The man from Kerry has become an important lynchpin of the music scene in New York, helping Irish artists in particular to get on the map there. But he is also a fine singer and songwriter – and has a new album to prove it...
“You’ll love this story,” Brendan O'Shea says, and then grabs a guitar from the corner. We’re sitting in the back of The Scratcher, a bar on New York’s 5th street, and the guitar case is screwed into the wall.
“Guy living upstairs, skinny fella, he’s moving out and throwing stuff out,” Brendan recounts. "And he said: ‘Hey, I have this guitar and there’s a big hole in the back of it, but I think Scratcher should have a guitar.’ So this is now The Scratcher guitar.”
Brendan gives me a proud smile. “Everyone from Glen Hansard to Declan O’Rourke has played it. It’s brutal, but it’ll do the job.”
Brendan O’Shea has spent a good 20 years playing guitar around the very table at which we’re now sitting. A fixture on the New York music scene, over the years, Brendan has unintentionally turned himself into an East Village staple. Back in the late 90’s, he walked into The Scratcher about a month after landing in New York and was hired as a bartender.
10 years later, he started The Scratcher Sessions with Pete Olshansky – a free acoustic gig which took place every Sunday night. But first and foremost, Brendan is a songwriter – and he is now preparing for the launch of his fourth full-length album, Midatlantic Ghost.
Brendan with Katie Grennan (on the fiddle)
I’ve known Brendan for years, but everyone has known Brendan for years. He’s a kind of New York landmark – a first port of call for Irish musicians off the plane or for friends-of-friends who don’t know anyone else in the city. Now in his 40’s, he’s usually seen with a cup of tea, and wearing his signature white t-shirt. His hair is dark and he leans forward when he speaks, a posture no-doubt acquired from years of trying to be heard across a bar.
“I started playing when I was about 16,” he recalls. "Me and two friends of mine, we played the Christmas concert at school and it was the first real performance I got to do in my life. And according to ourselves, we were amazing.”
Brendan comes from a big Irish family, from Killarney, Co. Kerry, that included two musical brothers and a music-fan mother, Mary. Brendan remembers his Mum fondly.
“She loved music,” he says with relish. "She didn’t play any instruments; and, God love her, she didn’t really have a note in her head. But because there were so many musicians coming through the house, she was surrounded by it. My brother, Timmy, was playing and my brother, John, was organizing festivals, so people were always staying with us.
"She’d feed someone regardless, but if they threw in a song, she’d give them seconds. And I always acknowledged her response when music was in the kitchen. She just lit up. Nothing mattered except what was going on at that moment. To be influenced by someone who didn’t play music, grounded my appreciation of a good audience. Because that’s what me Ma was – she was the best audience.”
Mary O’Shea sadly passed away when Brendan was in his 20’s. His cousin, actor Donal Logue, offered him a place in New York if he ever wanted to get away. Eventually, Brendan took Donal up on his offer.
“I wouldn’t be in the United States but for him,” Brendan remembers. "He invited me here and told me he had a bed. And even back then, I knew how much that meant. But he was working as an actor, and was away on jobs, so I was here alone a lot. I was scared to move outside the apartment.”
It may have taken a while, but eventually Brendan began to find his feet and took to roaming the streets of Manhattan. He ventured far enough to find The Scratcher. Karl Geary, former manager of the famed Sin-é cafe, who owned the spot, liked him enough to give him a job. Brendan was starting to settle.
After a few years pulling pints, he began to spread his wings. Quietly, and without much fuss, he brought music into the bar. He and Pete Olshansky curated a series of 2-hour acoustic gigs in the front of the bar every Sunday. They became knows as The Scratcher Sessions.
“I grew up playing music in bars,” he states. “Now a bar gig is a hard room to win, but I always felt it wasn’t impossible. I believed that you could present original music in a bar setting. And I wanted to prove, to myself mainly, that we could do that here. But none of that would have been possible without Karl. He’s made this a place where you feel safe, where you feel accepted. I never forget that his name is on the lease, and that keeps me in line, as far as how I treat the room. We all have respect for what he has done, in Sin-é and here.”
Over the years, Brendan adopted the The Scratcher as a musical workshop of sorts.
“I continue to work on songs back here because space is a commodity in this town,” he says. "So I’ve been lucky to have access to this place and these people, this craic. Glen [Hansard] would be the first to champion the spot. He’ll come in with his guitar and say 'What do you got?' We all keep each other in check.”
These tables – the ones in the back of The Scratcher and the ones around Mary O’Shea’s Killarney home alike – have inspired Brendan’s latest record. In many respects, the album’s eight tracks represent an homage to the old way of doing things: a bunch of people sitting in a room and singing songs straight through. It was recorded at The Blue Mountain House in the Catskill Mountains over a couple of days – and more than a few cups of coffee.
“I think it’s the most organic way to do it. For me personally, it took a lot of confidence to sit down in a room and play – and then decide: ‘We’re gonna print it'. But it’s document of a moment. I just needed to find the space, get the people down there – and sing. And then your only job is to get out of the way.”
The songs on Midatlantic Ghost are delicate and full of diverse landscapes, floating somewhere between Ireland and New York. Brendan acquired the talents of Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary of The Murphy Beds to play with him on the record, with Hamer also taking on the role of co-producer. Patrick Firth came in on piano and Brian Killeen on bass. Brendan’s wife, Jenna Nicholls, sang harmonies and also lent her voice to Midatlantic Ghost's penultimate track, 'Southyrn Sky’ – a wonderful tribute to the legacy and voice of Nina Simone.
“There were ten songs recorded and only eight ended up on the record. And I’m only singing on seven of them,” Brendan laughs. "I realized when I looked at the songs, that there were four folk songs on there. And folk songs, to me, are songs of people and places – of somebody and their place. And that’s what the record is really about. ”
Midatlantic Ghost is a bit of a homecoming, perhaps. But for Brendan, his home seems to be neither here nor there, and he seems perfectly content somewhere between the two. In that sense, this album marks a pivotal moment from an unassuming and yet important artist.
Brendan, with his wife Jenna Nicholls.
He has already sold out his record launch at The Irish Arts Center, no small feat, and is planning an Irish/European tour in early 2017. He has long been an usher for musicians in New York and a champion of the alchemy that can happen around a late-night kitchen table. It is no wonder then, that Midatlantic Ghost is a storyteller’s album, a record that sums up the inspirational nature of friendship and camaraderie in O’Shea’s life.
It is a fine distillation of what Brendan has learned after years of pulling guitars off-of walls, and a proud answer to the age old question: “What do you got?”
*Midatlantic Ghost will be released on December 2nd with a launch at the Irish Arts Center in New York. By popular demand, a second release show has been scheduled for Rockwood Music Hall, on the Lower East Side, on January 22nd. Tickets can be bought at http://www.ticketfly.com/event/1388824.
Here is a teaser video for the album by Patrick Glennon:
And here is Brendan singing in the back of Scratcher: