Blue O'Connell
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Blue O'Connell

Charlottesville, Virginia, United States | INDIE

Charlottesville, Virginia, United States | INDIE
Band Folk Acoustic


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"Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif"

If Blue O’Connell had just chosen to perform instrumentals on Choose the Sky – six of its 13 compositions are instrumentals – it would be easy to simply applaud an album of often haunting, creative classical guitar or guitar/flute pieces influenced by sounds of nature and by strains of classical, folk, new age and Native American music. The compositions and the way she plays them on guitar and, occasionally, on flute, is spacious, calming and lovely.

The vocal songs, too, are spacious, calming and lovely. But, when Blue sings, the timbre in her singing voice quickly tells us that she is an unusual singer-songwriter. Hers is a voice obviously affected by a hearing disability – a disability she has not allowed to stop her from appreciating, making and sharing music.

A musician, since childhood, Blue began to progressively lose her hearing as a young adult. She continued to make music using hearing aids for more than 20 years until three years ago when she received a cochlear implant in one ear and a digital hearing aid in the other. She then had to undergo therapy and rehabilitation to understand and process sounds in a new a different way.

“All the while, I kept at my music even though it did sound very strange in the beginning,” she explains on her website.

There is a seeming innocence to Blue’s lyric writing that finds joy in the sights of the sky, that wonders how she will be affected by a spiritual encounter or where the inner muse for creating music comes from. Perhaps the most moving song is “To Belong,” an empowering declaration about overcoming disability.

While Blue performs solo on most of the album, a few songs are sweetened by contributions from cellist Peter Markush, harmony singer Mary Gordon Hall and guitarist Jeff Romano.

And while there may be a seeming innocence to her lyric writing and a seeming purity to her melodies, I can’t help but think that I’m just a little bit wiser from having listened to Blue O’Connell’s inspiring music. - Mike Regenstreif blog

""Choose the Sky is a small miracle and a testament to the potential of human achievement.""

The first time I listened to Blue O’Connell’s Choose The Sky, I marvelled at her guitar skills and her wonderfully unique voice. The more I listened to her sing, the more I thought she might be deaf, but I couldn’t reconcile that with her guitar playing and so I put the idea out of my head until she confirmed it in an email:

Many years ago I had a good friend who was studying composition at Northwestern University. He invited me over one night to hear his latest piece on the keyboard. After waiting for what seemed a long time, I finally asked, “When are you going to play me your new song?” He looked stunned and answered, “I just did—didn’t you hear it?” I didn’t. That was how I learned that I had a severe hearing loss. I was 25 years old. It is believed my hearing loss was a result of a series of childhood fevers and a case of mononucleosis in my early 20s.

Like most people suffering a loss of hearing, O’Connell managed hers with hearing aids until it deteriorated to the point where they could no longer help.

At age 50 it was suggested that she consider surgery to install a cochlear implant. Worried that this technology would impair her musical abilities, she was skeptical at first, but eventually went ahead with the surgery in January of 2009. Due to her “ski slope” type of hearing loss she experienced a lot of noise during the first few months after the implant was activated. She continued to practice on her guitar but the sound was “not at all integrated.” When she struck one note on the guitar, “a series of sounds resulted that did not sound anything like music.”
Renee Blue O'Connell

Renee Blue O'Connell

Determined not to give up she began doing some ear training exercises with the help of a music teacher friend. They worked with tuning forks to aid in “feeling the vibrations of the pitches & frequencies of notes.”

In one exercise she quizzed me on interval recognition (an interval is a combination of two notes, or the distance between their pitches). She would play two notes in succession and I would listen to see if I could discern what interval it was . . . [The] first measure of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” has a perfect fifth, the intro to “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a major third, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” begins with an octave, and so on. The reason this is a significant exercise is because intervals are what make up a melody. The idea being that if you are able to distinguish pitches by isolating them as we did in the above exercise that can improve your ability to discern notes in a melody.

