Chris O'Brien
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Chris O'Brien

Somerville, Massachusetts, United States | SELF

Somerville, Massachusetts, United States | SELF
Band Folk Acoustic


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"Chris O'Brien: A Life In Folk"

O'Brien, 24, who performs tomorrow night at 8:15, also had youthful folk aspirations. He grew up in Amherst listening to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell; his stepmother is a folk DJ and used to manage the Iron Horse in Northampton. (She and Dar Williams were roommates for several years.) At 5 or 6, he says, he would hang out at the club, listening and taking in the scene. His uncle gave him his first guitar when he was 12, and it's the one he still plays today.

"When you grow up idolizing James Taylor and Bob Dylan, the moment you get your hands on a guitar, you start writing," he says.

The songs he writes brim with sincerity, taking on topics from relationships to cross-country travel. "The goal is not only to talk about what inspires you but to talk about what is true about humans in general," he says.

O'Brien's sound veers toward the folk end of the folk-pop spectrum. He doesn't just listen to Dylan, Sexton, and Patty Griffin, he studies them, then tries to incorporate what he learns into his music.

"He's got a great voice," says Club Passim manager Matt Smith, "a really strong voice." And, he adds, "he's a solid guitar player: It's not just `strum strum strum.' "

Like Hutchinson, O'Brien is a Campfire veteran. This will be his sixth appearance. His first gig was a Campfire performance, in May 2002. "It's a special thing for me because of that," he says.

O'Brien has recorded a self-titled, six-song EP. He performs frequently in New York and around Massachusetts and is leaving his computer job in October to play music full time. "I'm looking forward to it, and I'm scared to death," he says. "I gotta do it." - The Boston Globe

"Chris O'Brien"

"Chris O'Brien picks up where Martin Sexton, Richard Thompson and John Gorka leave off, a young writer with his eyes on gentle, melodic horizons and matter of the soul." - Club Passim

"Chris O'Brien, self titled E.P. -Apt.4 (The Robes Music 2002)"

First up is Chris O'Brien with self titled E.P. -Apt.4 an EP of 5 songs that are performed very simply; just Chris and his guitar. Chris is what I term as a very profound style of singer who puts a lot of emotion in his voice. His songs are all about 'love' in some form or other. Not what you might call story songs but songs which deal more with human emotions. If I tell you this you can well imagine what you are going to hear with song titles like 'Hey Love', 'Lay Me Down', 'After the Storm', 'Gemini' and the subtitle track for the EP, 'Apt.4'. A love lost song, I thought it probably the best on the album. Chris sits very much on the fringe of folk and pop music. I can envisage the songs being played by a rock band and given a heavier treatment. Perhaps this is what Chris is after, and if he was heading a band he would probably make it into the charts with a vengeance.
- Green Man Review

"Apt . 4"

"O'Brien has a compelling voice, dramatic diction, and a magnetic stage presence."
- Northeast Performer Magazine

"Artist, Promote Thyself"

A full-time career in music seemed unlikely for Chris O'Brien, or at least one that would pay the bills.
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But these days, the 27-year-old Medford musician is selling thousands of albums online, along with downloads from his debut CD, "Lighthouse," and he soon plans to offer T-shirts, tickets, and other merchandise on his MySpace page and personal website.

He credits at least part of his newfound business acumen to nimbit, a sales, promotion, and distribution company in Framingham that helps emerging artists build careers online.

"This is the era of the independent artist," O'Brien said. "It's easier and more doable than it ever has been. People are opting to remain independent because there's a lot more money to be had."

Nimbit is one of a growing number of businesses, including CD Baby and Musictoday, that have helped make it easier for independent musicians to make a living from their work and widely distribute their music.

It is the brainchild of Patrick Faucher and Matt Silbert, who worked for a Web firm, Stumpworld Systems, which developed some of the first e-commerce sites for bands such as Phish and Aerosmith.

About five years ago, they decided to design a platform to help budding bands, so they set out to take some of the features created for the major acts and build a suite of Web tools that independent artists could use.

