Though it may not always be a fair fight, sometimes a musician’s music takes charge. The muse plays itself. And it’s the artists who recognize this that can catch a ride with what’s left. That’s what Lauren O’Connell does, anyway.
“I don’t spend too much time on one particular part,” says the Rochester expat. “I just wait until something feels exciting and follow that particular instrument and where my voice wants to drag it.”
The Oakland, Calif., by way of Fairport, O’Connell has an affinity for cover songs in the dark, stark vein. The trouble is, as a recording artist she still wants to convey, to evoke and provoke, without learning a potential tune thoroughly. O’Connell wants to get lost in the process. She wants to get gone and stay there. Stopping just short of complete evisceration, O’Connell deconstructs indie rock and even alt-country for that matter, gently and completely; minor where before it was major, agitated where it was fluid, sometimes by introducing a completely new melody.
“I really like to do them from the ground up,” the 32-year- old O’Connell says. “Sometimes I’ll intentionally not learn a song note-for-note and grab at what sticks out first.”
And she’s been doing it this way for seven independently released albums: “Sitting in Chairs,” “The Shakes,” “Room For Ghosts,” “Quitters,” “Covers,” “Details” and “Covers Two.” Haunting, one and all.
Her latest collection of tunes, “Covers Two,” will start rolling out this week one at a time, with a single released on assorted platforms like Spotify every week until they are all out—11 in all—and in her fans’ hands and ears.
Friday marked the release of O’Connell’s take on Townes Van Zandt’s single “If I Needed You,” a song of sad reckoning, previously covered by Emmylou Harris and Andrew Bird. She toys with the tune’s structure in spite of purists who have a contrarian view. Screw ’em.
“I think it’s fun to put a spin on it,” O’Connell says. “Sometimes just the vocals are changed. Or I’ll play with the cadences and the chords like when I did Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City.’ It’s a simple song that leaves so much empty space so I can add different things.”
Just the way her voice breaks as if she were choking back tears, gives her songs—original or cover—a heartbreaking veneer.
“Any heartbreak feels like the worst thing when it’s happening,” she says.
So, there she was, minding her own business when she got the call. It was from Sizzer, a European publicist firm with Mercedes-Benz in its roster of clients. They wanted a fresh yet creepy sound for the automaker’s new advertising campaign. They wanted O’Connell. If you just take a spin of her version of Ralph Stanley’s “O Death,” there’ll be no doubt in your mind, O’Connell had the tools for the task.
“They said they were looking for the right vibe and said that they had caught my version of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ (featured on “American Horror Story: Coven”) from 10 years ago now.”
Sizzer wanted noir. They wanted it creeping out from O’Connell’s dark places. They wanted something menacing and intense. What came out was the scariest version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” you’ve ever heard.
“‘Make it dark,’ they said. ‘Make it your thing,’” O’Connell says. “As soon as I started playing around with ‘Come Together,’ I knew exactly what I was going to do with this.”
She even got a budget to flesh out her sound with strings.
“Any time I get to hire strings,” she says, “I feel like it’s my birthday.”
Her treatment of the Fab Four classic was Woody Guthrie-meets-the Beatles-meets-Edgar Allan Poe. Released in 2021, the final commercial looks mondo cool as well as scary. Scary enough to make the Beatles wet their pants.
It’s one thing to extract those emotions from an original song, it’s another entirely to inject it into a song that isn’t yours to begin with. Either way, O’Connell takes ownership straight away. But she admits she’s a slow writer when it comes to originals.
“That’s why I do covers so much,” she says. “I try not to learn the song too thoroughly, get the chord structure down without too many conscious decisions. I’ll pick up an instrument and if that doesn’t happen, I’ll move on. I think with ‘Come Together’ I started out immediately on keyboards. It was like throwing spaghetti against the wall.”
O’Connell’s audience these days is virtual and will stay that way as long as she keeps feeding them fresh material.
“Ever since the beginning of my career I haven’t been that much into touring,” she says. “My fans are spread out, so it’s easier to reach them online. But I run out of gas pretty quick on social media as well.” She belongs in the creative realm where creative voices burst forth.
For instance, O’Connell has an acoustic album of rough covers accumulated during the COVID-19 crisis. Not mixed or produced, but just straight out of the can.
So, she’s incorporating a band and “trying to branch out more. It’s that thing of working with other people that I’m moving toward—electricity—feeling that off of people.”
Whether it’s creepy or beautiful, it’s easy to find joy. That’s her sound and it’s waiting for you.
Frank De Blase is Rochester Beacon music writer.
I’ve been following O’Connell’s career since I heard “If I Decide,” and I’m glad to hear she’s getting noticed. I hope we hear more of her. Her arrangements are unique and her voice is distinct, she’s a terrific talent.