B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
O’Brien: The turtle. Yeah, I guess a sea turtle.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
O’Brien: Music sorta revealed itself to me, it was something I could do, something I could understand. I used to play at the piano keys as a little kid, was able to hear and sing harmonies before I could play anything. So it became my way into the world. It feeds me and it feeds on itself. It’s an escape in many ways, but it’s also one of my best paths to connection to the world.
B&L: Is songwriting an easy or arduous process for you? Are you an “in the moment” kind of writer, or do you have to actively schedule “office hours” to get words on paper?
O’Brien: I write ideas – just words that say something to me – in little notebooks and on boarding passes. I keep all those notes and look at them later maybe. Some songs take a long time to start to form, and then a little catalyst will show up – the right phrase, maybe, that suggests the whole thing I’ve already thought a lot about. Other times, a song will just show up and form in a few minutes. Then there are the purposefully scheduled times where I force myself to get down to it. There’s a rhythm I’ve found occasionally, where I get into a flow. Usually the flow ends when I have to go on tour. But sometimes a tour will start a flow.
B&L: You play nearly every instrument it seems. What one speaks to you most? Further, how many strings to you figure you’ve burned through over the span of your career?
O’Brien: I used to suck on harmonica! Recently I tried bringing a penny whistle around to learn to play while I take a walk or something, but I’m probably past learning anything that’s not a stringed instrument. The guitar is my original best friend, and now that I’m mainly playing guitar again, the fiddle and mandolin are calling me more. I probably have ADD, might be a little on the spectrum as they say…
B&L: What’s the making of a great show?
O’Brien: I try to tell a few real stories in the emcee work and in the songs. I might use the older, surefire chestnuts from the traditional realm, or covers, or tried and true originals to build a frame that the audience can trust. Then I can play some wildcards. It’s also important to reveal some of myself, make fun of myself. Mick Maloney says you want to make them, think, laugh, and cry in the right proportions. John Hartford said you play the first songs for the audience until their on your side, then you play a few to make your band happy, after which you can pick one for yourself. That kinda sounds like normal hospitality.
B&L: You’re on the road with your partner, Jan Fabricius. What do you appreciate about this arrangement and these shows? What’s Jan add to the mix?
O’Brien: Jan adds beautiful harmony and she’s beautiful looking too so people get a break from my ugly mug… She brings some nice mandolin parts too, and we’ve worked up some arrangements that work in a band as well as in our duo. She can play chords behind a fiddle tune. As a touring partner, we do fun things together when we’re on the road – historic sights, National parks, weird kitsch like the world’s largest Czech egg in Wilson KS – we just can’t pass those up when we come upon them. We don’t have to hurry home from a tour to reunite, so we often build some free time into tours.
B&L: You’re a funny guy. Your banter is often ripe with self-deprecating quips… What’s the importance of humor? How does humor help shape your day-to-day?
O’Brien: I take what I do seriously, but don’t ever take my own self too seriously. Riffing on the world as an artist requires some sorta personal interface, and it’s often better that the serious things about yourself come out in the songs, but the talk between them keeps the tone lighter. You ask a lot of an audience, so you try to take care of them.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform at the Word Barn on March 13th?
O’Brien: We’ll be singing songs from the more recent records “Pompadour“, “Where the River Meets the Road“, and “Tim O’Brien Band”. We’ve been remembering friends who have recently passed away – Arty McGlynn and David Olney with some of their music. I’ve been pulling some older songs like “Hold To a Dream”, among others, out of the bag. “The Crossing” is about to be reissued and that music dovetails with St. Paddy’s day so I’ve got those songs on my mind more.
B&L: Friday the 13th for that matter… Are you superstitious at all? What spooks you?
O’Brien: I freak out sometimes if I’m a little late to arrive, especially at a new venue. Then I get nervous – skittish is more like it – for a few minutes right before showtime, then it all goes away. Once in a while somebody I admire might be in the audience and I’ll freak a little. Once at the Towne Crier in Pawling NY, I came out on stage and John Cohen and Loudon Wainwright were sitting at a table RIGHT IN FRONT of me. Took me a few songs to calm down… Kinda pissed me off that I couldn’t just stop and visit with them both.
B&L: Is it weird to set foot onto stage and play to a room full of (mostly) strangers? Or do you bask in the opportunity to make new friends/fans?
O’Brien: I’ve got a strong enough suit of armor in the songs and the instrument I’m playing, so I know I can survive. I might feel them out a little and then try to respond in some way to help things along. A new audience can be the best because they can surprise me.
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
O’Brien: Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”, or Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”, or how about “Last Train From Poor Valley” by Norman Blake? Yeah, all of the above…
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
O’Brien: Fresh long stemmed roses for Jan.
Tim O’Brien and his partner (in life and in music), Jan Fabricius will find their way into the Word Barn on Friday, March 13th. Tickets are available here.