“I have a long history of being told I have no rhythm, and of people saying ‘I’ve heard chickens sing better than that’.”—Mary Margaret O’Hara
Although it’s probably true to say that in her status as a micro-cult artist she is somewhat considerably less known, at least in terms of name recognition and general popularity—and most certainly in terms of how prolific she’s (not) been—than, say, Daniel Johnston (or even Jandek), the fan devotion that has been bestowed upon oddball Canadian chanteuse Mary Margaret O’Hara is no less intense.
In fact, O’Hara’s fans are some of the most devoted followers of any eccentric musical artist on the planet, period, and some have been known to travel to abroad to see her rare live performances that have been described as “life-changing.” I know two people, one male, one female, who fall into the mega-hardcore, love that knows no boundaries category of Mary Margaret O’Hara worshipers.
O’Hara’s reputation rests, almost entirely, on her now twenty-five-year-old Miss America album, the 1988 release that has seen its reputation grow steadily over the years, but that you could pick up for less than a buck in cut-out bins the year of it came out (I bought my copy for 50 cents). To say that Miss America is a quirky album is like saying Syd Barrett was merely a lil’ bit “different.” A decent short-hand for O’Hara’s ultra-distinctive, highly original sound would be to (maybe, sorta, kinda) say that it’s not unlike Meredith Monk fronting a jazz/folk/blues combo with a gospel influence. O’Hara’s swooping, soaring, anxious vocals emerge from her lungs as mutant, almost incontinent, skat singing that often seems caught in her windpipe before it’s hiccup’d out and released like butterflies. She has been called an “epileptic Edith Piaf” and there is a deep truth in that description as she shudders and shakes during a performance like she’s possessed, in equal measure it would seem, by demons and angels. Suffice to say, her entire presentation and artistic gestalt isn’t for everyone, but O’Hara’s art has never, ever had “popularity” (let alone record sales) as a goal.
Based on some demos that she’d recorded in the early 80s, Virgin signed O’Hara to a “do whatever you want” deal in 1983 and put XTC’s Andy Partridge in the producer’s chair where he lasted all of a single day. It took five years before she turned in Miss America only to have the label fret “What have you done?”
Since 1988, Mary Margaret O’Hara has recorded just a Christmas EP, a film soundtrack and made several guest performances on other people’s projects (she did background vocals, for instance on Morrissey’s “November Spawned a Monster”). She’s also an actor with a considerable onscreen presence, but unlike her sister, comic actress Catherine O’Hara (SCTV, Home Alone) Mary Margaret seems to have no real career drive and perhaps some emotional issues that are often broadly hinted at in articles that have been written about the singer (For her part, O’Hara dismisses all the “Mad Margaret” talk: “If I’m nuts, it’s my birthright to be myself.” I find that attitude terribly admirable).
In recent years O’Hara has been seen much more often performing onstage in Canada (as you can see from a growing assortment of YouTube clips). She was featured at Hal Wilner’s big 2005 Leonard Cohen concert in Dublin (she sang a duet of “Hallelujah” with Gavin Friday—now that must’ve been a real treat), the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival that was curated by The Dirty Three in 2007, in performances of Tom Waits and William S. Buroughs’ The Black Rider and last year she appeared at a Nick Drake tribute concert. She always seems to be up for singing Christmas songs.
Above, “When You Know Why You’re Happy” on Night Music in 1989.
“Don’t Be Afraid” from Hal Wilner’s 1997 Kurt Weil tribute, September Songs.
“Something I Dreamed Last Night” from the 2004 Canadian telefilm, Youkali Hotel.
“I Don’t Care” from the 2001 film Apartment Hunting (which O’Hara also acted in).
“Body’s In Trouble” from Miss America.