Other things we did were from a book called, “Sight Singing: Pitch, Interval, Rhythm” by Samuel Adler. In these exercises, we worked with the piano and guitar, sounding the notes of the intervals and then singing them a cappella. The goal of these exercises was pretty much the same as above, to be able to discern intervals and to also produce them by singing. In more advanced drills, we would start by singing a series of notes in a melody out loud and then read the notes in our head silently and at the last measure of the line, sing the notes out loud again and then check with the piano to see if we stayed on pitch. It was all a lot of fun and also very challenging. I believe that doing these exercises really helped me regain my musical perception.

Six months later she got a new digital hearing aid (Phonak Nadia) for her right ear:

It was then I really experienced a miracle for I could then hear every note on my guitar. Before my CI and HA I could hear up to the 7th fret but now I could hear every note, all the way to the 19th fret. The difference though was that my acoustic/nylon string guitar now sounded electric. I knew it would sound different and I was prepared to accept the difference even if I didn’t like it. But I was surprised that I did like the sound. Whew, what a relief and a blessing!

O’Connell now works full time as a professional musician. Employed at the University of Virginia Hospital as a Certified Music Practitioner, she plays therapeutic music at the bedside. She also works for VSA Arts in Charlottesville, an organization which promotes experiences in the arts for individuals with disabilities.

Over five years in the making (due to the rehab required for the implant), Choose the Sky is a small miracle and a testament to the potential of human achievement when people refuse to give up.

Joined by Peter Markush on cello, and Mary Gordon Hall on harmony vocals, Choose The Sky also features Jeff Romano on guitar on Innermission No 50 — a studio improvisation O’Connell performed on Native American flute as a CD bonus track to celebrate her 50th birthday.

O’Connell’s picking style and phrasings are typical of western classical, but it is the flow and emphasis in her playing that really makes her music shine and I am guessing that this has been inspired somewhat from the rehab she endured after her implant surgery. Re-learning how to hear with the aid of two cybernetic devices has perhaps given O’Connell a new appreciation for sound that most people simply take for granted.

The months she endured examining tonal relationships in detail has given her fresh insights on how they might best overlap in playing. Subtle changes in timing and emphasis can produce pronounced effects.

There is patience in the playing out of the many melodies on Choose The Sky. The music has space to breathe and the dynamics are both relaxing and refreshing.

The pensive instrumental, For The Lily Grows sets the mood for the introspective and waltzing How Will I Know. The emotional dynamics and use of harmonic punctuations in Remembrance are tell-tale signs of a truly brilliant player who knows her instrument well enough to relax and be in the moment — expressing even carefully planned arrangements as though they were being played for the very first time. - The Basement Rug blog (Canada)

"Profoundly Moving"

I listened to Blue O'Connell's new CD today. The name is "Choose the Sky." This CD is among the most profoundly moving CD’s of modern singer-songwriters that I’ve ever experienced. I started listening to it as I pulled into the parking lot at CVS, and after a short while I completely forgot why I had stopped at CVS!

Blue has been on a journey, with a major hearing challenge and then a cochlear implant. Her songs "Once I Was the Wind" and "Transcriptions" were recorded before her surgery. She was concerned about her enunciation in those songs, but kept them on the CD as milestones in her journey. I am happy she did! They are deeply moving.

Her challenges not only don’t detract from her music, but instead give an additional dimension. I was fascinated by several things. One is how far back her influences go-- more than 20 years ago. Clearly, she had stored up deep things, and the cochlear implant contributed to giving her an outlet for expressing those. Also, her music is suffused with spiritual questions and explorations, and mystery.

I’m not surprised that she doesn't have a lot of songs about the “disability experience" -- her term. She simply doesn’t live there. She is primarily about other things, yet her song “To Belong”-- about the complex matter of having a disability -- is wonderful. Other favorites of mine are “How Will I Know,” “Lullaby for Japan,” and, as mentioned, “Once I Was the Wind.”