Soon after, they merged with Artist Development Associates and added direct-to-fan sales, along with production and promotion services, creating a one-stop solution for artists to run their businesses.

In June, nimbit introduced its online merchandise table, the first portable Web store that lets musicians sell CDs, DVDS, MP3s, merchandise, and e-tickets from a single point of purchase, virtually anywhere online. The tool can easily be embedded in any website, blog, or e-mail that allows widgets.

"Increasingly, recording artists and consumers are uniting and circumventing traditional channels for creating and distributing music," said Mike Goodman, a media and entertainment analyst at Yankee Group in Boston. "These days, musicians can do business directly with consumers. They don't need a recording label. They don't need a store. They don't need Ticketmaster, the way they used to."

Just a few years ago, Steve Roslonek, of Wethersfield, Conn., was getting e-mail orders for his CDs and going to the post office once a week to send of the packages. His growing success as a children's musician made it almost impossible to keep up with the requests. With the help of nimbit over the past several years, he has earned more than $100,000 from sales of CDs, tickets, and merchandise.

The most recent service added, selling e-tickets to shows from his website, is a huge benefit for artists like Roslonek, who don't play at traditional concert venues. He expects to sell 75 percent of his tickets that way for a show in Arlington this fall.

Though Roslonek was signed last year to a local independent label, Rounder Records, he still uses many of nimbit's services to help sell his work, merchandise, and tickets online.

"There's really no barriers anymore for success," Roslonek said. "This allows me to spend a lot more time on writing, producing. It takes away a lot of the tasks as your career builds."

Artists can get started for free with nimbit's basic service, which allows them to sell digital products only, such as MP3 tracks.

Or, for as little as $4.95 a month, musicians can sign up for a plan that lets them sell all products and distribute across the Web, including to commercial stores like iTunes.

Prices vary for premium services, which offer complete website management and e-mail marketing features.

Several artists said nimbit charges $2 to $4 for each CD sold, less than rival businesses charge.

"Technology is not only creating a myriad of options for fans to discover and buy, but it is also making it possible for more artists to get in the game more quickly without any label affiliation," Faucher said.

"There is a rapidly emerging middle class of artists that are building fan bases and creating a business directly with them. This creates a huge need for better tools that can optimize this process for the artist and the teams they employ." - Boston Globe

"Chris O'Brien - Lighthouse"

Our guess is that Cambridge, Mass.–based Chris O’Brien recently went through a breakup. Lyrics on his debut, Lighthouse, are full of the sweet poetry that only emerges when one’s soul has been wounded. But don’t assume that this is a sad, lament-like offering. Lighthouse is full of beauty, optimism and, well, light.

Recently featured on A Prairie Home Companion, O’Brien’s “Rosa” finds him enticing a gypsy girl who caught his eye. “She is lightning, I am thunder a moment behind.” The acoustic guitar and percussion further tempt your ears. The title track rides gently along, aided by electric guitar and background vocals from Antje Duvekot. “So go on and move on,” sings O’Brien in his husky tenor, “I’ll be fine, fine, fine.”

Even darker songs like “Cigarettes and Rain” are more thoughtful than depressing. If you’re going through a break-up, or just in need of cheering up, let Lighthouse guide your heart out of darkness.
- Performing Songwriter Magazine

"O'Brien's Talent Broadcast by "Prairie Home" Gig"

n this “American Idol” era, song contests sprout like weeds. Winning one often has little impact on a career.
But in April when Medford’s Chris O’Brien became a finalist on “A Prairie Home Companion’s” “People in Their Twenties Talent Show,” he received something better than a title: airplay on the 580 stations that broadcast the famed public radio program to some 4 million listeners. Since that show, his CD sales and downloads have increased tenfold.
“I was able to quit my day job on my iTunes sales alone,” O’Brien said, sitting in a Somerville cafe.

