The Fifth Element #1
O'Callaghan, a handsome young Ontario native, has a voice that is strong, clear, and agile, combining a silvery-sweet upper range with a lower register just made for sly innuendo. Although her primary genre is cabaret, she's not stuck in the late 1920s. Randy Newman, as well as Pearl Jam's Eddy Vedder, are two of the songwriters represented on her new disc, Real Emotional Girl, along with retro-cabaret standby Kurt Weill and cabaret-nouveau mainstay Leonard Cohen.
Two of the Cohen songs covered on Real Emotional Girl, "Joan of Arc" and "A Singer Must Die," also appear on Jennifer Warnes' iconic recording, Famous Blue Raincoat. That congruity, along with those of great singing, intelligent subject matter, and an ungimmicky recording, had me riffling my Rolodex and networking to arrange a phone chat with Ms. O'C.
John Marks: A very impressive recording. What do you think of it?
Patricia O'Callaghan: I think it's my best CD so far, without question. I'm about 85% really thrilled, which I think is pretty good for a recording, as far as the artist's contentment goes.
Marks: What is important that people should know about you?
O'Callaghan: I don't think that it's important that people know anything in particular about me, except for what you learn through the songs I choose to sing and the way I choose to sing them. I think those things say a lot, and I don't think people need to know more than that, as far as enjoying the CDs. I think art should speak for itself, and you shouldn't need to know about the artist in order to enjoy the art.
Marks: Most of the songs on Real Emotional Girl deal with male-female relationships, usually troubled ones. Do we just wallow in it for a while, or do we learn something from these songs?
O'Callaghan: I certainly think that it's about learning something. I would hate it if you would listen to them and think that it was just about wallowing for a while and then getting on with it. I choose songs because they are poetic and slightly more detached...enough detachment so you can see that the song has something to do with your life, and that you can change things, rather than just purely indulging in the emotion of the performance.
Marks: On the subject of detachment: Leonard Cohen. Would some fresh air and sunlight help this man?
O'Callaghan: [startled laughter]
Marks: Just teasing. Seriously, despite the apparent darkness of his vision, he seems to draw parallels between a religious quest for transcendence and one pursued through physical intimacy. Your thoughts?
O'Callaghan: I think there are many routes to transcendence. A physical love relationship and a relationship to spirit...it doesn't have to be one or the other. You can't transcend if you are only floating on a spiritual plane. We're here on the earth...we have to do it through hard work, through physical labor, and yes, through physical love. Through all these things. So I agree with Leonard.
Marks: Cohen's "Hallelujah" is a very strong statement to open a record with. I find both your singing and the stripped-down arrangement very moving. Were you tempted to do it in any other way?
O'Callaghan: No, not at all. Because I come from the classical sphere, piano and voice was my base. For this song, it's just got to be one voice, one instrument.
Marks: "Hallelujah" seems both wistful and disappointed: love is "a cold and broken Hallelujah." Is that the only reasonable adult response to the idea of "true love"?
O'Callaghan: Well, that's what the words say, but as soon as the words are paired with the music, the meaning changes. Although the lyrics can sound pretty bitter, the music is so sweet, it's like a healing lullaby washing over you. It's got some bitter lyrics, but you can't look at the lyrics without the music.
Marks: It just occurred to me that your album begins and ends with songs about making music, and how making music fits into life.
O'Callaghan: Yes, that's true.
Marks: You seemed to have fun singing "I'm Your Man."
O'Callaghan: Yeah, it's just a really fun thing to pretend to be a man. It's a real cabaret kind of thing. It's a perfect—the quintessential modern—cabaret song...when a woman sings it.
Marks: What can you tell us about the recording sessions themselves?
O'Callaghan: For nearly all of it we were all live, all in the same room—a big room, but not a church. That would have been too distant, too "classical."
Marks: What's your comfort factor with having the "cabaret" label put on you?
O'Callaghan: That's a really good question. People don't seem to know what to call me...
Marks: How about "Sir"?
O'Callaghan: [laughs] Yeah. That's right...."Cabaret" is probably a fairly appropriate label at this stage of the game.
Marks: Recently, we seem to have a lot of popular music made by profoundly anti-musical people. Your music is musical, disciplined, and intelligent. Does your career have a prayer?
O'Callaghan: I really do hope that deeper, more meaningful, more profound music makes its way back into popular culture more. I hope to be part of that.