Like most people, singer-songwriter Katheryn O’Shea describes the last couple months as an unexpected whirlwind of adjustments. We first met the Asheville-based artist when she played 2019’s Carolina Pines Fest last November. She has since recorded her debut album, “January 9th” (on the date in 2020), with the intention of touring behind a spring release. The finished tracks came to her on March 14—her birthday. Three days later Governor Cooper declared public gatherings unsafe, and closings and stay-at-home orders came quickly.
“Just like that, the live music industry evaporated overnight,” O’Shea says. “I would love to come back to Wilmington in the distant, dreamy, corona-free future . . . I am definitely itching to get onstage. Unfortunately, that seems to be a pretty far-off idea as things stand now.”
At first O’Shea considered holding the record’s release until things settled and COVID-19 was a thing of the past. But as the projected “end date” continued to move farther away, she thought better of it. O’Shea eventually came to realize “a global pandemic is actually a beautifully fitting backdrop for the album.”
“These songs grapple largely with mortality, love, loss, and the everyday dance between grief and hope that comes with the package of human existence,” she details. “Those concepts happen to be on folks’ minds more than ever right now. So I scrapped the entire tour/promotion plan and went for an entirely social-media-driven, online strategy, including a Patreon launch and a Facebook livestream album release.’”
O’Shea performs monthly livestream concerts for Patreon subscribers, giving “insider” content and behind-the-scenes looks into her music, not unlike the stories she tells when she plays live. “I feel more free to post personal, vulnerable, and in-process content on Patreon,” she clarifies. “People subscribe to creators on Patreon, not only to support them, but also to better understand the life and processes behind the work. So I’ve been really enjoying the symbiotic nature of it. I get to practice radical vulnerability, and patrons get to see all of the most tender moments behind the creation of their favorite songs. It’s a total win-win.”
While the themes of “January 9th” are apt for these uncertain and unnerving times, it’s a particularly personal record for O’Shea. She produced the album with her brother, Michael, and named it for the date on which her father, Chad, passed away in 2014. O’Shea describes her father as an almost larger-than-life, yet happily grounded minister of “practical spirituality.” He delivered Sunday sermons in overalls and bare feet, while the church band, led by her mom, rocked a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
“He was a man who lived a hundred lifetimes in one,” she says. “He fought in the Korean war, married three times, had five children, lost one to childhood cancer, and held careers ranging from used car salesman to department-store manager before eventually finding ministry. He was known for his hugs, his crass sense of humor, his boundless generosity, his political fervor, and his spectacularly unique way with words.”
This isn’t her first project with her brother, who recorded, produced, mixed and mastered her first single “Snow” in 2018. While she sang and played banjo, Michael wrote and recorded the drum, guitar and bass parts. For “January 9th” he managed to help “lean into the simplicity” of O’Shea’s vocals and banjo, making this a dreamy, minimalistic venture.
“After exploring countless production options (for literal years in some cases), we finally came to the conclusion that this record, given its mammoth emotional weight, was probably best suited as an artistic time capsule of sorts,” O’Shea describes, “paying tribute to the fire it was forged from and capturing the songs at their most raw and vulnerable, with just banjo and vocals.”
Several songs on “January 9th” seem as if they were meant for sitting by the fire on a cold, rainy day. O’Shea’s voice is warm and her lyrics are poignant. She tells me I’m not the first to compare her music to sources of warmth—as heard on the songs “Sinkhole” and “Fall.” Unlike most of the album, neither song came from one event but inspired by many scenes and places, and in the case of “Fall,” a series of “mildly grim circumstances.”
“I was quite depressed that autumn,” she divulges, “given I had just moved home after ending a deeply impactful relationship and was very much still in love with my ex.”
However, “Fall” broaches many personal topics for the musician, including a friend’s abusive relationship, moving back home, plus facing the realities of starting over again. “[And] admitting to the naiveté of trying to date while nursing an open emotional wound,” she adds. “It’s a piece rooted in the general [overwhelming circumstances] that season held for me. No one occurrence was enough to break me, but the cumulative effect came close.”
“Sinkhole” is a fictional scene with real imagery O’Shea remembers from one she saw at a California state park. At the time its tragic beauty correlated to a close friend’s struggle with suicidal ideation. In the song she describes a hard truth she eventually realizes: “I held back your body / but I couldn’t reach your head.”
“It didn’t matter how many times I talked him off the ledge, I would never be able to stop his pain for good,” she explains. “The song came from a place of terror and exhaustion, feeling I was incapable of the task I’d been handed: being a friend’s one major lifeline. Eventually, I realized, it wasn’t just me; nobody would be capable of that task.”
