Keenan O'Meara - Interview with The Deli

Letters to Oneself

By: Zachary Weg

October 05, 2015

" I’m not terribly good at processing emotion, and I never have been, so everything I write is always like three years late because I’m usually just over my head when I’m in it. "

Keenan O'Meara seems to hold music and life in the same palm, letting the two not just mirror each other but almost embrace in a partly painful, partly pleasant hug. A few times during a conversation on a recent morning at a Chelsea coffee shop, the Maryland-born individual spoke about his art by mentioning his general experience, reflecting outward his inner feelings. And that is just what he does with his September-released 'Awful Creature' EP; through searing, guitar-embered songs of troubled youths, anguished parents, and the flames that hurt but ultimately warm them, the Brooklyn-based musician looks inside and emerges with an intimately fiery work of art, a hearth from the cold. Taking time out of his tour with London musician Lianne La Havas, O'Meara talked about his background, his music, his creative process, and more. 

How did you originally get into music? 

I’ve been playing since I was a little kid. I was taking guitar lessons and looked up to my brother who was playing guitar at the time a lot. I remember walking to his room where he was playing “Stairway to Heaven,” just thinking, “That was fucking unreal,” and wanting to do that. Where I’m from, though, there’s not a huge culture for music; the sort of vibe in Maryland at high school age is that you play some sort of sport, try your best to be really good at it and, hopefully, it gives you some money to go to college. I was doing that but I totally hated it so much. I ended up just having a bunch of ligaments in my knee destroyed playing, and I remember being carted off the field, smiling because I knew I’d never have to do it again (laughs). At about this time, I decided that music was something that I wanted to run after. Then, I went to school in Boston to study guitar and had a blast doing that. It was interesting, though; even there, I never really got the sense that it was something that was really ever going to make sense. Even moving to New York, working at a music club in Brooklyn and cleaning people’s throw-up, it was just like, ”What am I doing here?” I was bouncing around bands for a while, and around my third year, I decided I wanted to start doing my own project called Keenan O’Meara, which ultimately resulted in this EP and is a part of a larger record.

What was moving to New York like? 

It was really traumatizing. I had a terrible time. In Boston, I was tired of not getting any momentum. I was working at Uno’s Pizzeria, which was as fun as it sounds, and then I basically just made an overnight decision to move to New York. So I interned at a boutique label for a little bit, started working at music venues, and played music and worked with new people whenever I could. But New York was tough. I got insane nerves, tinnitus, and depression, just dealing with all that stuff. But it’s funny; as traumatic as the move was, a city like New York just pushes you from the inside out, just creates this furnace, this drive. It’s like a choppy surf; all of these huge waves, and you stand there in awe of how beautiful they are but if you jump in, you’re going to get totally screwed unless you decide to just let it take you wherever it’s going to take you.

Where would you say you draw inspiration from? 

This record is a series of letters to myself and vitriols to other people in my life, snapshots of different relationships I’ve had. It’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever done. As I’m moving forward, I’m trying to get into more general narrative and storytelling, just trying to find cool stories that I can find my own meaning in and pull my own morals from.

What’s your writing process like? 

I spend a lot of time at the guitar. I also like to walk a lot. In the city, one of my favorite parts about writing here is that I could put in my earbuds, just walk and listen to all of the notes and recordings that I’ve worked on, reflecting on my life and then trying to make the music fit. Then, I sit back down, try new things again, and then demo in pre-production. I think that’s the luxury of being a developing artist; you have time to just let things be honest and let things out. I’ve always kind of equated songwriting to a bird flying in the house; you can open all the windows, you can open all the doors, and just kind of hope it leaves but, at the end of the day, that bird has to decide to walk out.

What about the cover art of 'Awful Creature'?

