,” said Dawson. The nature of the songs reflected “acquired wisdom,” he added. “She did some soul searching.”
The stylish new songs pivot easily from traditional country to blue-eyed soul to confessional folk to piano-driven pop. As a set, they are threaded with a worldly eye and consoling feel that comes with the confidence of getting older. “I’ve been going through cosmic changes over the past two years” since the pandemic, O’Connor said. “Really finding myself and getting comfortable with who I am.”
That wisdom, and all the uneasy truths it may carry, centers these songs that they sound familiar even upon first listen.
O’Connor will debut the new album when she headlines SPACE later this month. While her future schedule includes performing in large theaters and even a cruise ship in February with Neko Case, she plans to present her own music in a setting that feels more personally comfortable: Living room house concerts, art galleries, and small listening rooms close to home in Chicago. For her, she’s never had to move for work because it’s been plentiful just by staying put.
“It’s a good home base for me,” she said. “I like living by the lake.”
Mark Guarino is a journalist based in Chicago.