Coming home with a Grammy

Forrest O'Connor '10Mandolin player Forrest O'Connor '10 and The O'Connor Band, including his wife and dad, take home the 2017 Grammy for bluegrass. 

By Alicia Anstead NF '08

Earlier this week, Forrest O'Connor '10 walked onstage with The O'Connor Band, including his fiddle-playing wife Maggie and his father, the fiddle player Mark O'Connor, to accept the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album for the recording Coming Home. We caught up with O'Connor to ask him about his time at Harvard, his life as an artist and the popularity of bluegrass. Our exchange follows. Listen here to selections from Coming Home. Get ready to tap your foot. 

What was your most formative experience as an artist at Harvard? 
It’s hard to pinpoint just one experience, since I learned something new every day I was on campus. But if I had to narrow it down to one or two experiences, I’d have to start with John Stewart’s Music 51 (Intro Theory) class. The

The O'Connor Band
The O'Connor Band. Photo: Jeff Fasano
way he analyzed and interpreted the Bach chorales – and the way he got his students excited about them – was amazing to witness. I finished that class understanding how Bach’s music held all the keys (no pun intended) to Western music, then and today. It changed the way I thought about composing, playing mandolin and guitar, singing, and arranging music. Beyond Music 51, I learned so much from both Kay Kaufman Shelemay (my thesis advisor) and Jack Megan (director of the Office for the Arts). They helped guide my ideas and projects, no matter how out-of-left-field they seemed, and their attitude and passion for the arts was a big inspiration to me.

What have you discovered about living and working as an artist?
I never realized how much I’d be worried about paying rent on time every month. In the last three years, I’ve probably spent about 10 times as much time working on the business and logistical side of things – booking, communicating, traveling, advancing shows, etc. – than I have on improving my craft. It’s remarkable how much energy and preparation it takes just to make a single full show come off well. I think the key is maximizing efficiency, involving enough other people (but not too many) to handle certain tasks, figuring out how to compartmentalize the logistics so that you have the mental space to be an artist. This requires building at least a semblance of a team, which itself requires caring about and believing in other people and giving them a reason to want to work with you and be around you. Behind the scenes, it’s about a lot more than just the art. I’ve also gotten better at trusting my intuition. You have to make so many minor and major decisions every day that it’s impossible to vet and analyze everything too thoroughly.

Tell us about writing and performing the work on your Grammy Award-winning album? 
We recorded Coming Home last February and March in Nashville and Los Angeles. I wrote or co-wrote four of the 12 songs on the album, including the title track, and I sing and play mandolin throughout it. A fellow Harvard alum and one of my best friends, Jim Shirey ’11, wrote the lead track Always Do. Jim is one of my favorite songwriters, and I learned a great deal from studying his lyrics. Our co-producer, Gregg Field, was a master at drawing the best vocal performances out of me and my fiancée, Kate Lee (our other lead singer), that we could give in the moment. He

Forrest O'Connor '10
Forrest O'Connor '10 Photo: David Bean
probably spent as much time dancing around the studio, getting us to visualize and channel the stories we were singing about, as he did sitting at the board. And I never thought I’d record an album with my dad. I grew up listening to and being inspired by his music, so it was pretty amazing to end up sitting one booth over from him in the studio for a couple weeks! The rest of the band members really did give world-class performances too.

Why is bluegrass still so popular? 
Bluegrass is raw, high-energy and relatable in a lot of ways. It’s a style that can thrive with basically no production values. It can sound as good next to the fire as it can on a big festival stage. Coming Home is definitely influenced by bluegrass, but it’s not a straight-ahead bluegrass album. It spans many different styles, which is one of the things that gives it so much character.