“We soak in and register the responses and compliments to our work, accumulating over time the self-awareness to be able to name our “thing” and find our niche. Afterall. There are no two alike.”
On Becoming “A Voice for the Soul of the City,” and Finding My Niche
When I was starting out after graduating music school at DePaul, I was proud of my trained and versatile instrument and its broad range. When people asked, “What do you do?”
I boasted: “I sing a little of everything, except rock n’ roll.”
During my first (and last) tour to Houston in 1984, a sassy Texas Democrat at the bar declared, “She has no break,” when she heard my feisty cover of a Judy Collins cover of an Irish rebel song.
I liked singing. I liked silencing a room full of people when I hit, and held, the high notes in a dramatic whisper.
But I had my share of disappointing attempts at entertaining distracted cocktail party-ers, drunken politicians, sport fans and spoiled socialites with my angelic soprano and Sandra Dee-like naivete. I was NOT what they wanted. THEY were not what I wanted.
Before social media and the Internet boom, we cultural artists depended on word-of-mouth, the landline, and the USPS to get work. Many’s a night I sat up with a typewriter and White-out, trying to write a cover letter, dub a cassette, or cut and paste a flyer with a one-in-a hundred chance anything would come of it. And even more risky, whether enough people would come to a gig. or fill the room.
I took the rejection personally. People would commiserate, as a painful rejection led to days of tears.
“Them’s the ropes. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
But the fighter inside tossed me other well-worn cliches:
“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Get over it. Move on.”
And I did. And I do...
That rejection always visits an artist psyche, but over time it has a shorter stay. And if you are lucky, you learn something every time.
Within several years of trying to get “good exposure”, “good practice”, and paid “a little somethin’ for expenses”, I was done with using singing as a utilitarian career. It was special and I was only going to sing in a listening room. I’d find my hustle with something else.
So, I became my own jack-of-all-trades. I looked for situations in the Chicago cultural scene where my ideas and tastes were respected, encouraged, tried out and even anticipated! In time, I had enough of a resume to get good money and nice, high-profile gigs. Selective now about where I’d sing, and shedding the Irish folksinger persona I’d clung to, I broadened my horizons, repertoire and skill set. I listened to and went to hear lots of music and theater. I worked with great songwriters and theater artists. I did a fair amount of live radio and recording.
I took bits and pieces of what I saw and threw them in a kind of curatorial blender and came up with something new.
The Last Laugh
To a certain extent, it was, I saw, who you know. Hiring talent requires a kind of faith-leap. You are putting the outcome of the audience experience in the artist’s hands. We art-makers build trust and gain a good reputation on delivering on that trust!
As I got to know people in the scene, they got to know me. People attached to artistic projects, and those connected to social causes as well, saw my affect on an audience. They approached me, hired and commissioned me to create programs for them. They asked me to talk to other artists about navigating the ups and downs of an artistic career. I started writing down what worked, and how I got where I was. I became a teaching artist at Columbia College in Arts Management and freelanced as a coach. Now I have J. O’Reilly Productions, a cultural arts business, that does a little of everything. Though I don’t say that. Because it is me they want. What I do and who I know.
And as for my clients, I find a way to let them know I want them.
In 1999, I co-wrote and co-starred in an award-winning musical for Victory Gardens Theater. Hello Dali: from the Sublime to the Surreal was about the power of the artist in the world. It became a box office hit. For over four years, the street banners from that show, with my laughing face, floated about Lincoln Ave, two blocks from my DePaul University School of Music, my alma mater!
Establishing an identity.
As the digital-boom took hold, those of us who eked out a living, found opportunity. I saw I needed a “brand”, though in 1981 the DePaul Music School faculty would have cringed at that crass assertion. Thus, I became A Voice for the Soul of the City, a handle assigned me by generous-thinker Rebecca Armstrong, who also described me as a “Cultural Animatrix” on my first business card. Her design. She knew me. I tell my private coaching clients now: “You need to listen to what others say about your affect on them before you can see it for yourself. Keep a notebook. Write it down. Practice saying it outloud.”
“Hi, I’m Jamie O’Reilly.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a cultural arts producer in Chicago.”
“And I understand you sing?”
“Oh, yes, I’m a ballad singer… They say I make people cry.”
We soak in and register the responses and compliments to our work, accumulating over time the self-awareness to be able to name our “thing” and find our niche. Afterall. There are no two alike.
Jamie provides artist development, production and P.R. services to artists and organizations via the web and her office at Roots Salon in Chicago’s Lincoln Square. Read more here. In February, Jamie performs in “Epitaphs, Apparitions, and The Wintry Guest” at Rhinofest Theater Festival, now in its 26th year, on Feb 7 at 3 PM at 3502 N Elston Ave in Chicago. In March Jamie returns to the pub with Michael Smith in “Songs of a Catholic Childhood: The Lenten Tales”, their original show, at Chief O’Neill’s Pub, on Mar 5 at 8 PM.