It’s actually a stray dog that I shot on a 35mm camera in Mongolia. I was at a rest stop, taking a bus to the foothills of the Altai Mountains, and this dog just came up and started begging. When I pulled the camera out to shoot it, it stood there and looked at me with this very strange gaze. Not to be the guy who’s pulling too much meaning out of a stray dog looking at me—it probably just wanted some food…it definitely wanted some food—but I thought the picture itself became its own little thing. I just I liked it. Not to over-explain or be heavy-handed with the whole thing but people call me a singer-songwriter all of the time, which is kind of a dirty word in our community. So much of being a singer/songwriter is just slapping your mug on the face of a record and there’s your name and a bunch of songs, so I thought it was interesting to have a stray dog on there where the self-portrait might ought to be. It was a little bit of a statement in that way. For the most part, though, I just loved the feeling that the dog gave off, and it was special to me in that moment to be in this gas station so far from home, so far from places where I felt comfortable.

What was recording the album at Electric Lady Studios like? 

We [O’Meara along with ‘You Awful Creature’ musicians/producers, Mike Haziza and Johnny Simon] actually did most of the album in an amazing studio in Richmond, Virginia called Montrose Studios, which is one of the coolest I’ve ever been to. It’s on an old plantation that a great studio owner bought in the late ‘80s for basically pennies because, at the time, the neighborhood was in decline. They also had made their own reverb plate, this thing you basically hang from the ceiling the size of a Volkswagon, and we ran just about every track through it. It colored the record in a very loud, particular way. Then, we came back to New York and did overdubs and went through a huge mixing process with Ben [‘You Awful Creature’ mixer, Ben Baptie] and Tom Elmhirst [Adele collaborator and mix engineer] in his studio at Electric Lady. We recorded all of “Mania” there, on a whim. It wasn’t supposed to be on the record. It was something that I recorded a long time ago. My friends had always taken kindly to it, and were like, “I really like that song. It spoke to me in ‘this’ way or ‘that’ way,” so I wanted to give that song the proper light of day. We went in there, and it was just one of those bizarre moments where everything just kind of happened in sequence and perfectly, and we walked out that night with this track that we felt good about. It happened in six hours, which just never happens to me, so it was really a thrill. The whole experience of being in Electric Lady kind of burned into my head. It was very intense.

When bringing the songs to life in the studio, were you open to improvisation, to trying new musical ideas or further exploring certain themes? 

Yeah, Johnny and Mike pushed me a lot on the record to do things that maybe I was uncomfortable with. There’s a certain thing with working with other people that I think is really hard for singer/writer people because, usually, they’re singer/writer people in the first place because there’s some innate quality or reality to their existence that’s made them incapable of playing nice with others (laughs). We all like to think that we have this really good vision but, a lot of times, there are holes and that’s why you work with people. Trusting those people is such a huge part of jumping in with them, and that was scary for me at first but I couldn’t have worked with three better people to do that with. There are parts of the record, from recording to instrumentation to ideas, where they had to push me. I let them follow the idea until the end, and it totally changed a given track in a way that totally, in my opinion, made it way more powerful. It’s easy to clam up and just be like, “No, no, no,” but if you let people’s ideas roll and then wake up the next morning, you’re going to be surprised at how cool it feels and how it changes you, too.

'Awful Creature' has a literary and somewhat philosophical quality yet is very relatable and ultimately warm. Is it important for you that your music is both thought-provoking and accessible, or is it more of an unconscious process in which you’re just trying to do truthful work? 

I just hope that, as I keep writing, to have a musical experience be there and have music be cathartic, interesting, and feel good. It would be nice, though, if, when people listen to the lyrics, they were able to find some layer to them and spot little bits that they can relate to. However, I don’t want to just give it all to them. With my favorite artists, there’s this story and they give so much detail to you but you’re still sort of confused as to exactly maybe what happened there, who did what, and you can fill in those holes. The idea is to sort of have people hopefully put themselves in those situations. People come up to me all of the time after shows and say, “Hey, y’know, this song is about 'this,' right?” And a lot of times that’s not the angle I got to but that’s right. That’s exactly what I hope you do: you make the song yours. That’s what powerful music is. When I grew up, you bought music and it was yours. You can make a playlist for your girlfriend or something, and it was yours. You can inject your own identity into it. But, now, there seems to almost be this worship aspect where it is about the person singing, and that kind of bugs me. I guess…I’m in the second half of my twenties, and I just sing about stuff that was bugging me.