How far has O’Brien come? When he moved from Amherst to Boston in 2001 he worked as a waiter at Veggie Planet, the restaurant in Club Passim. Friday night he’ll be there as the headliner.
“The ‘Prairie Home’ spot came as a surprise,” the 27-year-old said. “My uncle told me about the contest. I uploaded a song in January at no cost, and forgot all about it. Then I got a phone call telling me I was a finalist and they wanted me to play on a show.
“I hesitated. I told the guy I had to figure out how I can afford to get out to Minnesota. And he just started laughing. He said, ‘Of course we’ll take care of everything.’ I flew first class. With a band. It was surreal.”
O’Brien grew up listening to his parents’ folk music. His stepmother worked as manager of Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall when O’Brien was 6. Singer/songwriter Dar Williams taught him his first guitar chords.
“I didn’t rebel against my parents’ music tastes at all,” he said. “The complete opposite.”
The boyish singer has been gigging around town since 2002, but waited until February to release a full-length CD, “Lighthouse.” He has honed his skills in the past five years, developing a mellifluous vocal approach and a confident guitar style influenced by boyhood hero James Taylor, though he’s hardly a copy.
Recent comments about his lyrics have surprised O’Brien.
“As a writer, I wasn’t sure of myself,” he said. “Yet I’m getting more compliments on my writing than anything else. A lot of my songs are about moving on, transition, change, relationships. People say, ‘I’ve just moved or changed my life and your CD was my soundtrack.’ I can tell you about the albums that were like stamps on my life passport. To hear that one of my own songs is serving that purpose is powerful.”
O’Brien realizes his new success may be due to a few minutes of radio airtime. But a lifetime of support got him to that show. His stepmom, Fern Spierer, is still his booking agent and publicist. He’s recently opened shows for his housemate, acclaimed folk singer Antje Duvekot. A friend, Passim manager Matt Smith, has booked him for many opening-act gigs. But as O’Brien knows, once a door is opened, only talent can keep it open. - The Boston Herald

"Amherst Native to Play on 'Prairie Home Companion'"

An Amherst native has been named as one of six finalists who will appear on National Public Radio's 'Prairie Home Companion' as part of its 'People in Their Twenties' talent contest.

Singer-songwriter Chris O'Brien, 26 and an Amherst Regional High School graduate, was chosen from about 500 entrants, according to the radio show's Web site, to perform on its April 21 broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.

Reached by phone at his apartment in Somerville, O'Brien - a guitarist - said he was overwhelmed by the opportunity to play guitar and sing on a show that he loves.

'I grew up listening to the show ... riding around with my parents with the show on,' O'Brien said. 'Garrison Keillor is a hero of mine, so it's pretty amazing.'

O'Brien released his latest album, 'Lighthouse,' in early February. He has played all over the Pioneer Valley and beyond, with humble beginnings as a young boy backstage at the Iron Horse, the former workplace of his stepmother and publicist, Fern Spierer. Spierer has roots in the music industry, having worked for the Newport Folk Festival for about 17 years, as well as countless other musical venues.

Spierer said she made O'Brien a mix tape to fall asleep to when he was about 4. The tape had such folk artists as Joan Armatrading, Martin Sexton and the Indigo Girls.

'Later, when Joan Armatrading was in Newport, I remember him going, 'This is my childhood. This is the music I grew up listening to,' Spierer said.

O'Brien said he was constantly exposed to, and influenced by, musical greats, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.

'I was infected with the folk music bug early on, but I didn't realize that I wanted to play until I picked up the guitar later,' said O'Brien.

About 14 years ago, he began to strum on his own. Soon after seeing the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin perform at the Iron Horse when he was 12, O'Brien said his mother's then-roommate, Northampton folk mainstay Dar Williams, taught him his first chords. 'She was very sweet and sat down with me.'

Now, a musical lifetime later, O'Brien will be playing his song 'Rosa' - about falling head over heels in love with a waitress at a diner - for the nation on Keillor's famous radio variety show.

'I'm pretty nervous,' said O'Brien, 'but I wouldn't say I'm any more nervous than any other show I've done before.'

O'Brien has been performing on stage since 2002, at places like CBGB in New York, PACE in Easthampton and at the Montague Book Mill. He said that even if he doesn't win the yet-to-be-declared prize on Prairie Home Companion, the show's producers told him there's a good chance that he'll be invited back to play.

