Album Rescue Series: Mary Margaret O’Hara ‘Miss America’

The long format essay seems to have died; something I partly blame on Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m on Twitter (@touringtim) and I love the expediency of only having 140 characters to say the important stuff. This reductionism can be even more extreme. A friend and colleague of mine writes four word movie reviews, e.g. Whiplash “drummer learns two songs” or Apocalypse Now “Chopper, hopper acid dropper”. This got me thinking about how best to describe Miss America released by Mary Margaret O’Hara in 1988? Four words is far too easy an option, so I thought lets make this really difficult and describe this album and artist combined into ONE word, and that word is . . . UNIQUE. This is a classic, perfectly formed, beautiful gem of an album that passed almost everyone by, hence its well worthy of an album rescue.

O’Hara is one of the most unique performers on the planet and what she does to music via the conduit of her voice is akin to the tricks a contortionist performs in the circus ring. Her timing is unconventional, her timbre idiosyncratic, her voice is expressive as it soars, falls and goes everywhere in between on this album. There are very few singers to whom she can be compared, so I won’t try. This album is one of those records that has to be heard to be believed though I doubt it will ever be fully understood, its often bewildering, at other times bewitching but totally intriguing. Miss America remains stunning nearly 27 years on from its initial release in 1988. There’s nothing else quite like it, so perhaps it’s appropriate, frustrating and mysterious that O’Hara never recorded another album. I’m discounting the soundtrack for the 2002 Canadian movie Apartment Hunting, which was released without her approval. Miss America is a rare and precious because it makes you long to hear more, I’ve being playing this record since its release and still haven’t tired of it. Trying to describe this record is almost impossible, words just aren’t complex enough to fully capture or describe O’Hara ephemeral voice. This is an album that you can only start to understand through repeatedly listening to it.

O’Hara was born in Toronto in the early 1960’s, the precise date is unknown, and graduated from Ontario Art College after studying painting, sculpture and graphic design. The art college route into popular music was a very common one and is superbly articulated in Simon Frith’s 1988 book Art Into Pop. With a surname derived from Irish ancestry she was one of seven children and raised a Roman Catholic. Van Morrison, Dinah Washington and the jazz records that her father would play in the family home, shaped O’Hara’s musical taste during her formative years. She also painted, and acted, like her sister Catherine, who would go on to star in Home Alone. After playing in bands at clubs across Ontario, the acting and painting were dropped and music became her primary creative outlet. Visionary executive head of Virgin Records’ A&R department Simon Draper was blown away by her demos, and O’Hara was quickly signed in 1983.

It took almost five years to make Miss America partly because of O’Hara’s perfectionism and partly due to her unconventional recording habits. Primary multi-track recording was undertaken in 1984 at the rural Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, South Wales. As a residential studio this facility has played host to almost every super-star band from the 70s, 80s and 90’s. Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody there. Rolling fields full of sheep obviously have a positive effect on the creative art of record production. Sonically this studio sounds superb even by today’s standards. At the time Rockfield was stocked with the very best recording equipment available. Andy Partridge of XTC, who was also signed to Virgin Records, had raved about the demos and he took up position in the producer’s chair on the recommendation of legendary producer Joe Boyd. Straightaway, there were problems. There are stories of Partridge stopping his production duties after a day when O’Hara’s manager fired him. The myth is she found out that he was an atheist and that Partridge’s co-producer on the project John Leckie (who later produced albums by XTC and The Stone Roses) was a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial Indian guru who reportedly supported free love. I guess this was too much for a Canadian with a strict Roman Catholic upbringing or its just another smoke screen? Tapes from this 1984 session were recorded by in-house engineer Paul Cobbold, but were left unfinished.

The Rockfield tapes lingered or languished in Virgin Record’s “to difficult pile” until Canadian guitarist, composer and producer Michael Brook broke the stalemate in the summer of 1988. After Brook saw O’Hara perform at Toronto’s Music Gallery, he made direct contact with Virgin and offered to help her finish the album. Virgin jumped at this opportunity. With Brook’s assistance, O’Hara and her band re-recorded four songs in the summer of 1988 and remixed seven of the original cuts from the Rockfield sessions to finish the album. Brook was once a member of the new-wave band Martha and the Muffins, remember that fabulous single Echo Beach? He obviously knows a good tune when he hears one. Three of the 1988 recordings were produced by O’Hara and Brook; the rest were “constructed and conducted” and produced by O’Hara. According to an article in Canadian Composer she mourns the lost of the original tapes, but she is still proud of the songs that eventually emerged on Miss America. O’Hara talks about the song To Cry About, later covered by Hull band Everything But the Girl, which tells us much about the emotional weight wrapped up in that album. “Virgin said I wrote that about my boyfriend who died. I didn’t. I wrote that song in August 1980, in the bath, when we were still together.” When the song was played to her boyfriend, full of lyrics about loss and timed disasters, he said it was about him, but O’Hara didn’t agree. A year later in 1981, the boyfriend drowned. “And then the lyrics were obviously about him, as if I’d seen it happening”.

