Reluctant genius: Mary Margaret O'Hara. Courtesy Bill Robertson/Apartment Hunting Productions.
Reason for Induction:
For achieving international music legend status on the strength of one 17-year-old album, and for refusing to play celebrity.
Strange for a musician, but silence has defined Mary Margaret O’Hara’s career as much as her fluttering, uncatchable song and dance. Of course, there has been noise, too: Michael Stipe declaring her “a national treasure”; Morrissey and Jane Siberry enlisting her talents on their records; Mojo, the influential, list-happy British magazine, naming her 1988 album, Miss America, one of the best 100 albums of all time.
But 1988 was a long time ago. And then silence. And then a Christmas record in 1991. And then silence. And then in 2002, a movie soundtrack. And now more silence.
For a certain kind of celebrity, obscurity perpetuates adoration. The J.D. Salingers and Brian Wilsons play hard to get, pulled by their demons towards privacy, shoving back at our hunger for their talents. Fandom is masochism, and we beg for more.
For 30 years, Mary Margaret O’Hara has kind of been ignoring us. She was a fixture on Toronto’s then-hipster Queen Street in the early ’70s, before the Gap and Club Monaco and their like began to clog the bar-and-restaurant artery. In vintage clothes, her long hair tumbling from clips, she was ridiculously arty, a student at the Ontario College of Art, painting, sculpting, designing. She appeared in photographer Robert Frank’s legendary film Candy Mountain. She created the lettering for the sign on the landmark Queen Street club The Rivoli.
Growing up in Toronto in a big Irish Catholic family, O’Hara and her two sisters, one of whom is SCTV-alumna Catherine O’Hara, would sing three-part harmonies together. Goaded by Catherine into taking the stage with a local band called Songship (later the Go Deo Chorus), she sang with a strange, polyrhythmic voice that sounded tiny and then ballooned into angry shouts, dropping back down to a girlish twitter. Sometimes the whole jazzy-experimental thing grates a little, let’s be honest; there’s a touch of Yoko in the woman. She dances like a tree sprite and says things like: “My instrument is the human body.”
But then again, there’s something hauntingly unique and timeless about her music; Mary Margaret O’Hara sounds like no one else. Virgin Records noticed, signing her in the ’80s, but it was a nightmare. After four years of recording, tinkering and fighting with the label, the album Miss America crawled out in 1988, battered and unpromoted, but music lovers nurtured it to life. She sings those first words, held up by just a tinge of guitar, almost reluctantly: “You take a walk…I’ll be your side…” So damned pretty and then the damaged, tear-jerking chorus: “I still feel for you…”
Body’s In Trouble was the single, a hiccupping pop song written nine years before the album’s release. In the video, O’Hara slaps her hips and weaves like a more poetic Joe Cocker. The phrasing is strange, the lyrics nonsensical, the song perfect.
What to do next? Something of a delicate soul – she rambles a bit in interviews – O’Hara reportedly felt scarred by the Miss America experience, and she retreated. In 2002, as a favour for a filmmaker friend, she recorded several songs for the soundtrack to a movie called Apartment Hunting (never content to be one kind of artist, she appeared in the film, too). Critics raved, but it was a comeback that came and went back.
Once in a while, O’Hara can still be spotted, usually unannounced, on Toronto stages. Often she appears backing some musician or other who worships her, and it’s always a pleasant surprise, a welcome recollection. Most recently, her distinct falsetto drifts in the distance on an album by a lovely young Toronto songwriter named Justin Rutledge, who’s not even 30. She is only willing to give this much of herself, and for now, that will have to be enough.
Katrina Onstad writes about the arts for CBC.ca.
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