"I find songs everywhere: on some tape that's been lying around for years. People send me tunes. There's a lot of great stuff on public radio," O'Brien says. Her most recent disc, Things I Gave Away, includes tunes from blues giant Percy Mayfield, folk legend Judy Roderick, jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln, the roots rock Subdudes, Lennon and McCartney, and a host of lesser known songwriters. Intimate, searching interpretation is what sets her performances apart. No one else, she says, will sing a song the way she does. Her voice has a maturity and confidence that pulls all the notes and songs together, no questions asked.
"I completely try to reinvent each tune. The reinvention might come in a dream, or it could be sparked by another tune. It's kind of fun to take things and turn them inside out. The process can be pretty organic with the rest of the band."
O'Brien says she is attracted to songs for both their melody and lyrics, but after a pause says 90 percent of her choices are for lyrical content. "Most of the songs are about love and lost love, looking back at things in retrospect, and taking what life gives you. The Percy Mayfield tune 'River's Invitation' is about lost love and trying to find him, and maybe jumping into the river if you can't find the one you're looking for."
O'Brien has been described as a poster child for the unheralded, underappreciated, but highly accomplished singer. Born to an Irish Catholic family in Wheeling, West Virginia, she and her brother Tim sang folk tunes at Mass and in coffeehouses during high school. She moved to New York to become a Broadway star, but got bogged down in day jobs. Hearing members of her brother's band sing Boswell Sisters and Cab Calloway tunes when they came to visit changed her perspective. She moved to Boulder in 1980, started a jazz band, got married, gave birth to two daughters, and all the while kept singing.
Now that her daughters are 12 and 14 years old, she looks back on a life of parenting and traveling to gigs. "There's a tremendous amount of maneuvering and guilt. I can't imagine doing anything else. On the plus side, my kids have heard lots of music their peers haven't heard. Their friends think they're weird because they don't like Britney Spears."