Category: Holly Figueroa O’Reilly

Lost Voices: Holly Figueroa O’Reilly’s Final Covers Album
+ bonus coverage from Mary Lou Lord, Feist, Linda Thompson, & more

November 18th, 2011 — 12:22 am

One of the reasons I am so busy these days is that as a baritone, I am in high demand for local choirs and stage productions. It’s not just that I’m loud: As a trained vocalist, a stage actor, and a teacher, I pride myself in my control of tone and pitch and projected volume – all the subtle ways I have learned to shape sound to maximum effect in a variety of venues.

It’s part of my identity: a nurtured talent, grown and trusted. When it is tired, I can feel it; when it is under siege, from nasal drip and overuse, I feel depressed and impotent.

And if it ever went away, I’d feel the loss profoundly.

I have nightmares in which I lose my voice forever, and these fears are not unfounded: it happens. Feist, for example, lost her voice on the cusp of fame the first time around, belting it out as a member of a punk band in the early nineties before taking several years off due to vocal damage. Though she’s since turned the remaining fragile, burned-out whisper into an asset – admirably, instead of sinking into despair, she was able to find another sort of beauty in the torn remnants of what was once clear and sweet – the damage could not be undone.

I’m not so sure I could do what she has done. It takes a measure of humility which I do not possess, and cannot truly understand, to remake the voice like that.

And there’s no guarantee that I’d have the chance, either.

Sadly, though some singers, like Feist, have managed to turn vocal disaster into an asset, and others, like Adele, find that the damage they have done through an early career of belt and bellow vocal style is treatable and restorable, for many singers, such a middle ground is not possible. Despite recent reports of vocal restoration, there’s a difference between damage – which can often be fixed with care, and subsequently avoided through retraining – and the more extreme cases. When disease is the diagnosis, for many, it’s permanent.

And losing the voice permanently, or even semi-permanently, is like a little death, or a death sentence, for musicians. It’s not as uncommon as you think, and it can be caused by any one of a set of medical issues, from the lungs to throat to vocal chord: Mary Lou Lord, for example, a contemporary of the Boston grunge and busker scenes who trends towards punk folk in her better moments, lost hers to spasmodic dysphonia, and though she is currently recording a new covers album, putting her back on our radar, she still struggles with the disease, which has kept her off the scene for quite some time; the same disease also kept folk musician Linda Thompson from recording and touring in the early eighties, since which she has produced just two albums.

Joni Mitchell lost as much as two octaves, and her vocal purity, to years of smoking. Julie Andrews lost her singing voice permanently to surgery after developing nodules on her vocal chords through overuse in 1997 – a surprisingly common phenomenon in older singers of both genders. And Bridget Matros, who got a promising start in college with a debut recording alongside fellow students Josh Ritter and Guy Mendilow at Oberlin college in the late nineties, lost hers to acid reflux on the cusp of a promising career; though she did release a four track of abstract, layered vocal garageband experiments this year, they are more art than artifact.

And then there’s contemporary folk singer-songwriter Holly O’Reilly (formerly known as Holly Figueroa), who lost her voice on stage at the Northwest Folklife Festival in 2009, twelve years, two Grammy nominations, and several major label offers into a blossoming and determinedly indie career. A visit to a specialist resulted in a diagnosis of both rheumatiod arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, a pair of inflamatory diseases which ultimately affected both her voice and her hands, keeping her from singing and playing the guitar for a year – a great loss for O’Reilly, and for the folk community.

Sadly, though drugs ultimately soothed and restored that voice for a while, O’Reilly’s clock is ticking; according to her own bio and facebook feed, the massive doses of steroids she’s been ingesting were doing as much damage to her body as the disease itself. And so O’Reilly made the impossible choice: to give up her voice in order to live without pain, for her family’s sake and for her own. As Holly herself put it at the end of last year,

I am prepared to go off of prednisone completely and to lose my singing voice again. But I wanted to make some records before I did that. I made a live record in May 2010, am finishing up a covers record, and will start an originals record in the fall. And then, I’m probably done, unless my voice comes back spontaneously. (I waited for that for a long time. Not counting on it.)

In One, the covers record in question, O’Reilly is singing on borrowed time, and it shows: her voice changes subtly from track to track. But the songs are sweet nonetheless, and stunning, and poignant with her craft and talent as much as with her history. O’Reilly is strong, though she is clearly affected by her struggle and the ticking clock; all of this and more pours through even the most torn of tracks. And the song choices are inspired: every performance, from covers of REM, U2, Slipknot, Oasis, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen, Tom Petty and Joe Henry, speaks to a wellstorm of emotion, spoken clearly and eloquently, in an act of true song ownership.

Her cover of One Headlight, alone, dark and dirty with dobro, perfectly pitched in every tone, makes this quite possibly the best cover album of the year, a dark horse contender from all the way back in January. Her cover of Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World is haunting. Her take on Wonderwall breathes a sort of broken life into the song, its slow build into broken hope a triumph of transformative song. Put them against her 2007 cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, recorded before she began her long journey through illness and loss, and – like every other song on this perfect collection – they grow all the more stark, all the more poignant, all the more potent, for the difference.

That these songs represent, in other words, the second act in a final play, the last farewell to a life lived in voice, is not where their strength lies. It is, instead, in the power of the musician, working with a tenacious instrument, and other people’s songs, to maximum effect.

Beauty and pain, and some bonus tracks from O’Reilly’s fellow sufferers, follow below. It’s how they wear their scars that make them beautiful.

6 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly, Mary Lou Lord