I first heard Nichola Maria O’Donnell dueting with a friend of mine on a song on his Myspace player. And what struck me was her voice. It is an amazing instrument, a torchy alto that can glide up to the higher notes without sounding strained. Wanting to hear more, I sought out O’Donnell, and requested her album. I was not disappointed.
Lady Moonlight is a collection of 11 O’Donnell originals. All but one feature O’Donnell’s voice and producer Damon John Wade’s acoustic guitar, with Wade also providing light touches of other instrumental colors well back in the mix. The title track, coming exactly in the middle of the album, is the exception, featuring O’Donnell’s vocals and the piano playing of Jeanene Hupy. The arrangements are spare, putting O’Donnell’s voice front and center.
This is a risky way to make an album. There is not much variation in the arrangements, so the listener can get bored if the singer doesn’t carry the day. O’Donnell’s lyrics are simple and direct, so her singing is even more exposed. But O’Donnell is more than up to the task. Her voice is beautiful, and she expresses the emotions of each song eloquently, with out ever oversinging. The sequencing of the album is also important, since the songs vary between ballads and midtempo numbers. O’Donnell and her producer have done a good job of keeping things interesting by varying the tempos.
There is no lyric sheet in the album package, but if there was, you wouldn’t read it for the poetry. O’Donnell is a fine songwriter, but her songs must be heard as songs to work. The language is direct, without much imagery or cleverly turned phrases. The words are here to express emotion simply and directly. The songs ache and yearn and express the wonderment of love; the words say it, and the singing makes the listener believe it.
A Million Pieces leads off the album, and shows us a woman who is being rebuffed by the man she wants to love. One of the midtempo numbers, the song has a feel musically that is at odds with the emotion of the words, O’Donnell’s vocals tie it all together. Gypsy Heart gives us a woman who is in love, but who treasures her freedom, and will soon move on. Believe Me presents a woman who feels doubts about her relationship that cause her to push her man away; she asks her man not believe those doubts. I have the sense that O’Donnell knows all of these women well, perhaps has been each of them at various times.
All of these songs are delivered in the first person. Only Daddy’s Gonna Buy Her the Moon is told about another woman. Here, O’Donnell gives us a character whose lover is away: she hopes and dreams of his return, and thinks of the promises he has made her. Even here, the song seems to me to be drawn from experience; the singer seems to have split herself into two people, so that the one can reassure the other.
It is possible that all of the characters in these songs are fictional creations. But the intimate production and O’Donnell’s performances make me believe that they are real. And that may be the highest compliment I can give a project like this. I sought this album because I heard a beautiful voice, and I wanted to hear more. I still do.
Nichola Maria O‘Donnell: A Million Pieces
Nichola Maria O‘Donnell: Daddy‘s Gonna Buy Her the Moon