By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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If you saw Jennifer O'Connor at the Gargoyle last October, you may have noticed a camera crew swarming around the front of the stage. It turns out they were recording the show for www.mydream.tv, a Web site sponsored by Ford Motor Company and Amazon.com that spotlights ordinary people realizing their respective life ambitions. Mydream.tv's homepage is a bit confusing, but if you scroll to the bottom and click on the link titled "Make a Living from My Music," you can see a short clip of O'Connor performing "Century Estates" at the Gargoyle that night, interspersed with interview footage filmed at what appears to be Vintage Vinyl.
"I was the musician-person they covered," O'Connor says from her Brooklyn apartment several months later. "They followed us around all day, did interviews and taped the concert. I like St. Louis a lot. I really liked Vintage Vinyl."
If the Web site's producers hoped to inspire those who have immersed themselves in music but never found the courage to record or perform, they couldn't have picked a better subject. O'Connor never wrote a song until after she graduated college and by her own account, she never had any realistic plans to break into the music industry. But in the past few years, she's released three full-length albums, signed to Matador Records (home of Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power and Yo La Tengo), been on several tours and performed at a Bob Dylan tribute in New York with Patti Smith as her backup singer. If O'Connor's isn't a rags-to-riches story, it's at least a rags-to-paying-NYC-rent story (which is practically the American Dream and certainly an inspiration for anyone who's tried doing the latter).
O'Connor's Matador debut, 2006's Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars, is full of everyday characters dealing with big issues and limited means. The songs are smoky and twangy enough to appeal to an alt-country audience, but full of enough emotional complexity and self-confident wordplay to please fans of the Mountain Goats and Silver Jews coincidentally enough (or not), two of her most recent touring partners.
Mountainis an uplifting listen, which is almost surprising given its backstory. "Sister" and "I'll Bring You Home" were inspired, respectively, by the deaths of two real-life siblings; at the same time, these are two of the most upbeat songs on the whole album. O'Connor also went through a breakup while writing the tunes on Mountain, which explains the myriad allusions to angry betrayals and plaintive pleas for forgiveness. Nearly every song takes place in the aftermath of something that's already happened, but the core events and the names are left vague. This is for the best; you don't have to know what inspired "Sister" to be touched by its simple, hard-won reflections.
"Inevitably a lot of my life comes out in my writing," O'Connor explains. "The songs are the surface of how I am thinking and feeling. I do like to be detail-specific; it's more interesting that way. The trick is to not be so specific that you can't apply something of your own. The great thing about music is that it can mean anything."
These songs are indeed rich with details. Specific places, highways and MTA subway lines are mentioned. "Exeter, Rhode Island," for instance, chronicles a pensive ride through New England over a catchy garage-rock riff. It references not only an obscure Rhode Island town, but the specific highway traveled (Route 102 South, which really does go through Exeter according to online maps) and genre of music on the radio at that moment ("a power-pop song"). It may be the best New England driving/car radio song since the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner."
"That song was about all kinds of family issues," she says. "I was up in New England visiting family. I took my parents to the airport, and I was driving back to New York thinking about all kinds of different things family issues, someone I had a crush on in New York, all this internal stuff. I drove through that town and just wrote down its name. It sounded good for the song."
O'Connor admits a "soft spot" for New England, having been born and mostly raised in a small town in northern Connecticut. She spent her teenage years near Sarasota, Florida, and later attended college in Atlanta, which she says was "kind of close but far enough away" for her liking. O'Connor majored in English, did a regular show at the college radio station, kept a journal and was a self-described musical obsessive. But she "never had the nerve" to play in her own band until after college, when her friend Peter Tunney (later of the NYC alt-country band the Fandanglers) convinced her to take up guitar and form her first band, Violet.
O'Connor moved to New York with Tunney a couple of years later. "I always wanted to live there, and I thought would be good for writing and experience," she says. "It pushed me to work on my music. And I worked at a music club [the Knitting Factory], which was kind of inspiring."