Written by: Dave Cantrell
This world, perhaps as much as ever, needs its honest songwriters. Not just those speaking truth to power – though, whoa, do we need a lot of those, indeed we do – but as well those that simultaneously ground us while allowing a moment of escape into another’s heart, a heart unguarded, uncynical but nonetheless, as is necessary in this life, always aware of its surroundings. This world needs the likes of Nora O’Connor.
Known to many for her sterling work traveling the touring world with the likes of Mavis Staples, Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird and a slew of others, O’Connor’s solo work has always found her on an equal footing talent- and, often, style-wise with such luminaries and My Heart, her third and released on Pravda October 7th, is no different.
Forced, as so many were, to find her own way as a musician these last few years, O’Connor took to playing backyards around her Chicago home base, just a woman alone with her guitar, a gathering of deeply appreciative neighbors and, not infrequently one presumes, some damned fine barbecue, discovering anew that that singular spark, which couldn’t help but be a bit subsumed as she traveled the world in support of others, was indeed inextinguishable and in fact glowed as strong as ever. Thus began the process of teasing out some demos then fleshing those out further as all that famous spare time we all had provided that rekindled desire with the oxygen it needed and this flourishing new solo effort was born.
Ten tracks strong, built to last. My Heart finds O’Connor fusing together the fundaments of late 70s Laurel Canyon/Hollywood country rock, intimate acoustic folk, and the timeless strains of piano-based pop into another fresh example of ‘the Nora O’Connor sound.’ In that resonant, sure voice of hers – we reckon it splits the difference between a more urban Dolly Parton and a twang-free Neko Case but you’ll make your own call – we find ourselves in a kind of listeners spell concocted from equal parts authority, vulnerability, and, above all, an unhurried, unforced command of craft. Somehow both bewitching and sobering, it’s a quality that, among much else, tends to pull those listening into what might reasonably be called ‘the poetic real,’ a state where the scenarios, and the conflicts often found within them, are as recognizable as any of the memories in our own emotional scrapbook but, in O’Connor’s hands, are gilded in something that approaches epiphany. The result is solid songcraft immune to the buffeting winds of trend.
Soaked in a broken-hearted resilience, first track “Sore” (aside from being one of 2022’s finest post-breakup songs), with its easy-going gait and deft lyricism, sets a defining tone for the album entire that the nine tracks behind it have no trouble matching. Slyly belying the pop-buoyant, piano-based motif it’s centered around (of all things “Happy Together” came to mind), the title track sets the singer down for a fairly serious heart-to-heart with, well, that very same organ to which we attribute our every tremor of love and abandonment, “Tarot Card” plays that classic ‘clever country’ trick, lament weaving in and out of wisdom in a way we’ve never quite heard before (a place to which the well-named “Grace” takes a more direct path, its organ-rich swells behind O’Connor’s plaintive delivery calling to mind that soaring hush one sometimes felt when Garth and Richard shared the spotlight on the Band stage), “Follow Me,” with its delicious tangle of guitar – electric acoustic dobro and, especially, pedal steel – connects the dots between sass, sorrow and swing before “Fare Thee Well” closes out the set in classic O’Connor fashion – lithe, powerful, persuasive – while boasting the record’s finest line (“when you said I could sing the phone book/that it meant you’d stay“).
If the foregoing gives the impression of an artist walking exactly the sublime line the above-offered phrase ‘poetic real’ suggests then I’ve done my job. Hastily, however, I’ll add that a fair parcel of My Heart‘s success as a whole piece of work owes a not immodest debt to the musicians filling out this session doing their jobs as well (Alex Hall, Casey McDonough Scott Ligon, Steve Dawson, Robbie Djesso and Jon Rauhouse) though we’re pretty sure they’d each concur that all such kudos accrue to her, that singing and songwriting musician named Nora standing up there in front. Between them all, with O’Connor self-producing with the aid of Hall and Dawson, they’ve unearthed a gem. [grab your My Heart here]