Tim O’Brien – ChameleonTim O’Brien is back with a new solo effort titled Chameleon on Proper American due March 25. Chameleon is O’Brien’s first effort since winning the 2006 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album (for Fiddler’s Green, one of two albums he released simultaneously in the fall of 2005)—and the IBMA’s Male Vocalist and Song of the Year honors that same year.
At a point in his career where you’d think he’d be charging at full speed toward the next big thing, Tim O’Brien confounded expectations by doing something else: he took time–and plenty of it–to create the next small thing. Chameleon is an intimate project that, in its blend of virtuosity, wit and warmth, is unmistakably his. And this time around, it’s literally his alone."Back in January of 2006, I said to myself, I’ve got to do something different than flying every which way all year," O’Brien recalls. "And when I got the Grammy award in February, it sort of woke me up. It was so validating, because I’d already been feeling that pushing was not getting me anywhere, that I was just getting worn out and disillusioned–and when you get disillusioned doing what I do, something’s wrong, because it’s a great job. So winning the award was like hearing that I have been doing something, that I’ve got a body of stuff to rest on. And by June, I was telling people that no, I’m not going to be doing as much next year."
Of course, even at his most relaxed, the veteran O’Brien continued to be more productive than most. He still offered occasional performances, both on his own and in various configurations, and he worked on the acclaimed Blind Alfred Reed tribute, Always Lift Him Up, both performing Reed’s best-known song and sharing in the album’s production. But mostly he wrote, both on his own and with collaborators–and, in August of last year, he began work on Chameleon with award-winning engineer Gary Paczosa.
"Every time a recording comes around, I think about doing a solo record," O’Brien says, "but when I get to the time where I really have to decide, I juggle a bunch of concepts around, and when one falls into place the others just fall away, and doing it solo always wound up falling away. On several records, like Fiddler’s Green, I’ve done a solo track or two, but this time I thought, it’s just time to finally do it all on one record. If I’d done it the last time, it would have been a traditional record, but this time it was a songwriter record."
Though he first won renown as a member of one of bluegrass’s premiere bands, Hot Rize, O’Brien’s been doing solo performances for a long time, and pressed for antecedents, he offers up figures like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. "The folksinger with a guitar is a sort of an unassailable icon," he says with a laugh. "Dylan, Woody Guthrie–what can you say. And I remember that when I heard the first Doc Watson album, I thought, what does he need a band for? This guy has got it all. But what happens is that when you go into the studio, you can play with a band and get the juices flowing and maybe do things that you might not be able to do on the road. So there’s a temptation to go that way. But this time, I thought, let’s just bring it inside."
Chameleon rambles from the autobiographical to the whimsical, and themes emerge, whether it’s the nods to tradition found in the appearance of hoary lyric phrases in "Where’s Love Come From" and the sly quotation from Bill Monroe in "Hoss Race," or the wry political observations in a trio of songs ("This World Was Made For Everyone," "When In Rome" and "World Of Trouble") planted in the back half of the collection.
"Right toward the end of the time when I was writing and getting ready to record, I wrote ‘Get Out There And Dance,’" he notes. "That’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, and it’s totally fun. I really liked the idea: if you want to live life, you’d better get in it. And it’s in ‘The Only Way To Never Hurt,’ too, which comes right before it: ‘If you don’t get on the floor and dance/You can’t hope to win the game of love.’ I used to lean toward ballads more with my writing, and when I tried to write funny things, it didn’t work–but now I’m finding ways to do it, and it’s nice."
Tim O’Brien will be performing throughout the U.S. and Europe, including most major festivals this year.