Legendary 1960s wall of sound record producer, and now prison inmate, Phil Spector once said that a record only needed three vital elements to be perfect: –

  1. It must be ridiculously repetitive
  2. Have a primeval beat
  3. Be about sex

According to Spector’s metric this record is a fail on all three accounts. This probably says more about Spector’s chutzpah than it does about the music that we are considering here. Luckily there’s another set of much more appropriate metrics as proposed by ex-record producer and now academic Richard James Burgess, in his 1997 book, The Art of Record Production. According to Burgess there are eight elements that are needed in equal proportions to create the perfect pop record. The recipe is thus: –

  1. The song
  2. The vocal
  3. The arrangement
  4. The performance
  5. The engineering
  6. The Mix
  7. Timelessness
  8. The Heart

It’s quite possible that Dr Burgess is onto something here. It has to start with the song, a narrative, the story, an exposition that has a beginning, middle and end. You know when a song is strong because it can be sung with minimal or no instrumentation and still amaze the listener. Try this simple experiment with virtually any song written by Lennon/McCartney or Bob Dylan; it works. French philosopher Roland Barthes, as always, has much to say about the vocal or more accurately “the grain of the voice” in his 1977 book Image, Music Text. Every singer perfects his or her own chant, his or her own speed, rhythm, cadence, volume and grain of voice. “The Grain“, says Roland Barthes, “is that materiality of the body” the voice is the most misunderstood instrument on the planet. Very few singers posses the grain and the majority posses no grain at all. Mary Margaret O’Hara is the personification of the grain of the voice.

Arrangements on this record, which are credited to O’Hara, are intentionally sparse, comprising guitar, drums, bass with the occasional keyboards and violin. This is on purpose to give as much space as possible for O’Hara’s swooping, diving, twisting vocals. Everything is rigidly ‘on grid’. The current mode of production via a digital audio workstation (DAW), allows for the manipulation of the music and to place it precisely on grid. This variant of hyperreality was 20 years a head of its time, it simply just did not exist in 1988. This level of absolute millimeter precision came from spot on playing, hence its sparseness. If the playing were any more complex then it would be impossible, without DAW technology, to get it so perfectly on grid. If you listen to the album loud (I do) and on good speakers (I have) you can hear the click track bleeding through. The click track provides the rigid architectural skeleton on which this music is built upon. I’d go as far as to stay that Miss America was probably the last great structuralist record before the onset of post modernism.

The performances by O’Hara and band are sublime and it’s virtually impossible to fault. One reason why this record is worthy of reconsideration is because it captures these virtually faultless performances forever. The metric I use to judge audio engineering excellence is if it’s transparent then its good. According to this metric the engineering on this album is beyond good because it’s totally invisible. The mix adheres to the holy trinity, as instilled into all mix engineers, of PLACE, SPACE and BASS. Without an expansive explanation the mix on this album is as good as it gets hitting all three markers. Is this record timeless? Well I’m writing about it almost 30 years after it was released. Does this record have heart? Indeed it has a giant beating heart full of passion and emotion.

This record starts straightforwardly enough with To Cry About. O’Hara’s distinctive voice appears over super sparse ringing electric guitar and five-string bass. She sings passionately of love lost “There will be a timed disaster. There’s no you in my hereafter“. This song sets the scene for the whole album; it’s practically an advertisement for her voice. When the drums kick in on track two’s Year in Song it takes us to totally different unexpected territory. The drum sound on this track is pure 1980’s with super loud punchy kick drum, massive gated reverb snare, tom-toms that sound like cannons exploding and zingy cymbals. O’Hara begins the song with recognizable, but somewhat cryptic, lyrics and around halfway through she starts to free-associate, or to play with the lyrics in a way that a poststructuralist poet would envy. I am not sure what she is getting at or is trying to work out in this song; it’s an enigma. Indeed she sings “What iss [sic] the aim eh?… joy?” Possibly the aim is finding and going with the groove, letting the sense of the song take care of itself or of just getting lost in the music. By the time she’s barking about “ta-ta music” in lines too way difficult to decode without the printed lyrics, O’Hara seems to have created her own set of self-expressive language.