The work is also haunting, with some musical moments (the ending of "Might As Well Swim" and the middle of “Rainstorms,” for example) almost indicating destruction just at the fringes, yet it is ultimately redemptive. Do you believe the artist must, in the end, point towards possibility and hope? 

I hope so because so much of that was coming out of questions that I was asking myself and just a lot of pain I was going through, just trying to survive here, wanting the people to love you and then having them not love you. Things like that were really tough. Maybe, in a weird way, part of channeling those songs was getting them out there, and now being able to play for people and tour the country has been literally, in its fruition, redemptive. Do I believe art should be that way? I don’t know. I think it should just be whatever your observation is but it certainly is nice that it speaks to the experience that I imagine everyone goes through at some gradient. I think it’s nice to channel pain and then make sure you crack the door so people can find a way out of there. Going forward, I’m already finding myself in a completely different head-space, a completely different place in life, and the songs are taking on different sentiments. I’m not terribly good at processing emotion, and I never have been, so everything I write is always like three years late because I’m usually just over my head when I’m in it. I’ve always been impressed with people who could just go through something and pick out exactly what they wanted out of it and channel that out. For me, I’ll be God knows where, hung over, waking up one morning, and then be like, “Alright, I think I know how I felt about that thing two or three years ago” (laughs). But, yeah, I would say that there’s a redemptive quality to this record, for sure.

And there are also some lighter moments, like at the end of “Misery Is You.” 

Yeah, that was one that Mike and I worked pretty heavily on, and that cut is a voice note we recorded, joking around in the studio. It kind of was meant to poke fun at the first half of the song, taking a jab at it and at the subject, which was a person I used to know really well. I thought that was a nice way to bring people back to earth for a second before we headed on to some of these more heavy songs. It was also special to us because it was just really funny. We were so giddy and ridiculous, and I just kept it. It was kind of a dare. Mike was like, “Oh, you won’t put it on the record.” I was like, “Yes, I fucking will” (laughs).

How did you link up with Lianne La Havas, and how has the tour been? 

Ben Baptie, while mixing the record, was working with her and handed the CD to her. She had all of these nice things to say about it. I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. We were always in sort of one-degree communication for a while but I finally met her this spring. When you meet her, you get it right away; she’s just a magically kind and sweet person, and really fun. She’s one of those people who’s just blessed with that talent to look somebody in the eye and figure out what makes you feel good, one of those people who makes people feel really big. She asked me to come sing on her record [the July-released 'Blood'] for a song called “Wonderful,” which is just this gorgeous ballad. Then, she called me in the spring and asked me if I wanted to do the Bowery Ballroom show. I, of course, said yes, and that was an unbelievably overwhelming, exciting and riveting experience. Then, she called me about a week and a half before the tour was starting here--I had planned a smaller tour for what I was doing--and she’s like, “Hey, do you want to come to U.S. and Canada with me?” And I almost dropped the phone. I just couldn’t believe it. It seemed like already so much to get from the universe, and much less from Lianne, that Bowery Ballroom experience. For her to ask that was so far beyond my expectations of reality and what was going to happen this fall. The tour’s been magical, though. People are connecting. There’s been always forward progress no matter what, and getting used to playing these rooms is something different. I’m trying to figure out how I can reach everybody and maintain the integrity of what I feel like I’m doing. But I’ve never felt better. I’m so glad to be on tour, and so honored to be doing it with Lianne.

Do you have any plans going forward?

The idea is to get out content that I believe in the next six-to-nine months, and to tour as much as possible in between. Hopefully, I’ll finish writing the full-length before the new year and I’d love to put something new out for the summer. In the interim, I plan on releasing the second half of this record. With a tour like this, I’m trying to see what’s going on the other side of it, taking inventory of where I’m at, trying to throw some flares out and see where I can go from here.