Helen O'Hara: 'I have huge admiration for untrained musicians'
“One is that I’ve had a really good life and I’ve done everything on my terms, I suppose, and gone with my gut instincts all of the way, having to make difficult choices, as everyone does, but I’ve got no regrets,” the violinist, composer, musical director and arranger best known for her time in Dexys Midnight Runners says with a smile.
The other occured to her while compiling a Spotify playlist to accompany the book, when she found that there were more than 200 songs that she had mentioned. “Obviously I know I love music, but I wasn’t conscious of that while I was writing, so it made me realise how much music has played a part in my life – apart from the hiatus I had when I brought my family up and I bowed out of music for over 20 years.”
During that 23-year break while she moved out of London to Kent to raise her two sons, she thinks she "probably subconsciously avoided" music, and subsequently discovered there were “big gaps” in her knowledge of pop from the 1990s to 2014. “For example, Tim Burgess,” she says of The Charlatans singer with whom she has recently toured. “I didn’t know about Tim Burgess in the 90s because I was busy with my kids and wasn’t listening. So I can tell the gaps that I’ve got, and I’m catching up.”
Born the sixth child of seven to scientist Christopher Bevington and nurse Margaret Moore, O’Hara was raised in a musical family in Bristol (and briefly, Swansea). Inspired by her sister Jen’s playing, she took up the violin aged nine. From then on she knew would be destined to be a musician. “I thought, ‘I love this, why look for anything else?’, which was quite an amazing thing, looking back, for a nine-year-old to realise,” she says.
“I was lucky because my elder brother Tony was buying all the (Rolling) Stones’ records and The Beatles and The Pretty Things and The Kinks and was putting on Top of the Pops, and when I heard this music and I was watching these bands, that’s what really touched me more than the classical music – the excitement and the drama and that three-minute song, great melodies, great rhythm, they all looked great, what they were wearing. Even as a young child I was picking up on all of that and then I would try and play along to a lot of the records or memorise tunes I’d heard on the radio to play on the violin or on the piano.”
By the time she was going to see bands in her early teens she was already thinking how she could join one herself. “It never occured to me that it might be a good idea to learn the guitar or drums,” she laughs. “I think because I so loved playing the violin, that didn’t come into it.”
Alongside the Stones, key early musical influences included David Bowie, Roxy Music and Rod Stewart.
At 17, four years after her parents had separated, she left the family home and she and her friend Boney Jones joined Gunner Cade, a prog rock band helmed by Ken Pustelnick, former drummer with The Groundhogs. After that she moved on to a soul band, Wisper, who gradually morphed into Uncle Po, who at first played jazz-fusion before switching to new wave. “That was the real grounding for what was to come later with Dexys because we toured so much,” she says. “We were playing every night, pretty much, all over the place – RAF and Army bases, pubs, clubs, all sorts of things. You could get lots of gigs then.”
Despite winning a BBC competition and releasing a single, Uncle Po stalled in 1977 and O’Hara was accepted to study violin and piano at Birmingham School of Music. She describes her four years there, during which time she met Simon Rattle, as “fantastic”, adding: “It was a brilliant music college and the right music college for me as well. All the teachers I had were fantastic and there were a lot of opportunities. Sometimes the opportunities are just given to a few in the most prestigious places, whereas there everyone was given opportunities and it was what you made of your time there that counted.”
While nearing the end of her studies in Birmingham, O’Hara was approached by former Dexys member Kevin Archer inviting her to play with his new band, The Blue Ox Babes. Shortly afterwards Kevin Rowland asked her to join a revamped Dexys. “Blown away” by the group, she decided to forgo an offer from the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra and become part of The Emerald Express, the band’s new string section.
She says she was swayed towards pop music by her flatmate Wendy who told her to listen to her heart. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s easy then because what I’ve always wanted to do is play with a band’, even though Dexys had no money at the time and the prospect wasn’t that great. It sounds weird now because very soon after that Come On Eileen was number one and Too-Rye-Ay was a major hit, everything was great, but it could’ve gone the other way.”
The transition was helped by Dexys’ disciplined, focused and detailed approach to rehearsals, which O’Hara says was similar to classical world. “I think having gone through those four years of detailed, focused and very disciplined training at college, I didn’t think I’d go into a band that wasn’t (any of those things),” she says. “Uncle Po was very focused but Dexys were more so. It was the way that we’d rehearse like you did at college with just the brass section or just the strings with the drummer. They’d have separate rehearsals which was quite unusual then. It was that detail and everybody giving their best and it can always be better.”
In her book, O’Hara also notes that working with the band increasingly felt like theatre. Her stage name was given to her by Rowland, along with an invented Irish ancestry. “It kind of followed from the classical world as well, when we were working on operas or musicals,” she says today. “It seemed to be that Dexys had the whole picture going for them. It wasn’t just a great band and great music, it was wow, there’s somebody who’s got a complete idea not just for whay we’re wearing but how we should move, some of the set, the backdrop, even to the point of giving us new names and Kevin would make up stories like on the back of The Celtic Soul Brothers (single), he gave us all an imaginary past. I loved that because it was different. I’d never experienced that in any of the other bands I’d been in.
“I loved seeing David Bowie’s performances, I saw him when he was Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. I really loved Roxy Music approach as well with their outfits. I loved those two bands, so maybe that was part of it as well.”
O’Hara attributes some of success of Dexys’ line-up in 1982 to the “great combination” of trained and untrained musicians in the band. “There were musicians who I’d call untrained like Kevin Rowland, Billy Adams, Seb Shelton the drummer and then there were people like myself who’d been to music college and Steve Shaw, the other fiddle player, and Jim Paterson who was Kevin’s main songwriting partner, and some of the others like Micky (Billingham) and Paul Speare had been classically trained too,” she says. “I think all of these elements just worked very well together.
“What I love about working with untrained musicians like Kevin, Tim Burgess and Tanita (Tikaram, whose band she would later join when Dexys ran aground with their next album, Don’t Stand Me Down) is that there’s no rules from the past. Even though I try to get rid of all the rules, there are some still there that I can’t help. Their minds are so open and completely free. Often people won’t know their way around the instrument very well but they can sing what they want, they can give you the idea and their ears are as sharp as anybody’s I’ve ever met in the classical world. They know what they want, they sometimes find it a bit frustrating if they can’t articulate it but they always get there in the end and they often have the best ideas. I kind of envy that, really. I do have a lot of freedom in how I think musically but the classical training’s reins are always there. I have huge admiration for untrained musicians.”
As Come On Eileen and its parents album Too-Rye-Ay became global multi-million sellers, O’Hara found herself travelling all over the world to promote them. She says although it was easy to get caught up in the “rollercoaster” ride, she never thought of herself as a pop star. “We were given these platinum discs and you’d look at them and think ‘That’s incredible’ but even now I look at them and I’m pinching myself still, it’s like it happened to somebody else,” she says. “Even now when I’m playing with bands it’s like I’m standing next to myself because it’s the dream that came true and I do consider myself very lucky and very privileged to have worked with who I have worked with and who I am working with. I’ve never taken anything for granted.
“It’s a strange one. I’ve never thought of myself as a pop star or anything like that and I’ve often hidden it from people as well, particularly when I had stopped playing and I was in a different life bringing up my children, I wouldn’t mention it because if they did find out people could treat you differently to how they would normally. I’ve always really just thought of myself as a musician and a violinist but have been very lucky to play with bands that have been very successful. But I think of myself as a musician first and foremost.”
What’s She Like is published by Route, priced £20.