FYIG Chats With Classical Musician Patricia O’Callaghan

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Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get your start as a musician?

After I graduated university I moved to Germany, thinking I wanted to pursue a straight-ahead operatic career for myself, but once there I realized I didn’t want to be singing the works of long-dead composers. I knew that I wanted to move back home to Canada, and create concerts aimed at my generation, that combined wonderful classical music with more sophisticated pop songs and other genres. So I moved back, worked at a café full time, while also pursuing my music full time. I made an album of the repertoire that I loved, which combined lighter classical music with other styles, and I applied for and won a Chalmer’s Grant from the Ontario Arts Council. After I released the album on my own, it was picked up by a label and I signed a multi-album record contract. That, along with the grant, allowed me to give up my café job and really devote all my energies to music from then on. 

How has your musical style evolved as your career has matured? 

Well, I’m not sure where to start on this one…I sang in heavy metal bands and wrote pop songs as a young teenager, until I started taking classical vocal lessons at the age of 16, and discovered the wonderful world of art song and opera. I dedicated the next fifteen years of my life to studying, exploring, and performing that repertoire. Then I decided I really wanted to focus on composers who were living and on mixing up classical art song with more sophisticated pop and art pop music, and that really became what my career was mostly about.  Gradually I have written more and more of my own pieces, both words and music, and my next project will be to collaborate on an entire song cycle. I don’t like to draw lines around musical genres and I sing songs of many different genres and languages in all of my concerts.

How does it feel to receive your first JUNO Awards nomination in the category of 2019 Classical Album of the Year: Vocal or Choral for “Corona Divinae Misericordiae”? 

Of course, I am thrilled about it! I am very proud of this album, and of my singing on it. It’s a fantastic piece of music and I hope it gets more notice because of this nomination. I also feel, because I don’t do a lot of straight-ahead classical music these days and because David Braid (composer of the nominated album) is mostly known as a jazz artist, that we sort of snuck into the classical category, which makes me happy!

Patricia O'Callaghan
Credit: Andrew MacNaughtan

You recently completed a six-year stint as a Resident Artist at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company. What was that experience like? 

It was a wonderful opportunity to learn a lot of different skills and really mature as an artist.  I learned how to produce and curate large scale shows, conduct a choir (which is now in its tenth year!!!), mentor younger artists, teach, speak at board meetings, create a LOT of new work, and perform a ton.  I continue to use all of those skills on a regular basis.

One of your recent projects is “Broken Hearts and Madmen”; a collaboration with The Gryphon Trio, which blends classical music with traditional songs from Latin America and pop songs from around the world. Where did this idea come about and do you have any other ideas like this that you’re interested in experimenting with? 

Roman Borys, the cellist of the Gryphon Trio, approached me with nothing but the name “Broken Hearts and Madmen”, which is so evocative, and that was really where we began – finding songs or composers who were dealing with heartbreak and madness…turns out there’s a lot to choose from! As we were riffing on potential songs, we realized we both had strong connections to Mexico and love of that music, and the producer, Roberto Occhipinti, has professional ties to Cuba, so a lot of the repertoire went in that direction.

I have done many Spanish themed concerts and would love to do an all Spanish album, definitely…it’s my favourite language to sing in.

After a career that has spanned over 15 years, what keeps you going and what do you have left to accomplish? 

It’s funny, in a way I feel like I’m just getting started! As I mentioned in an earlier answer, I am doing more writing and collaborating and that is very exciting.  I also feel I want to use my voice into its full potential, in more fearless and expansive ways!

What advice would you have for aspiring singers/songwriters? 

Easier said than done I know, but definitely do not let setbacks stop you in your tracks. Allow them to make you stronger. They are inevitable and it’s easy to get discouraged. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge the loss or sadness felt, and then figure out another way to approach the problem and keep going!

Find a small (very small) group of people that you trust and respect and allow only them to give you constructive criticism or advice.

Learn to be a good cook! It is likely that you will never be rich if you have decided to be an artist and if the music itself is what is important to you, so dining out every day will not be an option!

I read a great book by Julia Cameron called “The Artist’s Way” at a crucial time early in my career, and it really helped me demystify the creative process, and recognize patterns and move through blocks. I recommend it!

Oh yeah, and work really, really hard, every day (or at least six days a week). Seriously.

What’s one thing you would change about the music industry today? 

Well, there are many things I would change actually…I have always really struggled with the ‘industry’ aspect of the music industry.  But if I could choose one battle, I would say, that in the transition from physical copies of music to digital formats, artists really got the short end of the stick in terms of royalties and compensation for their hard work and huge investment of time, money and talent.  Streaming royalties are ridiculously, insultingly small, and we have to remedy this if the industry is to survive with any kind of diversity and breadth. It’s hard to put a value on music (and all the arts) – on the busker you heard who lifted your mood, or on the movie you saw as a child which made you know what you wanted to be when you grew up – so we end up putting no value at all on them, when actually, they are priceless.

What’s your life like outside of music? 

Music does tend to infiltrate everything I do, even when I’m on vacation, but outside of performing I like to travel, and spend a lot of time outdoors – swimming, canoeing, hiking, and skiing.  My husband is Australian, so when we’re there, I run on the beach, swim and snorkel, and I’ve even taken a few surfing lessons (It’s really #$%#ing hard!)

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