Tara O’Grady has built a reputation as a sassy chanteuse who has played fast and loose with Irish melodies, re-arranging the songs we know and love into jazz and bluesy torch songs. On Irish Bayou, her fourth CD, she leaves the Big Apple jazz clubs behind and descends into the Deep South for inspiration.
“It’s a New Orleans album..I wouldn’t say it’s 100% jazz because it’s not,” O’Grady affirms. “When you’re in New Orleans, there are all these cultures coming in: Irish, French, African. It becomes this gumbo of zydeco, jazz, blues, and rock. I tried to put all of those elements in.”
On Irish Bayou, she succeeds mightily. The gorgeous “As The Rain Fell on Bourbon Street,” co-written by her brother Tom O’Grady, is set atop a parlor piano riff and a watery Hawaiian guitar riff that takes the listener around the world and back. She breaks into the Neville Brothers’ funky cookbook to create the saucy gumbo that is “Carry Me Home,” while “Take Me Home” has a bluesy ache that leaves a chill down the listener’s spine.
“I was advised to go down there last March because New Orleans would embrace what I’d done,” O’Grady explains. “I found they had an Irish Network down there and Adrian D’Arcy, who is Dublin born and runs the network down there, offered to host me. When I had come down, they lined up radio interviews, gigs, a spot on the float in their St. Patrick’s Day parade. On the parade route, they throw potatoes and cabbage instead of beads and then they go home and make traditional Irish stew. I learned so much about the Irish culture there.”
That Celtic connection inspired O’Grady to write songs immediately; she didn’t even wait until her plane touched down in New York. She wrote ‘Heaping Helping,‘ a banquet of subtle sexual double entendres paired with a flirty trumpet line, on the flight home. “Don’t you worry about the sugar, baby, I don’t mind the mess,” she coos, inviting a lover to snack on beignets (the powdered pastry that is native on the Bayou).
The songs on Irish Bayou aren’t always playful. O’Grady drew on the Irish history she absorbed down there to draw a harrowing picture on the bluesy “Dem Bones.” Got them Paddies digging daily/might as well be digging their own grave,” she sings as a slide guitar wails in anguish behind her.
“The Director of the Irish Cultural Center down there is a guy by the name of Matthew Ahern and he told me this story I never heard about how the Irish immigrants died building canals down there,” she explains. Between 8000 and 30000 Irish died making the New Basin Canal. They died right where they were digging and the other Irish working would bury them right there and then without any ceremony. I don’t think many people know about that, which is why I wrote the song.”
Louie Armstrong recorded “Irish Black Bottom,” a song that O’Grady makes her own on “Irish Bayou.” She also borrowed another artistic idea from Armstrong. “He had 700 reel to reel tapes and he would decorate the boxes with pictures of himself,” she explains. “We designed the album cover based on the boxed tape design we saw; you can even see his handwriting on the cover!”
O’Grady had a blast immersing herself in the Big Easy vibe, which she claims closely resembles the one she experienced in Ireland. “People are more relaxed down there--you feel welcome, everyone says hello, they can’t do enough for you when they visit,” O’Grady says.”If that doesn’t sound like Ireland, I don’t know what does.”
Tara O’Grady unearths “My Irish Molly O,” an old parlor song that she identified with once she understood the song’s history. “I was looking for Irish songs that were recognizable and I knew people enjoyed when I put a swing to the Irish songs, so I recorded that,” she says. I discovered in my research that it’s not actually an Irish song--it’s a show tune written here in the States by an Irishman and a Hungarian. It’s an Irish American and so am I.
The album closes with the voice of an Aer Lingus flight attendant announcing to the cabin that the wheels are about to land on Dublin, declaring, “welcome home.” On Irish Bayou, O’Grady takes you on a smooth and wonderful flight to New Orleans with no turbulence.
* Tara O'Grady's tribute to Lady Day in song - Billie Holiday's Centennial Birthday Bash Concert will be held at Swing the Teapot 6 Verbana Avenue, Floral Park, NY
Friday, April 10 @ 9pm $10 - reserve tickets 516-488-2180. To access the album, log onto taraogradymusic.com.