Blue's guitar-playing is evocative, too, and her songs and vocal phrasing are distinctive and compelling.

Strongly recommended. El McMeen - CD Baby

"Northern Sky (CD review)"

Upon first hearing Charlottesville-based singer/guitarist Blue O'Connell's album CHOOSE THE SKY, with its complex guitar instrumentals and well-crafted self-probing songs, the standard of musicianship should come as no surprise, bearing in mind that Blue has experienced no less than 36 years of musical exploration, studying with the likes of Robert Fripp, Ralph Towner and Dusan Bogdonvic along the way. What will be a startling revelation to some is that Blue O'Connell has been cheated of the very thing all musicians depend upon, her hearing. Having undergone cochlear implant surgery, basically being fitted with electronic hearing devices, Blue has managed to complete and release this beautiful record.

With seven instrumental pieces and six songs, Blue presents an introspective album of personal experiences, some of which were written as far back as 1989. It's difficult not to imagine a remarkable sense of determination in Blue's musical endeavours, which is not only profoundly humbling but also thoroughly uplifting at the same time. Joining Blue are Peter Markush on cello and Mary Gordon Hall on harmony vocals with producer Jeff Romano contributing guitar on the bonus track Intermission No. 50, on which Blue plays the Native American flute.

Whilst instrumentals such as For the Lily Grows and Invocation of the Mystery Guest are highly accomplished guitar pieces, it's with the songs that we approach an understanding of who Blue O'Connell really is. Both Choose the Sky and To Belong were originally instrumentals, to which Blue wrote lyrics much later. Highly personal and moving, these songs in particular provide an insight into what Blue O'Connell is all about. Having heard To Belong several times now, I can readily confirm that I know precisely where this and all the other compositions belong, right here in my record collection and glad to have them there. Perhaps they should be in yours too.
Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky - Northern Sky UK

"Choose the Sky review"

his may not exactly be politically correct, but, actually so what, I think it's going to be the best way to get across my thoughts on Blue O'Connell's "Choose The Sky" after it had made its way across the pond to land on my door mat.

Dame Evelyn Glennie, despite how she was often portrayed in the media, was not a deaf percussionist, she was a world class percussionist that also happened to be deaf. Similarly Blue O'Connell is not a heard of hearing singer/songwriter operating in the country/blues idom, Blue O'Connell is a pretty sharp singer/songwriter/guitarist/flautist that happens to have profound hearing issues.

On the face of it I'm bringing together two artists that have nothing in common except hearing issues, which on the face of it is wrong and it would be if that was all they had in common, but it's not. Evelyn and Blue also share a vision, in that ultimately they define themselves by their music and reach onto a wider role in the world, that of being respected for their music and what they bring to it. I could have just let it pass, but I do feel humbled by it, I fear in the same position I would have bitched about my lot.

I hadn't read the sleeve notes or accompanying sheet of paper when I put this album into the cd player, but I did notice that on the inner sleeve Blue had written the album title in nine different languages which actually started me thinking about the nature of the album and what I was going to hear as here appeared to be an artist thinking about wider audience and the nature of what she was going to bring them.

The title of the album proves to be key to understanding the album. The sky is a very changeable thing, always there, but full of so many different moods and atmospheres, warm and welcoming, dark and brooding, intriguing, a blank canvas, and full of clouds just waiting for you to turn them into shapes and that is how Blue O'Connell writes her songs, to reflect that variety.

Predomiently she accompanies her Americana styled songs with just a guitar, occasionally adding native flute into the song to give it a roaming spirit feel, and that really gives her a chance to deliver her poetic thoughts from within a simple wrapper.

I have to say there were times when I found her voice, slightly grating, it is a voice that carries a sharpness to it, but it rarely detracts from the song or accompaniment leaving the feeling of an album that has been an enriching forty two minutes and you can't ask more of a singer/songwriter than that.

