the tenth life of morgan o’ kane

the often haunting melody of his restless banjo sets a timeless canvas on which his gravel-laden bellows tell tales old and new in true folk fashion as relevant today busking in the streets of New York as they would have been a hundred years ago. There are stories here.

Morgan O’ Kane, from Charlottesville, Virginia, has lived many lives. A true harbinger and character of folklore, he’s been many things – a runaway, wayfaring stranger, vagabond, activist and musician – all of which add to his soundtracks that narrate the rich tapestry of nine lives lived, as the title of his first album suggests.

A runaway at sixteen, he learned the banjo following an accident in which he fell from a roof and was confined to a wheelchair for a year. As a traveller, he once rode the trains, travelling the country, until settling in New York City over a decade ago where he began to make a living busking on the streets, living in a church, eventually becoming a recording artist with Dollartone Records. Meanwhile, he’s also an activist, involved in the Anti-Mountaintop Removal movement, and aiding the efforts of the Mountain Justice Organization. Many now know him as the busking banjo player as featured in a season five of tv comedy show, Louie.

With much of today’s popular music a cynic might say rests on laurels of synthetic beats and lyrics suggesting an exercise in rehashing shallow consumerism, O’ Kane descends from a musical ancestry that speaks reams with poignant, often minimal, storytelling, driven by the unyielding, atmospheric melody of rapid banjo-picking and a kick pedal when not playing with his band.

Nine Lives, Pendulum, and The One They Call The Wind, draw on blue grass and classic folk, hollered as sea-shanties, often parable-like, as if from another time – just as the likes of Seasick Steve, The Deslondes, Hurray for the Riff Raff or The Carolina Chocolate Drops – now joining us, as relevant now as ever, as popular music beckons for all that’s retro and old-time.

As Llewyn Davis says of folk, “It’s never new and it’s never old.” And so it’s difficult not to fall into cliche when defining an artist of such roots, but still you may pause to think of him with the same many faces of Bob Dylan as portrayed in the 2007 biopic, I’m Not There.

Songs such as ‘Remember Me,’ evoke contemplation of things past and a mark made on a reflected future, and as he carves his name in folklore in this, a tenth life through the growing fame of his timeless talent, it was a privilege to catch up with Morgan O’Kane ahead of his forthcoming tour of Ireland.

With folk music handed down, retold and heard in various new places, it often feels as if without a beginning. Songs like ‘Hold Your Fire’ or ‘Shroud of Turin’ likewise are portrayed in Youtube clips as if always having been, making it difficult to picture the singer-songwriter at work. So one might well wonder which comes first, the lyrics or the tune?

Morgan O' Kane and band set sail for Ireland in August
Morgan O’ Kane and band set sail for Ireland in August

Morgan O’ Kane: I write new melodies almost every time I pick up the banjo and when one really resonates with the emotions I’m feeling at the moment it will stick and the words will follow. I will also write an entire song without touching the banjo and then work out the song after. It feels the best when it all comes together at once though, after an intense dream or a hard day. Very healing.

Which is most rewarding, finishing writing a song or playing it/hearing it played live?

MOK: Finishing a song has its own rewards, especially when it’s been a long time. I’ve always got four or five pieces in the works at one time. But there is nothing like taking that out to the street or in front of an audience and feeling their reaction to it. It’s the final test it see if the song holds up.

Do you have an aim in mind of what you want to say when you sit down to write?

MOK: Most of my songs are born from an experience and become medicine for my own soul and heartache and aside from that I do aim to write about certain issues and feelings I have towards the world we live in. Destruction of our planet, greed, population, abuse of religion, the bleak outlook of our childrens future, and working together to make that better. The human condition and what not.

Do you ever feel limited by the medium of song writing?

MOK: Never. The tones of the banjo and drum beat have seemed to answer all my needs as an artist. I’ve only felt limited by my singing, which had forced me to become a better singer to get the proper emotions across in my songs. I’ll write a song and sometimes it will take years before I can do it justice with my voice. As far as the content, I believe you can have one word in a song and as long as you sing it with absolute conviction with the melody to match you can get any emotion across.

Do you think you can write an authentic sounding song without ever having been in the situation you’re singing about?

MOK: There are plenty of amazing artists out that that can do this but for me to put my heart into the song while its played I need to relive that feeling.

What do you think makes a listener associate with a song’s lyrics?

“Most of my songs are borne from an experience and become medicine for my own soul and heartache”

MOK: Most people don’t understand what I’m saying when I sing but they relate to the feeling of the song. Especially on the street. It will stop people in their tracks. As far as my content is concerned, the people that stop and listen have either had a loss in their life or heart break or are concerned about the condition of our world and my music has a certain amount of redemption in it and helps people along.

Bob Dylan once said he didn’t write songs, he wrote short stories? Is this something you relate to?

MOK: Writing as a story is a fun way to write and a great way to put your audience in the moment and right there with you.

Are you inspired by literature when writing a song?

MOK: I am, and the more I read the more I learn of the possibilities of writing.

What kind of books do you like to read, and what is it about those authors’ work you appreciate?

MOK: Poetry, and fantasy, story’s with a lot of description. I grew up reading Tolkien and still hope every day that the forest will rise up against us.

Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda are two of my favourite to pull from and the mysticism of sound and music by Hazrat Inayat Khan has become a kind of bible for me. It has a wonderful way of explaining the beautiful things that happen when music becomes your love, your life, and ultimately your connection to God.

Morgan O’ Kane’s Ireland tour dates can be found here or see morganokanemusic.com.

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Morgan O’ Kane in action: