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Seven Questions for Musician Nora O’Connor

Backing up Mavis Staples or touring with Iron & Wine, you’ve heard this local—even if you don’t know her name. See her at a residency at The Hideout this month.

Nora O'Connor   Photo: Courtesy of Bloodshot Records

Chances are you’ve heard local singer and multi-instrumentalist Nora O’Connor before, even if you don’t recognize her by name. The 45-year-old Evanston resident’s honey-smooth voice is the sweet secret weapon behind many beloved records and mesmerizing live shows—from Andrew Bird to Iron & Wine and Mavis Staples.

This month, she settles into The Hideout for a four-show residency where she’ll resurrect her former bands and perform a cover one of her favorite albums.

We don’t see you playing out solo as much as you used to, and it seems like you’ve been really busy touring with other people. How did you squeeze in this residency?

Oh yeah. I’ve been really busy playing and singing in other people’s bands and last year I had a really busy year touring with Iron & Wine. But you know, when that settled down, and now that my kids are getting bigger—because when they were little they were always asking me to keep it down and be quiet [laughs]—I’ve just told myself to say yes to opportunities no matter how big or small.

Do you prefer the role of bandleader or band member?

I guess I’m the kind of musician that just likes to be in the band. I don’t necessarily need to lead the band. I like to be over there on the side, serving the song instead of being the ringleader.

Tell me about recording in the Wilco loft for Mavis’s record [2010’s You Are Not Alone, which won a Grammy Award for “Best Americana Album”]?

It was so amazing. The Wilco loft is such a wonderful place. There’s such a friendly vibe there and I’ve known Jeff and Mark Greenberg and the other guys in the band for a really long time. Kelly [Hogan] and I were super excited and super nervous to sing with Mavis and her sister. We stood in a circle in the studio and just played the songs live. We added some extra vocals and maybe a guitar solo or two at the end. But for the most part it was just standing in the Wilco loft, across the room from Mavis Staples, and I can’t believe I got to do that. It was so wonderful and I love her so much. And just to sing with Kelly…she gives me a lot of confidence and she’s a huge cheerleader of mine.

You came up in Chicago’s alt-country scene at its peak. What was that time like?

Something really special about The Hideout is that, back then, that’s where we’d go to see our friends play. Whether it was Neko Case, The Handsome Family, Chris Mills or Andrew Bird, we were all there weaving in and out of The Hideout between tours and sharing road stories. That was such a great family environment. In that scene, we were so supportive of each other and played shows together and played on each other’s records for free when nobody had any label support.

Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up on the Southside?

I grew up in a really big Irish family and there were lots of parties where my dad or my aunt or my godfather would sing songs…great Irish songs. It’s not like I grew up listening to country music at all. I grew up with a ton of Irish music—my mother blaring The [Hagerty Family] Irish Hour when she was cleaning the house every weekend. I didn’t really have a choice.

How did that translate to your interest in country music?

Well, I went to school in Carbondale and sort of fell in with a bluegrass crowd and now that’s where I gravitate. I don’t really know why. I mean, I listened to Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon as a kid [laughs].

How was the first show in your residency?

I was nervous because it was supposed to be my duo Cantina, which is a band I had about 13 years ago, but my friend had to cancel. So I put together a whole new band and a whole new set. It went really well. I broke my residency cherry so I’m ready to keep in going. It was really fun and I’m excited.

What do you have planned for the rest of the month?

This week, I’ve put a band together and we’re going to perform the Buckingham Nicks record, which is one of my favorite records and a big undertaking because Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing is so insane. The week after that I’m going to have my band The Flat Five [a vocal-centric covers quintet that includes celebrated alt-country siren Kelly Hogan, Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough of the new NRBQ, and drummer Alex Hall who’s toured with Chuck Berry and Wanda Jackson] who usually play once or twice a year. The last week is a band called Precious Blood, which is myself and Danny Black, who I played with in The Blacks about 15 years ago, and his brother Kevin McDonough. That’s just a really super sexy blues kind of thing.

Feb. 11, 18, and 25 at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. hideoutchicago.com; $10.

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