Neil King - FATEA UK

"Victory Review Music Magazine"

blueoconnellSinger Songwriter
Blue O’Connell: Choose the Sky

Blue O’Connell has released an album of gorgeous melodies, with clear, thoughtful classical guitar backing. Other instruments are the cello played by Peter Markush; Native American Flute and tambourine played by Blue; and harmonies by Mary Gordon Hall. The title song ‘Choose the Sky’ is poetic and revealing, “Sometimes I get lost, Inside a thought, Nowhere to go, My story that only I know…”

‘For the Lily Grows’ is a timeless guitar instrumental. No words are needed and this piece has several movements to engage your interest. ‘How Will I know’ has wonderful harmonies on a song which is spiritual in mood, introspection and wonder. ‘Lullabye for Japan’ is a meaningful instrumental demonstrating O’Connell’s sensitivity and her ability to put feelings to music. Three other instrumentals are ‘Invocation of the Mystery Guest,’ ‘Remembrance,’ and ‘Owl’s Dream.’ The latter is “A musical depiction of an encounter I had watching two owls in the woods…” I like her use of space and her story-like tunes are never abstract.

‘Once I Was the Wind’ is an immediate favorite. “This one harkens back to an experience [in theater]...I played the part of the wind in audience members’ story.” The mystery songs says, ”I am the darkness, I am the light. I am the mystery in you & me…” and “all that you want is seeking you. Why don’t you let yourself be found? You really never are alone.” ‘Transcriptions (of a Wasp’s Nest)’ is Blue O’Connell’s attempt to transcribe the patterns seen in a found nest. “Spiral stillness in space, hovering haven in cyclical grace…” ‘Let the Music Come’ is simply the writer’s dilemma: Do you find the song or does it find you?

Finally ‘Innermission No.50’ celebrates her 50th birthday with O’Connell on Native American Flute and Jeff Romano on guitar. This improvisational piece is a fitting end to 13 generous tracks. One other song is entitled ‘To Belong.’ It has the words “There’s a feeling that I get sometimes when no one understands me. They only see, what limits me, but I am so much more.” As with many songs new to my ear, I read along from the lyric page. Blue O’Connell’s ‘Owl’s Dream’ is currently being used in a video about the pioneers of cochlear implants, a digital device that can assist persons who are deaf or hard of hearing due to the loss of sensory cells in their cochlea. This is a lovely collection.

[J.W. McClure] - Victory Review

"Blue O'Connell's tunes are worth hearing"

First, she had to get past the cartoon voices. People who spoke to Blue O’Connell initially sounded as if either they’d been breathing helium out of balloons, or were doing their best Darth Vader impressions.

Then, as O’Connell sat in the break room at work during lunch, she had to learn how to sort through a jumble of competing noises — the whirring of the refrigerator, the clink of dishes being washed in the sink, the hum of the air conditioner, friendly banter, laughter. Only then could she decide which sounds to tune out and which ones deserved her focus.

Then, the singer-songwriter and former DJ who serves as a certified music practitioner at the University of Virginia Hospital had to learn to hear music all over again and find the answer to the question she’d been dreading:

Now that she’d had her cochlear implant, would the musical life she cherished come back?

“No one could tell me whether the implant would interfere with music perception,” O’Connell said. “It’s not known for being good for music; it’s really a speech processor.

“Music sounded really strange at first, but it got better over time. Over time, gradually, it came back to me. I had to train my brain to listen to those frequencies.

“But I could hear all the notes on my guitar — every fret.”

O’Connell will take the stage Sunday evening at the Haven at First and Market. She and fellow songwriter Mary Gordon Hall will open the show for Anne Hills and David Roth as part of a benefit for the Thomas Jefferson Coalition for the Homeless. And she’s got so much to share that she can’t wait.

“This is going to be a big thing for me, because it’s like my first time back,” O’Connell said. “It’s almost a homecoming concert.”

Before O’Connell received her cochlear implant two years ago, she’d been losing her hearing bit by bit. So gradually, in fact, that she didn’t realize how serious it had become.

