Awesome music from the archives: ‘Miss America’ by Mary Margaret O’Hara
Mary Margaret O’Hara is one of modern music’s greatest enigmas. Her singing voice is unlike anyone else’s and she has always moved in the most mysterious of ways. She inspires unrivalled devotion among the precious few who have seen her perform and her songs have been lauded – and covered – by numerous artists of high repute.
I count myself lucky to have seen her sing. Her way with words was unique and she seemed to approach each song as if it were the first or last she’d ever sing. Each was delivered in an intensely physical and emotional way. Her whole body would shudder as she reached down somewhere deep to summon the sound. It was as if words were something to be shaken free from her mouth. She would twist and turn this way and that. From these contortions a miraculously sweet and angelic sound would emerge like birds from a cage. The skittering vocal sounds swooped and soared in defiance of gravity. To follow her voice was to take a journey upwards to somewhere new. She stood out a mile, head and shoulders above the rest.
Miss America came out in 1988 and remarkably it remains her only studio album. Twenty seven years is a long time but the record’s 44 minutes and 49 seconds of music have an ageless power. It sounded as out of time then as it does today.
A re-released version notes that the songs were “constructed and conducted” by Mary Margaret herself. Which makes sense, given the way the music is woven around her vocals. It’s an intensely personal journey that we’re privy to. There is palpable pain and loss shot through with extraordinary moments of exultant beauty.
There’s something commendable about the way she hasn’t tried to repeat it. She already did it. It’s on the record.