CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Tim O’Brien (Part 1 of 2)

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I’m pleased to present Part 1 of my interview with Grammy®-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.

Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer.  The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.  (See this previous post for additional musings on Tim and Hot Rize.)

Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene.  He has appeared on countless recordings in collaboration with other performers, and he has just released his 13th solo album, Chicken & Egg, which is conveniently available for purchase, along with several other of his CDs, at Tim’s website.

Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during the Wintergrass festival in Bellevue, Washington, while I was there teaching a music performance master class.

The second installment of this conversation will be posted in one week.  –VA

When did you first know that you wanted to be a performer?  What did that feel like?

Tim O’Brien:  Well, when I started playing music, when I started playing the guitar, it was something that I could do.  I had an aptitude for it, and I learned pretty fast, and it was a safe place for a kind of confused 12 year old, you know?  I wasn’t an athlete guy, and kind of shy, so it was good to have something that I could do that was good for your self-esteem.  But then I did some musical theater stuff, too, later in grade school and in high school, and that was good – I found out I wasn’t nervous onstage, and people enjoyed it, so you get the positive feedback.  I think you’ll find that lot of people that perform regularly, they describe themselves as shy, and they don’t know how to fit in.  But what happens onstage, see, is you have this sort of theoretically controlled environment where you put your best foot forward, and you can sort of leave out insecurities and leave out parts of yourself that maybe you don’t want.  And you get to present this thing in some kind of a controlled way.  And then, if you have songs, or if you’re in a play and you have your lines, then you have less question.  It’s just kind of a safe place.  It’s funny.  A lot of people are like, “I would never get up onstage.”  They’re not shy in a social situation, like I am, but then they won’t get up onstage because to them, that’s crazy.

So do you feel like yourself when you’re onstage, or do you feel like somebody else?

TO:  I do, I feel like myself.  And maybe I’m fooling myself – I don’t know if that is me or not.

Do people who know you well see a difference between the person you are onstage and the person you are offstage?

TO:  They don’t say anything about it.  I haven’t heard too many comments.

I had a funny thing where, I go to this festival in Denmark every year, and there’s a guy that makes mandolins that I know, a friend of a friend – I know him and his wife.  And I’d always go and visit him at his instrument booth, and got to know his wife and everything.  And he knew my music, but she didn’t.  And one year at the festival, I played with Steve Earle, and so she saw me play with Steve Earle – I was in his band for that gig – and after the show, she was a little loaded, but she went, “I had no idea!  I’m really embarrassed!”  She was really embarrassed that she knew me all this time but didn’t know that that’s what I did.  I mean, she knew I played – it’s weird…

She didn’t know you did that, though!

TO:  Yeah, she’d just go, “Whoa, I’m just embarrassed.  I’m sorry!”  I’m going, “What are you sorry about?  So, you finally came to a gig.  Fine.”  To me, I’m the same.  I think I’m the same – I don’t know if that’s true or not.

Well, you have a really laid back persona onstage.

TO:  Well, that’s another thing – that’s like a Pete Seeger extension or something.  He says he doesn’t have fans, he has friends.  And, you know, that’s a way of looking at it that’s benign – it makes it easier.  I mean, some people think the audience is their enemy, and they have to win them over.  To me, they most often paid money to come see you.  And maybe they don’t know what you do, but they have an open mind about it.  They’ve reached out to you, so that all you need to do is reach out a little to them and everything’s fine.

You know, the thing about the performance, I think, it’s not so much about getting this particular song a perfect rendition, or telling this joke the right way – although there’s those who do that, and they can do that.  But to me it’s just about getting people together and sharing a common experience.  The audience has their role, and you have your role, but you can’t really get it going without each other.

There’s that energy that passes between the two.

TO:  Yeah, it goes back and forth.  Actually, I’m so addicted to that sort of thing.  You know, you’re up there and the magnifying glass is on you, and it makes you seem bigger than you are.  But I think that there’s a real give and take there.  It’s really addictive.

So given that, which do you prefer – big or little gigs, eye contact or darkness?

TO:  Well, I think the variety is good, because there’s a comfort zone, that sometimes it gets kind of old.  So I think the variety is good for that reason.

And you do a lot of traveling, so you get to experience a lot of different cultures.

TO:  Yes.  Every place you play, every state in the Union, is a different vibe, the way people react.  And then you go to Germany, it’s a whole different world.  You go to Scotland and England and Ireland, it’s completely different from place to place.  I was in New Zealand recently – that was a whole other thing.  Luckily, I mostly play places that speak English as their main language.  But it’s also true if you go to other places.  Like I was in Italy last year, and they love music.  There’s something there, whether they understand all the words or not – there’s something about the music.  I don’t know, music, they say that it’s kind of a precursor to language.  So I think there’s something there that calls everybody together to some sort of old place, some sort of cultural kind of DNA, a kind of reference or something.

It’s primal.

TO:  Yeah.

How do you experience being in the zone?

TO:  Well, I think that there’s some sort of abandon that all performers hope to reach, and it’s elusive.  There’s a certain discipline to putting on the show, where you want to be prepared enough to where you can do it even if you’re in a bad mood, or the sound’s bad, or your strings break, or whatever, you know – you can still go.  But I think everybody wants this special feeling that comes up, like when you hear a piece of music that puts shivers up and down your spine – that is what you’re after.  It’s like when people go fishing, I think.  They might not catch anything, but they’re holding out for that really good time, you know?  And I think Bill Monroe was that way – his fans were that way – because he was kind of like Jerry Garcia in that he would not necessarily be good every night.

You never knew what you were going to get.

TO:  You didn’t know what you were going to get.  But there was some amazing transcendence that would happen from time to time that if you weren’t there for it, you’d be mad, and you’d hear about it.  And so, you know, there’s something about that.  But I don’t know, getting in the zone, you want to be prepared.