“It was like being in a foreign country. I could understand maybe one out of five words,” she said. “For many years, I didn’t hear a lot of frequencies.”

It meant that an increasing number of notes were off limits on her guitar. People would come up to her after performances and speak to her, and she had no idea what they were saying. Then she completely lost the ability to hear a soft-spoken co-worker, so she’d just smile when her friend spoke to her.

O’Connell said she had no idea how much her hearing had disintegrated until a new friend spoke up after a frustrating conversation at the water’s edge.

“She said she’d tried to speak to me, but the waves were so loud I couldn’t hear her,” O’Connell said. “I was kind of in a lot of denial in my life about my hearing.”

After O’Connell ran into an old friend who’d had an implant, “that planted a seed in my mind,” she said.

“At this point, I thought, ‘I can’t communicate with people. I’ve got to do something,’ ’’ she said.

The resulting din after a cochlear implant sometimes frustrates people into switching off the device and even their hearing aids. It can take months of work to learn to hear familiar sounds in their new forms and not be put off by them, especially if perception of particular frequencies and pitches has been absent for years. O’Connell, who plays therapeutic music for patients for a living, had to commit to rigorous therapy herself to make sense of all the bewildering new sounds.

“I had to go through that initial noisy time,” O’Connell said. “There are days when there’s a lot of noise.”

O’Connell’s hearing homework took up to two hours a day. At one point, she’d listen to recordings of the alphabet for 30 minutes at a stretch, letting the sounds bounce around until they became second nature again.

She’s still fine-tuning the interplay between her cochlear implant and her hearing aid, but she has learned how to filter out background noises in crowded situations and accept the subtle differences in familiar sounds.

The water fountain has a new metallic sound, for instance. Her classical guitar with its nylon strings has more of an electric-guitar sound to her ears now — and she loves it.

“Music isn’t only about hearing with your ears,” O’Connell said. “There’s a resonance thing, too. You can feel it with your body.” Her example? Feeling the thump of the bass long before a car drives past with a cranked-up sound system.

Some sounds that have returned feel like old friends. O’Connell said she’d had no idea how much she missed the sound of wind rustling through the trees.

One joyful moment came when O’Connell was indoors and realized that she could hear birds singing outside. Only months before, she could be standing outdoors and not hear a single chirp.

“I will never take sounds for granted again,” she said.

That’s why O’Connell’s hard at work on “Choose the Sky,” her first album in almost 20 years. She recently thought it was finished and ready to go, but as she keeps making gains with her hearing, she keeps expanding her dreams.

“Now I want to have my friends sing harmony, and I want to have some cello,” she said. - Daily Progress

"Blue's River Runs True"

Blue's 'River' runs true

The words in the songs Blue O'Connell writes are as important to her as the guitar music she weaves around them. They're lyrics that tell her stories, stories that come from her experiences and discoveries of life.

The 34-year-old musician wants her audience to hear her songs, and think about what they say. Then, at the end of her performance, she would like them to be smiling and feeling that that know her better.

"I lead a pretty solitary lifestyle, and I think that has a lot to do with what I write songs about," Ms. O'Connell said. "Most songs are written about love and relationships, and I have those elements in my songs, but not directly.

"For example, a song on my new album, A River Runs Through, talks about someone, but a listener wouldn't know that unless they understood the river was a metaphor for change.

"I don't do that sort of thing intentionally -- it just happens," she said. "My songs have to do with internal processes and inner contemplation, and being I see nature as a teacher, I’ll use things like rivers to help tell my stories."

Although Ms. O'Connell is a favorite at the yearly First Night Virginia festivities in Charlottesville, public appearances by the Chicago native are rare. In fact a lot of people only know her from her WTJU radio folk music program, "Sunset Road," which airs on Fridays from 6 to 7 p.m.

"I love to perform but I don't play that often in public because I don't like to play in bars," Ms. O'Connell said. "If you don't play bars you are very limited."

