Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with songwriter and musician Margaret O'Brien of Monticello. In the Aug. 19 newspaper, we'll have a visit with wood sculptor Rick Larimore of Urbana and Fairmount.
Q: How long have you been singing?
A: All my life. There were eight kids in my family, and most of us played music. And I write songs. As a family, we'd sing whenever we got together. The guitars came out, and we were always singing and playing. It was just the way it was.
Q: Did you grow up in Chicago?
A: The South Side, Beverly.
Q: I saw on your Facebook page that you once worked for Intel in California.
A: In 1983, I went to California to change my life. I went to work at Intel as a temporary secretary and was surrounded by the incredible energy and engineers there. I went back to school at night and got an associate degree in computer science, and then managers at Intel encouraged me to go back to college for my bachelor's degree.
When I got my associate degree, I was working in Portland — Intel had transferred me up there. I ended up going to the University of Illinois because they have a great reputation and Intel employs a lot of their graduates. I changed my major to chemical engineering. It was really hard work. I don't know how I made it, but I did and then I went back to Intel. I moved around a lot with Intel and left it at the end of 1999.
Q: When did you move to the C-U area?
A: In 2002.
Q: How long have you been performing publicly around here?
A: The first time I did my songs on the dulcimer was when my sweet niece, Lynn O'Brien, set up a show a few years in Bloomington, where we shared the stage together. It was a highlight of my life. It really broke me into getting used to performing in public. Then I went to the Gebhard Woods Dulcimer Festival. They had an open mic stage, and I thought, "What the heck, I'm going to get up the gumption and get up there and do it." A year later, they invited me and three others back to play on the main stage in the coffeehouse. The audience was wonderful. Every time I've played out, my confidence and experience get better and better. When I did the Woody Guthrie show (July 14 in Champaign), I felt totally relaxed. The audience there — they were just phenomenal.
Q: You have a really nice singing voice. Did you ever study singing?
A: No. I was afraid to sing for many years. My throat would get tight. But eventually I just realized I'd be OK and that I was in tune and I remembered how much fun it was.
Q: How long have you played the dulcimer?
A: I didn't discover that until I went to Gebhard Woods five years ago. I was looking to buy an auto harp, and then I discovered the mountain dulcimer and just loved it. I met the Blue Lion Dulcimers people and they were wonderful, and so I bought one.
Q: Are you self-taught?
A: Yes. I did a workshop with Hilary Valentine at Parkland College, but I pretty much play by ear. I know some of the chords but not all of them. So it's hard for me to play with other musicians.
Q: When will you perform around here again?
A: I'm going to do the songwriter showcase that Todd (Durnil) sets up, at 7 p.m Aug. 21 at the Clark Bar. I'm going to do an hour, and John Coppess is going to do an hour. Then we'll do a duet together. He's got that wonderful bass voice. It'll be fun.
Q: Did you do the fabric art on your walls here in your house? It's beautiful.
A: Yes. I've been painting fabric for 40 years. I love it. Music and art have been my therapy in dealing with a chronic illness over the past 10 years or so. I don't play out much because of the fatigue, and the quilts are usually just for gifts, but they bring me such joy that I'll never stop doing them.