How do you experience it when it happens to you?

TO:  I’m just kind of lost – I don’t really think about anything.  And it happens every once in a while, but it’s elusive.  But it’s the reward.  Now, the zone, the real zone that I experience in a bigger way is when I’m writing something, and I’m onto some kind of idea.  And I get kind of giddy, and I get kind of excited, and I start laughing, and I go, “This is great!”  And then I just wish that would continue, and it doesn’t.  It can’t continue, but some glimpses, though – you get enough rewards of it that you keep going for it.

Can you think of a particularly transcendent performance experience that you’ve had, where all the stars were aligned and you just couldn’t believe what was going on, and it was well beyond what you had hoped for?

TO:  Well, I’ll tell you one thing came to mind, and I can’t recommend it for anyone.  I used to get these terrible ear infections, or earaches, and after a while I got to where I used these ear candles.  You know, you get antibiotics and wash out your ear and stuff, but ear candles will draw all this crap out of there, right?  So then I was in London and this thing was welling up, and I could tell it was going to really get bad, and it just kept getting worse and worse, and it was the night before we left to go home, and we had this gig.  And I never was able to find anything to help.  And in looking for ear candles, I went to this herbalist, a Chinese medicine place in that neighborhood in London, and they gave me all these herbs to make tea.  They said, “Don’t do the ear candles, it’s only a temporary fix.  But if you take this stuff, it’ll fix it forever.”  And actually, its true – it hasn’t happened since.  But to make a long story short, I was in really bad pain, still, at this gig, and I was with Darrell Scott, and I told him, “Look, let’s just kind of show up and plug in and play, no sound check.”  We got there at a quarter to nine and plugged in and played.  And after the gig was over, he said, “Man, you played your ass off.”  And I remembered, when I looked back on it, that I was able to play a lot better, and it was because I wasn’t thinking about it.  I didn’t put any expectation on the gig – I had real low expectations.  I was thinking, I’m not going to play very long, I’m going to try to keep my effort to a minimum, blah blah blah.  And instead, it just all sort of blossomed out.  And the singing was good, and the grooves were better, and the playing was a lot more effortless.

And you experienced it while it was happening?

TO:  Yeah.  Well, towards the end I did.  And I realized that’s probably why – I was distracted.  And so that’s kind of a thing with the writing, too – I usually get distracted.  You have to trick yourself, almost, into being in the zone.   And some kind of stimulant will help you, sometimes, but it’s only temporary.  People try drugs and alcohol, and caffeine – and it might help for a while, but it’s not going to help every time.  And then it gets to be a crutch, and then you’re fighting the effects of it.  So I don’t know.

I guess I try to change up the set list, too, so that it’s not the same every night.  And like I was talking before about discipline – like the discipline of being able to do it backwards and forwards, knowing exactly what you could do, and if you were totally brain-dead you could still do the show.  And maybe that’s good, because then you’re not worrying about what the next lyric is, or what the next chord is – you know it so well that you can just let it flow.  But sometimes I change up the set list just to get out of the comfort zone and try to find something new.  But it’s elusive.  It’s just as elusive if you do the same set every night as if you do a different set.  You know, there’s no substitute for being in practice as a singer – you know, warmed up as a singer and a player.

Sure, being in good musical shape.

TO:  And having rest and being sharp.  But it’s good to get away from everything.  The contest is to get away from the workaday and just let stuff happen.

Are there things about yourself as a performer that you feel have changed over the years, or that you’ve consciously tried to change, or that you still want to change?

TO:  Oh, I’d like to be more consistent.

Consistent how, as a player?

TO:  Yeah, as a player and, you know, with tempo and tuning and tone.  I have so many different roles that I play that I never really get into that.

How about as a front man?  Are there things that you feel that you do differently with your years of experience as a front man than when you first started out?

TO:  Well, maybe I’m not as worried about it as I used to be.  I used to be real worried about making sure there was no dead air, making sure that I said everything that needed to be said about a piece, or about the persons playing on the stage, or whatever.  But I know now that the main thing is to let your guard down.  I think that’s the trick for me, with an audience, to sort of let them know, right off the bat, first of all, that I’m fallible.  And if I make a mistake, which is inevitable, I will often call attention to it right away, and that kind of cuts the ice.

Sort of like the custom of the host spilling some wine on the tablecloth so that no one else has to worry about it.

TO:  Yeah, that makes sense.  Yeah, it’s that kind of thing.  And you poke fun at yourself – you don’t take yourself seriously.  You take the music seriously, or the subject matter seriously, but you don’t want to make believe that you’re perfect.  I mean, I know people who don’t want any photography during their show – they don’t want anybody to record their show.  And I’m thinking to myself, I can understand that, but don’t they like the way they look?  Don’t they like the way they sound?  Or they want this illusion that they are what they sound like on a record or something?

Or needing to be in control of everything?

TO:  Or do they think that they sometimes do sound that way?  I don’t know that anybody sounds that way, or is perfect, so I don’t see any problem with that stuff.  I mean, the taping, one of the things about that is people think that that means they’re not going to buy their recordings, and that’s one issue that’s a different issue than we’re talking about.  But there’s also the issue of, well, if it was a bad sound day, or if I was bad, then I don’t want that to represent me.  And yet, to me, that’s who I was that day.  So I don’t aspire to that other way – I don’t think it’s possible for me.  I don’t have that sleight of hand kind of thing going.  It’s more like, we’re here, I’ve got some instruments and some songs I can sing, and I might forget them, but we’ll probably have a good time in the end.  The idea that you can be in control of, really, anything – I mean, you can be sort of in control of yourself in certain ways, but you know, let it all hang out, because it’s going to anyway.

To be continued…