“I’m not tough enough for rock ’n’ roll. I’m too much of a wimp about the loud noises and I choke on smoke,” laughs fetching Ferndale singer-songwriter Kate O’Hara.
Of course, the first time I encountered O’Hara performing, she was decked out in bright pink bunny ears, holding an audience of small children absolutely in thrall with a piano, pedal steel and vocal rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star.” A feat that is, you have to admit, very rock ’n’ roll.
“Rock ’n’ roll is where my heart is, though,” says O’Hara. “That’s where I find the creative energy is, in rock audiences. I absolutely love the spirit of rock.”
Lately, O’Hara — who received classical music training at Michigan State University — can most often be found holding court during her nightclub act at Hamtramck’s Polish Village Café. At these intimate sit-down affairs there’s a detectable presence of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nico lurking, peppered with 1920s jazz and a self-effacing sense of humor, and wrapped up in whatever persona O’Hara has decided to adopt for the occasion. And the personas, which are many, change with each show.
“Sometimes you reveal more with having some sort of character or mask to hide behind,” says O’Hara. “Someone as cripplingly shy as I am, it’s helpful to come out of the shell and it’s a creative way to reveal things. Sometimes that’s how you can say the most, by obscuring yourself.”
But no matter what nomme de chancon she may have adopted for the evening (in the case of her performance this weekend, it’s Sunshine Dubay, in honor of a character from Harold & Maude), there are certain personality quirks that keep the audience on their toes. O’Hara describes her cabaret doppelgänger as “a person, I’d say, who is a little pompous, a little narcissistic,” she says laughing.
“Because I think there’s part of me that’s got a little guilt since performing can be such an egocentric activity. I try to mock that, to poke a little fun at someone who’s very pleased with themselves and what they’re presenting.”
As for the nontraditional musical setting, O’Hara explains the appeal is a combination of aesthetic and pragmatic.
“It’s very 1940s, the audience sits down with their cocktails and they eat pierogis and listen,” she explains. “You have everything you need. I don’t like to be uncomfortable.”
“Of course, the audience talks a little, but then I reprimand them and they’re better after that.”
O’Hara’s is an act as varied as her musical influences. She grew up on Detroit’s west side in a household filled with music. So it is, she says, that her musical background is “really checkered. It seems to be this really schizo twisting road.
“I have a classical training in voice and piano, but the training for me was the means to an end. I was the kid who went around the neighborhood before I even took a lesson, knocking on people’s doors asking to use their piano,” she says.
In one room, her brother would be listening to Roxy Music, Iggy and Elvis Costello while in the other, her mother would be settling in with some Sondheim.
“And my parents are from Ireland, so there’s that whole thing,” she says “There aren’t trained musicians in my immediate family, but we played and sang and played records constantly. It was just a totally natural thing.”
Couple that with living in a racially integrated neighborhood where Earth, Wind and Fire and Honey radio staples coexisted and it’s easy to see why O’Hara characterizes her lifelong love affair with music as “a little confusing.”
“It’s great to have that all go into the computer but to have it emerge with your own voice is the difficult part,” she says.
The reaction to O’Hara’s cultural mixing-bowl approach to music has thus far been more positive than you might expect from a city stereotyped by its guitar-rock and rap exports.
“It’s funny, you play some French song from 1922 for a bunch of punk rockers and they love it. Well, either they love it or they’re putting on a good act,” she says.
“They’re sort of a little bewildered, but pleased ... the triumph of the oddball — everybody loves that.”