Regardless of the results of the talent contest, O'Brien said the national exposure will be a boost.

'It's difficult even with the Internet to break into new markets, so something like this will be great,' he said. - The Daily Hampshire Gazette

"Rising folk star writes songs about the resilience of optimism in the face of heartbreak"

Lighthouse by Chris O'Brien
CD Review by Ceci Gilson

Massachusetts singer/songwriter Chris O’Brien’s Cinderella story continues. What’s not to love? He has a storybook folk pedigree. Raised in Western Massachusetts, his stepmother worked at the Iron Horse Music Hall and the Newport Folk Festival. A folk DJ, she made him mix-tapes of Joan Armatrading, Martin Sexton and the Indigo Girls to lull him to sleep when he was four. At age 12, it was a concert by The Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin that convinced him to pick up the guitar. Who was on hand to teach him his first chords? Their housemate Dar Williams, of course.

And the story gets better! 2007 was a very, very good year for Chris O’Brien. With the release of Lighthouse, O’Brien was nominated for a Boston Music Award for “Local Male Vocalist of the Year” and Boston mega-folk station WUMB named him “New Artist of the Year.” He performed as an Emerging Artist at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and was the Grand Prize Winner of Martha’s Vineyard-based Internet station WMVY’s “Fresh Produce” sampler.

While working as a waiter at Cambridge’s famed Passim coffeehouse/restaurant, O’Brien submitted his song “Rosa” online to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and says he promptly forgot about it. Then the phone call came - he was one of six finalists of the “Talented People in Their Twenties” competition. He performed the song on Prairie Home Companion for over 4 million listeners and his resulting sales on iTunes allowed him to quit his day job. By year’s end, O’Brien was headlining his own show at Passim. Rags to riches (on a folk music scale anyway)!

His first full-length CD, Lighthouse, is a mostly buoyant sounding collection of well crafted songs powered by O’Brien’s lilting tenor and unobtrusive support from some of Boston’s finest: guitarist (and co-producer) Austin Nevins (Deb Talen, Edie Carey), bassist Zack Hickman (Josh Ritter), drummer John Sands (Aimee Mann, Lori McKenna), and pianist Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter). Backing vocals from Antje Duvekot and Frank Marotta Jr. round out the sound.

The melodies pour out; lovely pedal steel and subdued electric guitar, O’Brien’s acoustic guitar never overdoing it but propelling things forward, some piano and keys hidden here and there. Antje Duvekot’s ethereal back-up vocals add some crucial texture – bringing to mind Shawn Colvin’s early work with Suzanne Vega and others in the late 80s.

The vocals are king on this disc. Front and center, the lyrics are clearly realized and O’Brien’s voice instantly draws you in with casual soul and phrasing that lands him somewhere between Ellis Paul (richer tone, though similar voice) and Tracy Chapman (borrows from her percussive phrasing and tremolo-laden voice). O’Brien’s press kit is rife with references to fellow Bostonian/Northamptonite Martin Sexton, but I find he doesn’t chew up the scenery as Sexton tends to.

Lighthouse is clearly a break-up disc. O’Brien is pissed – and there’s a woman to blame. Or maybe a few…. Yet throughout the turmoil, O’Brien (or the songs’ narrators anyway) holds on to a dogged optimism and a refusal to give in. Ever.

The motifs are many throughout the disc: women leaving, men left behind, raw emotional treachery, more women leaving, warm sun/blue skies/cold winter, “women playing me for a fool,” and the lure of the open road. And always, he holds on to a grim hope that things will be better down the road. Communication between men and women (or a lack of it) plagues the disc: “I’m listening to every word you say” (Blue Skies), “I’ve missed every word you’ve said” (Apartment #4), and finally, the album’s coda: “I’ve heard every word you said/ So far, Melissa/ You were wrong/ I have gone for good” (Melissa). The latter song makes me look forward to his songwriting when he is a “Talented Person in His Thirties.”