"I don't like playing bars because the focus is usually not so much listening to the music, as having it in the background," she said. "My songs are such that you have to be able to listen to the words to get anything out of them."

"So a noisy bar scene doesn't serve me very well, and I don't serve it very well. I like to play for an audience that want's to listen to my songs and perhaps think about what I’m saying in them."

Interestingly, Ms. O'Connell started off her musical career creating the kind of musical din she now avoids. Her first instrument of choice was the drums.

"I first dreamed about being a drummer in a rock 'n' roll band," Ms. O'Connell said with a laugh. "But that all changed when I sew a folk singer perform when I was l7.

"Here was this guy playing an acoustic guitar and singing songs about life, and I went from wanting to play rock to wanting to play folk music. Folk music was such a natural thing, but very personal, too. Ms. O'Connell said folk music was a style she could relate to because it drew people together. So she turned from the drums to the guitar.

Although Ms. O'Connell didn't start playing a guitar until she was 17, her work with the instrument is extensive. She has had seven years of classical training with Michael Kovitz, and four years of instrumental finger picking technique at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.

She has also studied Irish Music at the Frances O'Neill School in Chicago for two years. In addition, Ms, O'Connell has studied with innovative, contemporary music artists like Robert Fripp, Ralph Towner, Alien Ginsberg and Philip Glass.

But it's her voice that has probably gotten the most attention during a musical career that has spanned more than two decades. The distinct and unusual sound quality of her singing has been compared to Tracy Chapman and Billie Holiday.

She thinks of her voice as a "translator for the language of the heart." And it's from her heart that her songs come from.

Charlottesville songwriter and recording star John McCutcheon called Ms, O'Connell a "uniquely compelling songwriter."

But it's the melding of all her talents; her songwriting skills, her voice and her strong work on the guitar, that forms her memorable musical style. A style that has earned her the reputation of being a warm and dynamic performer.

"I really don't think of my concerts as being performances as much as I see them as, well, like having some friends coming over to my house," Ms. O'Connell said. "I like the audience to feel welcome and comfortable as I tell them stories from my life. "I like to create a living room atmosphere," she said. "That's why I play in coffeehouses or in areas like at Live Arts where my audience is close to me. My music calls for that intimacy.

By DAVID A. MAURER Daily Progress staff writer, Charlottesville, Virginia - Daily Progress


CD, "Choose the Sky"

Tracks can be heard on SoundCloud:

CD Baby:



Blue O’Connell is a singer/songwriter, guitarist and certified music practitioner who happens to be profoundly deaf. Her debut CD, "Choose the Sky” is part miracle, part hard work and an inspiring achievement.

O'Connell got her start as a professional musician over 30 years ago accompanying jazz and wedding singers in Chicago where she was born and raised. Since relocating to Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989, she immersed herself in the local music scene. In addition to performing in the acoustic music venues, she was a folk radio announcer at WTJU for 20 years. In the summer of 2011, she released her first CD, “Choose the Sky”.

Music critics from all over the US, UK and Canada have praised O'Connell's music as: “inventive”, “creative”, “haunting”, “profoundly moving", “full of grace and inspiration. "

Her guitar work exemplifies the influence of some interesting guitarists she has studied with, most notably Robert Fripp & Ralph Towner. Her lyrics show a unique perspective gained from working with writers as diverse and visionary as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and cartoonist Lynda Barry. Her voice has been described as a cross between Nanci Griffith and Billie Holiday.

Although she is a highly a accomplished musician, she is always seeking ways to learn new skills and genres of music. She was an apprentice in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program in 2011-2012 , studying Galax-style dulcimer with Phyllis Gaskins.

She is a diverse and multi-talented musician with a large repertoire ranging from traditional American folk music to jazz, gospel and 60's & 70's pop and leads sing alongs for all age groups.

She is a Musician in Residence at the University of Virginia hospital playing therapeutic music for the ill and dying. In addition, she works at VSA Arts in Charlottesville which is an organization dedicated to promote experiences in the arts for individuals with disabilities.