A recent reissue of recordings by the O’Kanes — singer-songwriters Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane — sounds fresh, as if the recordings were made today instead of in the late ’80s, before the duo’s demise.
That the recordings have aged well is no accident, says Kane. With O’Hara, and on his own, as a solo artist, he has pursued recording values aimed at giving his work a timeless quality.
“There’s always been an effort to keep it as honest and musical as possible and as natural-sounding as possible,” Kane explains during a recent interview. “The things hold up the longest where you have a guitar that sounds like a guitar, not something that’s been processed. It’s almost about not allowing production value to reveal the era in which it was made by using whatever toys or gimmicks are available at the time.”
Kane’s latest solo project, The Blue Chair, released Oct. 24, continues in that tradition. Working with a friendly and compatible group of musicians including steel guitarist Dan Dugmore, keyboardist John Jarvis, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Glenn Worf, Kane fashions a warm, living-room sound, rootsy and real. Kane’s woody baritone voice and his own deft string work on guitars and mandolin fit well with the team of accompanists he has assembled.
“My stuff is incredibly live, in that when I record, I play the guitar and I sing the song and the band plays,” Kane explains. “I don’t use headphones or anything like that. It’s a very, very live performance. If I’ve made some sort of tragic mistake I’ll fix it, but that’s rare.”
Kane admires recordings that have the same natural feeling he tries to get in his own work. During the period he was making The Blue Chair, he recalls, he listened to recordings by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald made in the mid-’50s for Verve.
“It was (guitarist) Herb Ellis, (pianist) Oscar Peterson, (bassist) Ray Brown, (drummer) Louis Bellson and (drummer) Buddy Rich, with Louis and Ella singing,” he says. “I listen to those records, and they will always sound incredible, because it’s people playing music with its imperfections and the natural dynamic that happened as they were playing together.
“That’s very much what I’ve always tried to do with my records, and particularly so with The Blue Chair,” he continues. “I was really going for something that you could listen to over and over and over again, and, when you put it on, you didn’t have the sense of needing to turn it up for some songs or down for others.”
Kane, 51, was born in Queens, N.Y. He came to Nashville from Los Angeles in 1978. Signed as a writer to country music publishing powerhouse Tree Music (now Sony ATV/Tree), he recorded as a solo artist for Elektra and Warner Bros. in the early ’80s, before forming the O’Kanes with fellow Tree writer O’Hara. During their five-year run, from 1985 to 1990, the pair made three albums and scored six Top 10 hits including “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You,” which went to No. 1 in 1987.
Another solo album, Find My Way Home, appeared on Atlantic in 1993, before Kane formed indie label Dead Reckoning with Kevin Welch, Mike Henderson, Harry Stinson and Tammy Rogers. Kane released Dead Rekoning in 1995 and Six Months, No Sun in 1998.
When he tours, Kane still gets requests to do O’Kanes material, and he gladly obliges. “We’re good friends and have always been,” he says. “The demise of the O’Kanes was something where we went, ‘Well, it’s time.’ We look back at those years with fond memories.”
The two collaborated on The Only Years, a compilation just released by Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint, in its “Pick of the Litter” series. Allowed only 10 tracks by the record company, Kane and O’Hara found it tough to narrow their choices. “We were thinking of things that were quintessentially O’Kanes to us,” Kane explains. “It did not necessarily include ‘the hits.’ Some people have looked at the compilation as being something less than it could be because it doesn’t include the hits. To me, it is more because it doesn’t include the hits.”
There is an O’Kanes reunion, of sorts, on The Blue Chair. A waltz titled “Rosie’s Gone” is a holdover from the years when Kane and O’Hara worked together regularly. About a woman emotionally and psychologically devastated by the loss of a loved one “in a Southeast Asian war,” the song closes the album. Though his name does not appear in the credits, O’Hara sings harmony on the track.
The song survived on a cassette, made years ago on a modest boom box recorder. O’Hara had nearly forgotten the composition. “I always liked it, but never really had a place for it to go,” Kane says. “It seemed like it fit this record. I was very pleased, because after the day we wrote it, we never sang it again.”
The album also includes Kane’s version of his original composition, “I’ll Go On Loving You.” Alan Jackson’s recording of the unique song, which mixes recitation and singing, went to No. 3 two years ago on the Billboard country singles chart. Kane recorded it originally for 1998’s Six Months, No Sun, but ended up not including it.
He pitched it on a Thursday to then-Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois; Jackson cut the song the following Monday. “I was shocked that he cut it, and thrilled,” Kane admits. “When [producer] Keith [Steagall] played me the record he made, I was overwhelmed. I thought he did a magnificent job. Certainly, for me as a songwriter, it was one of the best recordings of any of my songs I’ve ever had.”
Dead Reckoning partner Kevin Welch sings with Kane on two tracks on the new album. One, “Same Old Blues,” Kane co-wrote with Welch and Allison Moorer, who also sings on the track. Kane and Welch have formed a performing alliance. Earlier this year, they released 11/12/13, an album recorded live in Melbourne, Australia, on Nov. 12 and 13, 1999 (Read the review).
“Although we’ve been pals for 20 years, we never really wrote together,” Kane says. “Whenever we would sit down to write together, we just didn’t.” So they enlisted Moorer as a third party. Waiting for them to arrive, Kane wrote a fair portion of the song, about a stagnant relationship, with his mandolin. Together, the trio finished it two days before Kane was to record.
Other touches on The Blue Chair make the disc an especially personal statement. Kane sings in French on two songs, having learned the language in France while he had a Parisian girlfriend. “I just started writing in that language,” he says. “It’s very simple French, but it’s such a beautiful language, and I found I didn’t have to work at rhymes and things like that. It’s a language where they just occur. There’s this lyrical, melodic thing that happens with the language.”
The cover — and the inspiration for the album title — is a painting, by Kane, of a girl, dressed in a red jumper and seated in a blue chair. “It sits in my dining room and overlooks where I spend a lot of time with the guitar,” Kane explains. “That little girl in the chair spends hours watching me work.”
She observed the creation of a strong set of 10 tunes that Kane feels has a sonic unity. The sequencing, he says, could have gone a number of different ways. “I could almost put the songs in a hat and pull them out, and they almost fit together in any order. There’s more of a mood, from beginning to end.
“There’s a real peacefulness about the record,” he continues. “There’s a calmness about the record. That seems to be coming through. People seem to get that without me having to say it.”