From Alleluia to Hallelujah

An Interview with Patricia O'Callaghan

by Rosemary Phillips

What have German cabaret songs, lieder (art songs) and Leonard Cohen got in common? Canadian singer Patricia O’Callaghan.

“O'Callaghan enters into the world of a song and gives it a three-dimensional life, using a lower range as smokey as the room will become and an upper register that vibrates with passion.” - Now Magazine

“I found the songs of Leonard Cohen blended in with the likes of Schubert’s Alleluia; and Cohen’s Take This Waltz is more like an art song than pop. I mixed Cohen and high art, and loved it, and found it very inspiring,” said O’Callaghan who will be performing An Evening of Leonard Cohen with the Vancouver Island Symphony in a moving tribute at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo on Saturday, November 18 .

“I got more and more into Cohen’s music and made a whole album of his songs,” she added. “It’s really good poetry, very evocative; keeps me going back because it’s surprising, unexpected poetry. It bears several readings and listenings for there’s always more to uncover.”

”…her tender versions of Cohen's ‘Take this Waltz’ and ‘Hallelujah’ are revelatory.” - Timothy White, Billboard Magazine

And here we uncover a bit of O’Callaghan whose journey with music and song has taken many years and miles, starting when she was only five years old. “My mother entered me in a singing competition, for fun. I won and that impacted me. There was a musical drive in me and Mum started me on piano lessons as soon as I could reach the keys.”

Meanwhile, O’Callaghan knew deep inside she wanted to be a singer. “Up there in rural Northern Ontario,” she explained, from her home in Toronto, “music education was pretty sparse so I took private piano lessons and sang on my own. While I was in high school in Iroquois Falls one of my English teachers, Brian Hanneberry, recognized the interest of some students and put on a few musicals. He was a really special guy. We had a band and when I was 16 my guidance counsellor, along with Brian Hanneberry, found a voice coach for me, Rosanne Simunovic of the Timmins Youth Singers, which was an hour’s drive away.”

After graduation O’Callaghan went on to study music at the University of Toronto where she was introduced to classical voice, then, at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, she continued with contemporary classical music and living composers. “I got a grant to study in Austria, which is a great place to start a career. I lived there for a year and it felt like I was living in another century. The opera repertoire and roles I would do were extremely rigid and constraining, which is not me. I was sure I didn’t want to be an opera singer - I enjoyed singing cabaret songs by Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill. When I came back to Canada I started combining the two, bridging the styles, as a pioneer. I made a CD, got picked up by a label, got a record contract, made more albums and that’s how things took off for me.”

In 1997 O’Callaghan, who speaks French, German and Spanish, released Youkali, cabaret songs by Kurt Weil, Erik Satie and Francis Poulenc. This was followed by Slow Fox in 1999 which contains “Hallelujah,” the first of her many interpretations of Leonard Cohen, which culminated with Matador: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, released by Marquis Classics in 2012.

But what of being female singing male songs? “I find with Cohen’s poems and songs I like to sing them as a woman because it changes the context and makes you see the song in a different way. What’s the point of covering a song if you don’t have something new to bring to it, to offer something different from the original?”

Then she added, “I never did meet Cohen. We did a theatre piece based on one of his songs and were in touch by e-mail, but that was the closest I ever got.”

O’Callaghan began international touring, added credits in film, theatre and television; collaborated with leading composers, artists and The Gryphon Trio; conducts choirs and teaches. “I worked hard for a really long time. As a classical singer you don’t mature until you are about 30, and you have to be patient. I was doing what I loved to do, and yet I struggled with stage fright and insomnia. I had to find a way to deal with this without changing my career. It’s not as debilitating now as it was. Still, I can’t believe this is happening, the success I have had.”

“O’Callaghan sings her diverse material as if it was always meant to go side-by-side and by the end of the evening, it’s easy to believe her.” - Chart Attack Magazine

Where to from here? “That’s a really good question. I’m at a point of reassessing everything in my life. I want to do more creating and co-creating, writing with other great musicians, and multidisciplinary artists. I want to keep recording, which I love to do. I want to keep travelling and exploring the boundaries of the voice and where it will take me as a singer and performer. Right now I’m taking a course in percussion.

“Part of me doesn’t know where I’m going next and a part of me has to be OK with that. I feel pretty lucky. I keep growing as an artist and goals change. I don’t know if I am living what I saw when I was 24, but I feel happy with what I have in my life. – Yes, I feel happy.”

This will be O’Callaghan’s first visit to Nanaimo. “It’s pretty exciting working with an orchestra. For the concert there will be some other songs mixed in, one by Edith Piaf, but it’s mostly Cohen. I will have my pianist, Robert Kortgaard, and double-bass player, Andrew Downing, plus the orchestra. It’s such a big sound, a very heightened experience!”

Tickets to "an Evening with Leonard Cohen", November 18th can be purchased online HERE>>