O’Connor Lee to Compass Records

Compass Records has announced the signing of Forrest O’Connor and Kate Lee O’Connor, who perform and record as O’Connor Lee. The two, husband and wife, also work together with Forrest’s dad, the one-and-only Mark O’Connor, as The O’Connor Band.

Kate and Forrest tell us that they will still be included in shows with Mark and his wife, Maggie, but that the new group will be their primary vehicle.

“The O’Connor Band will continue playing shows from time to time, especially during the holiday season (Mark’s Appalachian Christmas program has been running for nearly a decade, and it was what really brought the current band members together in the first place). We’ve grown a great deal, both personally and artistically, during our time with the O’Connor Band and will always be proud of our studio album, Coming Home, which won a Grammy back in 2017. But we’re eager to begin this new phase in our career!”

Going forward into 2020, they plan on doing shows together as a duo, with Forrest on guitar and mandolin, and Kate on fiddle. Both are talented vocalists as well, with Kate in particular earning high praise for her singing with O’Connor Band. But they also anticipate touring part of the time with a larger group, typically including Isaac Eicher on mandolin, Mallory Eagle on harmony vocals, and Geoff Saunders on bass.

“This past year, we’ve toured with bass, mandolin, and an additional vocalist, but going forward we’ll probably mix things up and experiment with new instruments to better reflect the sound of our upcoming duo album. We’re thinking electric guitar/pedal steel and percussion as primary additions to our live soundscape.”

The duo form is how Kate and Forrest started out performing together, even before they were married. They focused on music that crossed genres, and say that the new record for Compass will include all of the styles that they have been involved with to date.

“Most of the songs on this album are very new — some were even written a couple weeks before we went into the studio. Although we do draw on our bluegrass roots, in particular for our primary ‘color’ instrumentation (mandolin, fiddle, and a little banjo), we have landed on a sound that would probably be described as more Americana/singer-songwriter with strong elements of folk and country. We were heavily influenced by co-writing with folks like Marcus Hummon (Bless the Broken Road), Pat Alger (Unanswered Prayers), and Tim Nichols (Live Like You Were Dying), all Nashville-based songwriters who have had significant commercial success, but who also possess deeper sensibilities and a lot more breadth than many writers whose songs are on country radio today.

Thematically, we’re exploring our history as a duo-couple whose relationship has always been linked to our shared love of the same music; that said, we don’t really sing to each other, as we tend to avoid the duo-couple tropes. Instead, Kate (as the primary vocalist) channels experiences and emotions that have been put down on paper usually by Forrest (the primary writer), that both of us share and that are unique to our lives on the road. As much as we have in common, we also have major differences in our upbringings, some of which are explored on the album as well.”

Both grew up with the prodigy experience, but on opposite sides of the coin. Kate was raised in New England, where she shone as a youngster in both bluegrass and classical music. As a teen, she excelled as a solo violinist in school orchestra, and did shows with her own bluegrass group on the weekends. Forrest likewise established himself as a mandolinist in his youth, but in the shadow of his famous dad, perhaps the most famous child prodigy the American fiddle has ever seen.

The couple shared their admiration for their new label as well, with whom Forrest interned while he was in college.

“We really respect what Compass has built over the last 25 years. Alison Brown and Garry West (the founders) are both artists, which means they truly understand the industry from more angles than your typical ‘suit.’ Each time we talk to them, I’m amazed at the depth of their knowledge and their feel for trends in the art and the business. There are very few people we can think of like Alison, who is an innovator both on her instrument (banjo), and in the industry. Alison and Forrest both went to Harvard as undergraduates, and that shared experience seems to have cultivated a sense of trust and belief that the other party is going to work hard to create the best product possible. We’re honored to launch our duo recording career with them!”

Look for a full-length project from O’Connor Lee in the spring of 2020.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.