Folks can expect more to come from O’Shea in 2020 via her Patreon page. She’s taking time to work on sharpening her instrumental work and collaborating on other projects. In the meantime, she shared more about her dad and how love and tragedy meet on “January 9th.”
“This record was never meant to be easy to listen to,” she notes, “and it wasn’t easy to make. So, instead of shying away from the weight of it all, we leaned in.”
Read the rest of encore’s Q&A with Kathryn O’Shea below.
encore (e): Tell us about your process for this record. Was it cathartic in ways?
Kathryn O’Shea (KO): Cathartic actually feels like an understatement when describing the creation of these songs. In most cases, the songs on this album were written from a point of grief-stricken desperation. There are more songs dealing with death than any other topic, and while most of it is for my dad, there are others present, too. The way I look at it, this record has been in the works since June 2013 when my dear friend Andrew passed away, six months before my dad’s passing. The oldest song on the record is “Snow,” which I wrote on the evening of Thanksgiving of 2013, after a holiday feast with my parents that revealed there was something wrong with my dad. He didn’t eat a bite all day and asked my mom for directions to the church, a place he’d driven to and from about five times a week for the last decade.
As far as my writing process goes, that became pretty much par for the course. [If] something exceptionally emotional happened in my life, I’d write a song about it. Dad wished his son a happy new year on Thanksgiving… I wrote a song. (That’s “Snow.”) Dad died and left me drowning in questions I never got to ask… I wrote a song. (That’s “Puzzle”). My friend was struggling with suicidal ideation and I was crumbling under the pressure of being a lifeline… I wrote a song. (That’s “Sinkhole.”) So yes, the catharsis present in the winding road to writing this record was profound to say the least.
This is why Michael and I deliberately chose to record the entire album on the anniversary of my dad’s death in a vocal booth built from the closet we used to share with him in our childhood home. This record was never meant to be easy to listen to, and it wasn’t easy to make. So instead of shying away from the weight of it all, we leaned in.
e: What was your dad’s influence on you as a person and musician?
KO: My dad’s influence on my music shares the same cornerstone as his primary influence on my personhood: philosophy. For my entire life, my dad trained me to view the world through a lens of empowered detachment. If I expressed disappointment in anything, I was told, “Kate, the great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” So I learned to stop letting expectations ruin a perfectly good thing. If I began to spiral in anxiety, I was told, “Watch your mind like you would watch a rattlesnake.” So I learned to actively participate in my own inner monologue, taking charge of the way I talk to and about myself.
These weren’t original quotes of his, but rather teachings of his favorite Zen masters. Zen philosophy revitalized his mental health in a huge way during his middle age and led him to ministry, where he happily remained until the day he died. Understanding and fine-tuning the control a person has over their reactions to the world around them was paramount in my household as a kid, and these ideas continue to guide me both in living and in songwriting.
e: What do you think he’d say about “January 9”?
KO: Wow. What an interesting thing to ponder, given how many of these songs are written about his own death. My dad was never afraid of death. Especially given his penchant for Zen philosophy and its reverence for the beauty in dying. When he was in the hospital and mostly unconscious for the last few weeks of his life, we caught him in a rare moment of lucidity one day and asked him if he wanted to fight the cancer. His response was, “Fight it? I want to make love to it.” That was his outlook on the world: well-acquainted with the ever-present tragedy of being alive and running towards it with abandon anyway.
That being said, I know my dad would appreciate the poetry in this record, as a brilliant wordsmith himself. Some lines are even taken from well-known phrases of his, like, “Happiness is an inside job.” But, above all, I believe he would applaud the strength it took to sift through such a heartbreaking period of time searching for the lessons to be learned beyond the sorrow.
Yes, death is everywhere, but that doesn’t make it easy. He knew exactly how painful those months of decline were for the family. We watched him go from home to hospital to hospice to grave in six weeks. So there isn’t a doubt in my mind that he would be floored by the vigor it has taken to pick ourselves up, brush off and learn to live again. When I think of how far I’ve come since those dark days, I can hear his voice, loud and clear, saying, “I’m proud of you, Kate,” and I think that says it all.
e: Tell us more about working with your brother, Michael. Where/how does his influence come in on this record?
KO: We have worked together on a number of releases in the past. My first studio single, “Snow,” was actually a track that Michael recorded, produced, mixed and mastered for me back in 2018. I played the banjo and sang on the track, and Michael wrote and recorded the drum, guitar and bass parts. This new album, however, ended up being quite different—it became an experiment in minimalism. After exploring countless production options (for literal years in some cases), we finally came to the conclusion that this record, given its mammoth emotional weight, was probably best suited as an artistic time capsule of sorts, paying tribute to the fire it was forged from and capturing the songs at their most raw and vulnerable, with just banjo and vocals.
