Mike O'Neill Reinventing the Artist
Published Feb 29, 2012"I really have an inferiority complex," confesses Mike O'Neill. Given his track record, this is hard to believe.
The Juno-nominated and Gemini Award-winning songwriter occasionally wonders what would've happened if he'd earned a university education. O'Neill was once a chemistry major planning to pursue a career in art restoration, but that was interrupted when beloved bass-and-drum duo the Inbreds exploded in popularity.
While his penchant for the visual arts was most notably indulged by creating the album art for his first two solo records, What Happens Now? and The Owl, it was much earlier that he completed one of his most ambitious projects.
"When I was 18, to impress this girl, I drew 'The Creation of Adam' from the Sistine Chapel on my bedroom wall. It's still there and it's kind of embarrassing," he says with a smile, shaking his head sheepishly. "It's not very great. But my parents were both Catholic and very happy about it."
O'Neill reveals this occurred well into the relationship and then admits his drive to impress continues to be ceaseless, especially when it comes to his music.
"It's an interesting point. Wild Lines is eight years after The Owl. Sure, I had work that came up, but why eight years? And I really do think it's because I always feel like I've got to start from scratch and prove I'm as good as I ever was, whatever that is… I'm happy to do something good, but once I do it, I don't wear it around like a wrestling belt."
Balancing expectations with new ideas can be difficult. O'Neill admits that, after gaining notoriety for a certain formula, he and Inbreds drummer Dave Ullrich made some creative compromises to appease their fans' expectations. Thus it's understandable that, since embarking upon his solo career and reverting back to guitar, O'Neill has taken as many liberties as he can.
Wild Lines, his latest release, is a complex and timeless work that comfortably straddles the line between pop and rock. Full of lilting melodies and finely tuned micro-details, it renders into an easy, but stimulating listening experience. O'Neill's sonic experiments – such as audio samples from his travels or singing dual-lead vocals redolent of the Everly Brothers – are soundly executed and never overdone, with each track quite unlike any other. The commonality shared between each song is that they all reference indefinite, but absolute moments.
"I'm really happy with this record, with how it sounds," states O'Neill. "And I actually think my lyrics are the best lyrics I've ever written so far, so I'm encouraged by that."
O'Neill points to the final number, "One Pair Of Shoes," as his favourite on the album. It's a simple song with a sophisticated chord progression, inspired by his sister's succinct recollection of their childhood. Their parents had lived through the depression and, although their father worked at IBM and earned the family a comfortable living, O'Neill says he never wore new clothes, only hand-me-downs from his three brothers. "And we just had one pair of shoes," he explains, though the song is more about their general, sensible upbringing. "My mom would find T-shirts on the ground or frozen to a mailbox, bring them home, boil them, and we would wear the shirts. My parents never wanted us to judge people by their class. I never felt better than anybody."
This humble upbringing may be why the multi-talented musician quickly dismisses the "legend" title applied so often to him. Whatever the reason, even if he's not busy preserving the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, O'Neill's artistic gift and contributions are undeniable.