“A Beautiful Songbird. An absolute find!”~Radio Rijnmond, The Netherlands
“Beautiful… a playful mix of dulcet ukulele and atmospheric vocals.” ~ CBC Radio 2
“Shelley was doing the ukulele thing before it was cool.
Or maybe she’s one of the reasons it got cool in the first place.” ~Globe and Mail (Canada)
“From the wellspring of her hope and awe,
Shelley O’Brien has not only curated this country’s beauty, but also her own.” ~Exclaim!
In 2009, after a few years as a piano bar entertainer on cruise liners, Shelley O’Brien traded her ship’s cabin for a Toronto apartment, and started posting videos on YouTube of her playing songs on her ukulele. This quickly led to invitations to play worldwide and launched a touring career many seasoned, successful songwriters would envy.
Since the release of her debut You, Me and the Birds (2009), O’Brien has taken her ethereal pop songs around the world, to festivals in Paris, Venice, Helsinki and Melbourne. Extensive touring has also put her name on the marquee in cities like Barcelona, Rome, Brisbane, Rotterdam, and Reykjavik.
By contrast, You, Me and the Birds went relatively unnoticed back home in Canada – with the exception of some festival engagements and a coast-to-coast VIA Rail Tour. Dubbed “an
enchanting album of quirky pop music” by The Globe and Mail, the record is now being re-released and distributed by Outside Music, and with the release of her follow-up Vivarium, Shelley O’Brien is destined to be discovered by Canadian audiences.
Recorded in Vancouver, Vivarium’s lush, atmospheric production is the result of an inspired collaboration between O’Brien and notable studio ace/film composer Matthew Rogers (Mark Berube, C.R. Avery). With exception of the cello tracks, the duo also play all the instruments on the album.
While the cover photo for Vivarium was shot in Iceland, the album plays almost as a declaration of love for the Canadian landscape: the most driving track on the record, Let These Lights In, is a self-confessed longing for the stars, inspired by a portage in Algonquin Park. And the iconic canoe makes a glorious cameo appearance in Swiftly, We Go, an infectious little road song bound to kick off many long weekends and holiday playlists.
Her lyrical imagery firmly rooted in nature, O’Brien moves through vast northern spaces with familiarity and awe. The haunting and cinematic From the Caribou was inspired by a NFB documentary about the Porcupine Caribou’s remarkable 2000 km annual journey. Elm, penned from the point of view of a tree, is a late-autumn lament. And Mountain Hymn – written on a day of longing to escape the city – is every mountain’s love song:
A mountain hymn for all my senses / I put my hands on you I hum
Been city dim and thin to paper / Skyward sender / Here I come
Spacious and questioning, O’Brien’s songs have an age-old, celestial quality. Album opener Perfect Day, with its Ennio Morricone-inspired lines, is a subtle yet powerful romp. The whispered intimacy on Set of Keys, shrouded in static, backwards ukulele and looped Casio keyboard, brings to mind the music of Sparklehorse whereas Turn to Spring is an upbeat, irresistible pop tune reminiscent of Feist or Emiliana Torrini.
But most importantly, the ukulele songstress has blazed her own musical trail; stripped to the bare songwriting essentials, armed with only a miniature instrument and haiku-like lyrics, Shelley O’Brien demonstrates how to accomplish great things with the smallest of gestures. Shelley O’Brien’s Vivarium is a reminder that, sometimes, you have to whisper to be heard.