O’Hara’s songs twist logic, language, time and space to fit her own unique version of the world. It’s virtually impossible to know how much calculation went into these songs and performances; we just don’t know how much of the supposed spontaneity is planned or is organic. In Body’s in Trouble, track three, the body is both an object and a person and its also producing the sounds we are listening too. I’m sure Roland Barthes would love this track. O’Hara is not explicit about the dilemma; she just pushes and pulls and plays around with the idea of forces at work. Meanwhile, the music rises, dips, bends, and breaks. Far more grounded is track four, Dear Darling, a country styled ballad that addresses the classic themes of devotion and longing. In conveying “A thing of such beauty” that “Must be called love,” O’Hara proves that she’s the vocal and emotional equal of country legend Patsy Cline. By track five, she’s morphed into a French chanteuse fronting an English Ska band on the bouncy, piano driven A New Day, which advises “When your heart is sick with
 wonder
 at a long and lonely way
 walk in brightness
 ’cause it’s a new day”. Sounding like the previous song’s somber cousin, track five, When You Know Why You’re Happy is a slow vamp over which O’Hara meditates on knowingness and happiness. Next up is My Friends Have, which is propulsive, while Help Me Lift You Up is its gentle flip side. Keeping You in Mind transports us into slinky lounge-jazz, with a highly articulate and emotional violin solo. Then unexpectedly and from an entirely different universe comes the off-kilter but funky workout of Not Be Alright. This is the only track on the whole album that makes use of a synthesizer, a Yamaha DX7, which was known for the precision and flexibility of its bright, digital sounds. The lyrics of this track are insightful e.g. 4th verse “My tail, this tail, this tail is tall. This tale is tall. Innocent to a fault.” O’Hara makes it perfectly, inarguably clear that some unnamed situation will not “Just will not be alright”. Sometimes things do go wrong and everything does turn to shit and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. In the last track, a solitary bass accompanies her, while she offers us (or possibly herself?) the assurance that “You will be loved again” a truly beautiful sentiment on which to close the album. Miss America is not an easy listen by any means but like most difficult journeys in life the destination is worth it.

I once worked in the same London building as O’Hara’s European booking agent, Boswell, who introduced me to her music and I’m forever indebted. My first encounter with O’Hara was one evening as I was finishing work when Boswell burst into my office and skinned up a huge joint and threw a CD of Miss America onto my desk. While we smoked the joint together he gave me his agent’s spiel as though I was another gullible promoter and he persuaded me to accompany him to O’Hara’s first London show. I’m not completely sure what happened during the 20 minutes it took us to get from our offices in Islington to the Town and Country Club venue in Kentish Town but something meta-physical definitely happened. We walked into the auditorium just as the second track off the album The Year In Song kicked in. At the precise second that I first set eyes and ears on O’Hara the tetrahydrocannabinol flooded my body and overpowered my senses. The sheer power and pure emotion that this alabaster skinned, curly red haired siren with bright red lipstick was emitting was un-opposable. This dangerous beautiful creature had used her enchanting voice and music to lure Boswell and I onto the rocks. Like two shipwrecked sailors we were helpless and couldn’t fight her immense siren like powers. It was a full frontal 100% attack on all of our senses; it was an out-of-body catharsis experience. On this occasion Boswell had not sold this artist short, it was totally incredible and it’s a memory that I shall forever cherish.

Virgin Records dropped O’Hara after the release of Miss America, partly due to poor sales and partly because they considered her material not commercial enough. Miss America is an incredible piece of work from an artist that shone incredibly brightly but only for a few minutes. Maybe she was just too creative? She wrote, performed, arranged, produced, mixed and even painted the album’s artwork. She sounds like a female harbinger of Jeff Buckley; you can fully understand why she enthralled Morrissey and Michael Stipe. This is a record that everyone who truly loves music should own; it has great melodies, twisted vocals, outstanding performance, and virtuoso musicianship and in CD format its sonically a near perfect audio artifact. Mary Margaret O’Hara once described herself as “an ancient baby whose cranium never quite fused together”.

Chapeau!

Mary Margaret O'Hara's own artwork adorns the front and back covers of her album Miss America.
Mary Margaret O’Hara’s own artwork adorns the front and back covers of her album Miss America.

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