Blue O'Connell

Lines Of Change

Blue's 'River' runs true

The words in the songs Blue O'Connell writes are as important to her as the guitar music she weaves around them. They're lyrics that tell her stories, stories that come from her experiences and discoveries of life.

The 34-year-old musician wants her audience to hear her songs, and think about what they say. Then, at the end of her performance, she would like them to be smiling and feeling that that know her better.

"I lead a pretty solitary lifestyle, and I think that has a lot to do with what I write songs about," Ms. O'Connell said. "Most songs are written about love and relationships, and I have those elements in my songs, but not directly.

"For example, a song on my new album, A River Runs Through, talks about someone, but a listener wouldn't know that unless they understood the river was a metaphor for change.

"I don't do that sort of thing intentionally -- it just happens," she said. "My songs have to do with internal processes and inner contemplation, and being I see nature as a teacher, Iíll use things like rivers to help tell my stories."

Although Ms. O'Connell is a favorite at the yearly First Night Virginia festivities in Charlottesville, public appearances by the Chicago native are rare. In fact a lot of people only know her from her WTJU radio folk music program, "Sunset Road," which airs on Fridays from 6 to 7 p.m.

"I love to perform but I don't play that often in public because I don't like to play in bars," Ms. O'Connell said. "If you don't play bars you are very limited."

"I don't like playing bars because the focus is usually not so much listening to the music, as having it in the background," she said. "My songs are such that you have to be able to listen to the words to get anything out of them."

"So a noisy bar scene doesn't serve me very well, and I don't serve it very well. I like to play for an audience that want's to listen to my songs and perhaps think about what Iím saying in them."

Interestingly, Ms. O'Connell started off her musical career creating the kind of musical din she now avoids. Her first instrument of choice was the drums.

"I first dreamed about being a drummer in a rock 'n' roll band," Ms. O'Connell said with a laugh. "But that all changed when I sew a folk singer perform when I was l7.

"Here was this guy playing an acoustic guitar and singing songs about life, and I went from wanting to play rock to wanting to play folk music. Folk music was such a natural thing, but very personal, too. Ms. O'Connell said folk music was a style she could relate to because it drew people together. So she turned from the drums to the guitar.

Although Ms. O'Connell didn't start playing a guitar until she was 17, her work with the instrument is extensive. She has had seven years of classical training with Michael Kovitz, and four years of instrumental finger picking technique at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.

She has also studied Irish Music at the Frances O'Neill School in Chicago for two years. In addition, Ms, O'Connell has studied with innovative, contemporary music artists like Robert Fripp, Ralph Towner, Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass.

But it's her voice that has probably gotten the most attention during a musical career that has spanned more than two decades. The distinct and unusual sound quality of her singing has been compared to Tracy Chapman and Billie Holiday.

She thinks of her voice as a "translator for the language of the heart." And it's from her heart that her songs come from.

Charlottesville songwriter and recording star John McCutcheon called Ms, O'Connell a "uniquely compelling songwriter."

But it's the melding of all her talents; her songwriting skills, her voice and her strong work on the guitar, that forms her memorable musical style. A style that has earned her the reputation of being a warm and dynamic performer.

"I really don't think of my concerts as being performances as much as I see them as, well, like having some friends coming over to my house," Ms. O'Connell said. "I like the audience to feel welcome and comfortable as I tell them stories from my life. "I like to create a living room atmosphere," she said. "That's why I play in coffeehouses or in areas like at Live Arts where my audience is close to me. My music calls for that intimacy.

By DAVID A. MAURER Daily Progress staff writer, Charlottesville, Virginia 11/5/93
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