Skip to main content

We sat at the back of the Toronto coffee bar, buzzing like two bees trying to figure out which hive the other is from. And we figured out pretty quickly that they were really different hives, though we also knew that in the end it's the honey that counts.

Just as bees dance and wriggle to signal to each other which way to fly to get the pollen, Mary Margaret O'Hara was dancing with words, twisting them this way and that to help me find the big dotted line that leads straight to the flower. But because she's the queen, and she's from a distant hive that has only a few very special bees in it (and maybe just one), I could only bumble along at some distance behind her speedy parabolas.

A lot of people have been waiting for some kind of signal from O'Hara, ever since she flared into view with her astounding 1988 debut album, Miss America. That disc landed on the pop world like an urgent telegraph from a place where gibberish is the sanest kind of talk, and where time can run sideways as well as forward. It had the liquidity of free jazz, the emotional directness of Irish balladry, and the romance of an intimate music that knows how to romp in the deepest shadow. Its freshness has never faded.

Fourteen long years later, a second full-length disc has snuck into the world, almost without O'Hara noticing it. It's an independent soundtrack recording for a small Canadian film called Apartment Hunting, with a new song for each one of her "silent" years. It covers the full swath of her range, from swinging torch numbers to scat-singing improvisations that start naked and strip down from there. With no touring and almost no promotion, the album has already sold 2,500 copies.

She doesn't know what to say about it. It's hers and not hers, something she did for a friend (film director Bill Robertson) only after suggesting he try a bunch of other people first. It isn't the follow-up to Miss America, which may be a good thing. Since it was somebody else's project, she felt she could do it without having to deal with a lot of hassles and fears that flicker at the edges of her conversation without ever being named directly.

"I'm not quotable," she said apologetically. That's true, not because she doesn't say memorable or pithy things, but because her meaning usually lurks one or two levels below her words.

Speech came slowly to her as a child. She can tease a song lyric like no one else, but the linear structures of language seem foreign to her. When she's talking the words pour out in long wayward trails of thoughts and second thoughts that interrupt each other and sometimes cancel out half the thing she was just saying. After a while you get the feeling that everything you're hearing is a scribbled translation from a more subtle language that circulates only in her mind.

"I love singing gibberish," she said. "I feel like I make much more sense with gibberish than with words. I'm talking, even if you don't understand me . . . My instrument is the human body. Do you think I'm going to hide my instrument behind the words?"

Talking about the music is particularly laborious for her, like trying to put clothes on the wind. It's a problem she runs into a lot with other musicians, who often can't make the leap between their Euclidean world and her living expression of chaos theory.

"It's about letting it happen as much as making it happen, like a fun ride that you're directing and letting happen," she said. "It's kind of focused-unfocused, or lost and found at the same time."

That doesn't leave much room for foursquare pop rhythms and pop phrases. When those things do show up in O'Hara's music, you sense that she's just hovering there for the fun of it, to let you get one clear glimpse before she whizzes off into some polyrhythmic zag across the meadow of song.

"I ask people to lose their sense of rhythm for a while, for these poly-rhythmic things," she said. When she's in that mode, she'll sing parts for everyone in the band, from bass on up. She'll do whatever it takes to get them to hear it her way, though in the end she's usually keeping a completely different count from everybody else. "Maybe I don't realize how uncomfortable that makes some people."

Some people at Virgin Records got so uncomfortable, all those years ago, that Miss America almost didn't get released at all, and then only after a four-year dither. The record's subsequent elevation to cult status totally vindicated O'Hara's hard-fought vision for the project, but the scars of the whole experience are still with her.

She claims not to care whether there's ever a formal follow-up. The response to Miss America was enough, she said. (Till recently, she was still gathering publishing royalties from the album's songs.) Music isn't business for her, but a kind of inventive, playful living that she does whether anyone witnesses it or not. Most of her concert appearances in recent years have been hastily arranged local shows with friends and long-time colleagues, advertised mainly by rumour. She earns her living mostly from stray gigs and freelance graphic work.

By her own count, she's written a zillion songs since Miss America. A lot of them turn up in her head at odd moments. If she's not at home, she sometimes calls her own number to sing the new arrival onto her answering machine. The tape is almost always full.

"People say, 'You've got to share it,' " and I think that's a weird word, it's supposed to make you feel guilty. But then I think, well, sharing is a beautiful thing."

But sharing is easier when the people are in front of her, and friends are nearby, and there's no big financial expectation. Perfection, at such times, is not about what goes onto the plastic disc, but about occupying the moment with maximum intensity and freedom.

At bottom, O'Hara may be one of those incorrigibles who have never fully accepted the transformation of music from event to artifact. When she started, she was afraid even to lay down fixed parts, in case they made the song less free (she later discovered the reverse was often true). Recording turns everything into a fixed part. From the bee's point of view, the worst thing you can do with honey is to put it in a jar. Mary Margaret O'Hara sings on the soundtrack of the short film Klepto the Clown, which airs on Bravo! Wednesday at 7 p.m.