When Siobhán O'Brien heard that the Frames frontman Glen Hansard had won the Oscar last month for best song for "Falling Slowly," his duet with Markéta Irglová from the film "Once," she was so happy for him that she cried. Her father told her he had heard the company that makes the guitar Hansard favors had seen him playing his battered old instrument at the awards show and offered him a new one.
"I was going, 'Don't take the guitar, don't take the guitar,' " O'Brien recalls from her home in Limerick. She got her wish. Her father said Hansard had declined.
"That's Glen. I knew he wouldn't take the guitar," says the 38-year-old Irish singer-songwriter. O'Brien seems to need her heroes unsullied and intact; she isn't into the "glitz and the glamour" of success: "I just love doing this," she says of making music.
O'Brien met Hansard 15 years ago when they bonded over a mutual love of Bob Dylan. Around the time, Dylan had invited O'Brien, a plucky girl with a strong, delicately tremulous voice, to sing his song "The Fox" onstage in Dublin with him. That song is just one of many covers - from Harry Chapin's "Shooting Star" to Brian Wilson's "In My Room" - that O'Brien recently recorded for her self-released covers record, "Songs I Grew Up To."
"I never in my life thought I'd do a covers album. Writing was such a huge part of who I was and who I wanted to be seen as. The letting go had to happen," O'Brien says. "I realized I was limiting myself. Most people would be like, 'You have a great voice,' and I'd be like, 'OK, whatever. What about the songwriting'. " She growls the words as if through gritted teeth. "I was probably ignoring what I can do best."
Tonight at Symphony Hall, O'Brien will sing some of those cover songs when she appears as a guest of the Chieftains. Tomorrow she headlines the considerably more intimate Midway Café in Jamaica Plain with her friend and producer Martin O'Malley backing her on guitar. It was O'Malley who was instrumental in O'Brien's "letting go," when he tinkered with some cover songs she had recorded at his studio as a gift for her aunt.
"Martin had put all this lovely guitar and double bass behind them. I was like, 'Oh, my god!' I didn't even know if I wanted to sound like that. It sounded so nice; I didn't know if it was still me. Did I want to go this way?," she says.
But she went with it and recorded more songs, inviting more musicians to add parts. One of them, Pete Cummins, asked his friend, the Chieftains uilleann pipes player Paddy Moloney, to play. Moloney says he was astonished when he heard O'Brien's voice on tape.
"I was blown away. I thought she's brilliant, you know? I can't understand why she's not at the top," Moloney says. "Maybe she didn't want it? I don't know the full story, but she has a beautiful voice. When you have a voice like that, you should get on with it."
O'Brien's back story includes ties to one of Ireland's biggest pop stars: Her uncle Brendan Bowyer was a show-band superstar in the 1960s before relocating to Las Vegas to become a successful performer there. Over the years, O'Brien has performed as far and wide as the late Tir Na Nog in Somerville and, in 1999, Austin's South by Southwest music conference. She's certainly no shy retiring type and has sought out many of her heroes along the way (on Dylan: "Basically, I ambushed him outside his hotel," she says semi-apologetically). As Moloney puts it, after she tracked him down in Dublin to thank him for working on her record, "She comes right out with it."
O'Brien recalls Moloney asking her when she was in America next. She casually replied, "Oh, well, I fly into Boston on the 12th of March. He said, 'Oh we're there on the 14th; do you want to do a song with us?' " The twist is that O'Brien knew the Chieftains' dates and originally had only a connecting flight through Boston. She laughs at her gall but understands this need for connecting with other musicians.
"I want to work with great artists. It doesn't matter what genre, just great people and great musicians," she explains. That, she now realizes, includes singing their songs. "It's all about the unity," she says. "Music's such a powerful thing. It reaches out and grabs people, and they don't really have any say in it."