The disc opens with the fabulous “Rosa,” the song that won the PHC competition. It’s a classic “she was workin’ as a waitress” song. The dreamy guitar instantly places us in the wide-open spaces somewhere out West before Rosa’s ambitions are derailed. But, “I told her I loved her/ And I think I really did/ She just smiled something wicked/ And turned away instead.”

“Cigarettes and Coffee” finds the narrator in the throes of a deliciously complete existential meltdown on a train platform as his love pulls out on the last train. Yet, “Every day’s a new day/ A green and a blue day/ Every day’s a chance to start again/ Make it right/ So come on, baby/ It’s a long road back from here.” There’s that optimism thing again.

“Apartment #4” is one of the disc’s outstanding tracks. The beat slows, some fine minor chords make their way in, and O’Brien sings with his best laid-back soul which helps pull you through to the bitter end. “This is all I have left, my love/ And I’m not letting go.” That is one stubborn guy.

As we go to press, Chris will be performing at the 2008 Kerrville Fol - Maine Folk Music


Lighthouse (2007)
Little Red (2010)



"Chris O'Brien is my favorite of the newest class of American troubadours. Powerful lyricist, gifted guitarist, charming performer." -Ellis Paul

Chris O’Brien’s upbringing could hardly be classified as typical. O’Brien was raised in Western Massachusetts. He is the son of two women. As the cliche goes “It takes a village to raise a child.” That’s exactly what O’Brien got, a village of talented and supportive people, mostly women, who raised him. Music was an important part of his life from the beginning but it wasn’t until summer camp, when O’Brien was 14, that he discovered his love for the guitar and songwriting. At 21 his passion for performing pushed him to join the renowned Boston music scene, where he met and befriended musicians such as Ellis Paul, Antje Duvekot and Meg Hutchinson.

2010 brings us Chris O’Brien’s brand new record, Little Red, a collection of songs about introspection, which represents O’Brien’s growth as a songwriter. “I wanted to confront my boundaries as a writer through honesty and self exploration. I’ve already felt the rewards of that honesty in the reactions I’ve gotten from people after hearing these songs. The challenge has proven to be more than worth it” Produced by Zachariah Hickman (Josh Ritter, Mark Erelli) Little Red is a testament to O’Brien’s evolution as a first-rate singer/songwriter.

The album starts off with the melodic song “Carnival”, which in itself feels like a carnival ride. The song explores the difficulties of knowing when to let go while feeling like the last person willing to hold on. A perfect example of O’Brien’s self exploration and pursuit of meeting the challenges of life. The last song on the record is another good example. “Blood Like Yours” has caused quite a stir at O’Brien’s live performances. The song deals with his relationship with his father, who has battled severe substance abuse, and the parallels and fears this evokes in himself. This is, by far, the most powerful song on the record.

Chris O’Brien has made quite a name for himself in Boston’s competitive music scene and it didn’t take long for the rest of New England to catch on. Within three years O’Brien made a splash nationally after being chosen from a pool of nearly 1,000 contestants to appear on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion". The following week, Lighthouse became a bestselling singer/songwriter album on iTunes, peaking at #5. The album was also featured on iTunes “Best Albums of 2007” compilation. An added bonus: Actress Cobie Smulders (of How I Met Your Mother) included O’Brien’s song “Ocean Stone” on her iTunes celebrity playlist. O’Brien was nominated for a coveted Boston Music Award for male vocalist of the year, as well as being named WUMB’s “New Artist of the Year”. A captivating and engaging performer, O’Brien’s youth belies his maturity as a songwriter and vocalist.

A born performer, O’Brien is on the road for most of the year, headlining in clubs from the East coast to the West coast. He’s regularly featured as a headliner at Cambridge’s legendary Club Passim and the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California as well as the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA. He’s performed at many of the country’s finest festivals including the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Kerrville Folk Festival, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He has been invited to open for some of the finest songwriters in the country, including Ellis Paul, Antje Duvekot, David Wilcox, Richard Shindell and Cheryl Wheeler. Chris has plans to put together his first European tour in the fall of 2010.

For more info contact Chris O’Brien at