Taylor O’Donnell has been living and making music in the Seacoast since 2011. But based on her long list of gigs and collaborations and a formidable slate of upcoming projects, you’d think she’s been here for decades.
In a way, she has. “I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo., though my family is all from Aroostook County, Maine, and my parents were even married in Portsmouth,” the vocalist said in a recent interview. “So, settling down in this neck of the woods didn’t feel too far from my roots.”
Since she settled in the Seacoast with trumpet player Chris Klaxton after they finished graduate school at the University of Miami in 2011, O’Donnell has forged a new set of local roots. She’s performed with the Chris Klaxton Group and with Roger Goldenberg’s “In Eyes ‘n’ Ears” jazz-art series, and is the front-woman for the new soul band, Mother Superior and the Sliding Royales. She’s part of the faculty at the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center and will perform at the school’s annual Jazz Night at The Music Hall Loft on Feb. 13. Later this month, she’ll debut her newest project, Cheeks, a jazz/folk cocktail group performing her own original songs.
Many of those projects can be traced back to the old Barley Pub in Dover — the first place she and Klaxton stopped on a visit from Miami four years ago.
“I think I met 75 percent of the people I still know here at the old Barley Pub in one night. … The Seacoast truly feels like home. I couldn’t believe how prolific the scene was for such a small nook in New England. I was an active performer in Miami, but the scene here is very personal. All of the musicians push each other to keep creating, and there’s an audience that stays hungry for the arts in all shapes and forms,” she said.
O’Donnell also soon found herself teaching, both at PMAC and as an instructor in jazz and pop voice at Bowdoin College. The gigs she plays and projects she works on outside the classroom inform how she teaches her students, she said.
“The teachers who were most influential to me were the ones who were setting great examples through living and breathing their own art. Taking the time to figure out what your voice can do as an instrument is really revealing, and my students know how important that is,” she said. “There’s always more to learn, and the voice is capable of creating so many different textures and sounds.”
Those teachers, she said, were influential in “changing the game” for her, and she counts Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Simon, and Phoebe Snow, among others, as major inspirations.
“I hope people hear honesty and a connection to the words within my songs.” — Taylor O’Donnell
Those influences are clear in her music. She’s an engaging vocalist, and O’Donnell said her goal is to connect — with audiences, with students, with other artists — through her music.
“I hope people hear honesty and a connection to the words within my songs. While I’m often at a loss for words in conversation, doing something that I enjoy and being able to share it really keeps me going,” she said. “I want to be just another instrument in the band, contributing to the sentiment and story of the whole.”
O’Donnell’s resume is evidence of how important that kind of collaboration is to her. It’s a sign of being part of something bigger, which she finds grounding. “Maintaining a strong a connection to your roots, where each person has a voice in an environment where art is important, helps me find deeper meaning and a sense of belonging. People here are truly proud of their own, and there is a place for the arts because of it. There’s really not a place for the unhealthy level of competition you might get in a larger scene. Here, if you have something to say, stand up and say it — you will be heard.”
And O’Donnell has been heard. She’s excited about what 2015 holds for her music, from a debut album from Mother Superior to her debut Cheeks gig, and the upcoming PMAC Jazz Night, where she’ll again be performing alongside her colleagues.
“The teachers at PMAC are all incredible performers, and each has so much they bring to the table individually,” she said. “I’m really proud to teach and perform alongside these people.”
O’Donnell sums up where she’s been, and where she’s going, with a simple quote: “I’m singing the song of life. How cool is that?” The words came from her friend, Jessica Cooper, who died in a car accident in 2006. “(She’s) a prime example of how to commit to a life filled with joy. That abrupt end to such a wonderful life reminds me to stay in the moment, and live each day as honestly as possible,” O’Donnell said. “What a great opportunity to get to live what you love.”
Taylor O’Donnell performs as part of PMAC’s Jazz Night on Friday, Feb. 13 at 7 and 9 p.m. at The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 603-436-2400 or online at themusichall.org.