Michael’s trickiest task was to highlight those two elements and lean into the simplicity, adding flavor without crowding the stark instrumentation. I told him that I wanted the record to feel “dreamy” and he ran with that concept flawlessly, soaking everything in tasteful, juicy reverb and keeping the vocals and songwriting at sonic center stage throughout.
e: Talk to us about the song “Birthday.”
KO: “Birthday” is arguably the most vulnerable track on the entire album for me. It was written for my dear friend Andrew, who passed away in June 2013. Andrew was the first person I ever fell in love with, and his death is easily the single-most pivotal point of my life to date. We met at summer camp in high school, and I knew immediately that he was every ounce of brilliant sincerity my 17-year-old soul yearned for. But I kept my feelings for him quiet out of respect for his girlfriend back home.
After camp, we went home (about 4 hours apart) and became long-distance best friends, keeping in touch religiously. We’d call each other at 2 a.m., send each other poems and songs that reminded us of one another… you get the idea. Then, that very next January, halfway through senior year, Andrew was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer found mostly in teenage men. He broke up with his girlfriend and made it clear that he wanted to fight this battle on his own. So I continued to hide my romantic feelings and remained as present and supportive a friend as I could be from a distance, checking in on the status of new chemo drugs, surgery updates, etc. I always told myself I’d tell him how I felt when the cancer was gone.
Two and a half years later, on June 9, 2013, I got the news that Andrew was entering hospice care. I had never wept like that in my entire life and I haven’t again since. On June 14, I drove to Durham to say goodbye. I’ll never forget the way his eyes lit up when I walked into his hospice room. Even his mom noticed… and, appropriately, gave us a moment alone. I kissed his face, and he wrapped his thin, cold palm under my hair and around the back of my jaw as he ran his thumb over my cheek. I thanked him for the years of good advice, and he gently pulled aside his breathing mask and told me that life can be a lot like a diving board, sometimes you’ve just got to jump off and see what happens. You’ll always have a moment of terror mid-air, but when you hit the water, sink, float up, and breathe again, you’ll wonder why you were ever scared in the first place… so you might as well jump. He died early the next day, and I vowed to live by his words as long as I kept waking up in the morning.
Andrew was a diver. He loved water unconditionally. So when I found myself sitting on a park bench looking out at a harbor in Annapolis, MD on his birthday two years later, it was only natural to write him a song. “Birthday” explores the stark contrast between the difficulty of being alive and the release of dying. One line is, “I hope you don’t miss this world at all,” while another is, “Waves are getting higher, fishermen look tired, and I thank god that you’ve got gills to breathe under the water now.”
Ultimately, I was looking to reconcile the horrific injustice of all the life he never got to live with the possibility that maybe, there was a kind of peace for him in reaching an end to the suffering. But if it exists, it’s a kind of peace that the living will never understand. Maybe, just maybe, his vibrant, beautiful soul is better off without the weight of a human body. Either way, those of us left behind will spend the rest of our lives choosing between accepting that and continuing to mourn.
e: Is there a song that evolved in unexpected ways once you started digging into it?
KO: Most of my songs end up taking me by surprise by the time they’re done. One of the most unique pieces on this album in terms of process is probably “Dandelion.” That one was inspired by a Facebook post, believe it or not. It was April 10 last year and my sister-in-law, Jenni, had written a beautiful tribute to her dad, who had passed away on that day four years prior. That’s why I released the record on April 10, 2020, in honor of him.
She wrote about his battle with cancer and how he said many times in his last months alive that he “just wanted to wait to see the mountains blossom again.” She wrote of how he got his wish, and by April 10, plants had started to flower and the mountains had brightened to the crisp, vibrant shade of spring green we all know and love. In Western North Carolina, it happens that way just about every year, and the day I wrote “Dandelion” was no different.
The day Jenni made that post was one of the first warm spring days of the year, and a mutual friend of ours, Chris Smith, commented that he believed her dad would be thrilled with today’s weather, as he “couldn’t think of a prettier day than the one we’re in.” While he was mainly referring to flowers and clear skies, I saw so much more depth in that statement. There is a true sense of embracing the here and now in those words, and that resonated with me deeply, particularly in conjunction with grappling to accept the death of a loved one, which is the rest of the song’s lifeblood.
After reading the post and Chris’ comment, I quickly asked both of them if I could use their words in a song and proceeded to grab my guitar, sit on my stoop in the sunshine, and write “Dandelion.” Chris was right that day and he continues to be right every day … I still can’t think of a prettier day than the one we’re in.