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5 things you need to know about Mary Margaret O'Hara's debut album

Andrea Warner

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s phenomenal 1988 record, Miss America, is among CBC Music’s 25 best Canadian debut albums ever. You can check out the full list here.

Miss America is a stunning, singular achievement, and a bit of an oddity. It is sparse and weird, haunting and warm, beautiful in its uncompromising clarity and vision. It also bears an unusual weight in that it is O’Hara’s sole full-length release. Ever. She’s continued to make music (a Christmas EP and the soundtrack to a friend’s film, Apartment Hunting), influence countless others and collaborate with the likes of R.E.M, Tom Waits, Neko Case and Peggy Lee, to name a few. But O’Hara’s refusal, so far, to engage in any real followup to Miss America has only intensified her myth and mystery, and contributed to her status as a cult hero.

In honour of its place on CBC Music’s list of the 25 best Canadian debut albums, here are five things you need to know about Mary Margaret O’Hara’s masterpiece, Miss America.

1. The making of Miss America was troubled from the beginning

O’Hara signed with Virgin Records in 1983, but Miss America wasn’t released until 1988.

XTC’s Andy Partridge was tapped first to produce the record. He lasted one day. According to writers Tim Dalton and Rebecca Koss (Dalton Koss HQ), O’Hara’s manager fired Partridge after it was revealed that he was an atheist and that his co-producer, John Leckie, was a follower of free love guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. (Dalton and Koss speculate that this flew in the face of O’Hara’s “strict Roman Catholic upbringing.”)

2. Engineer Paul Cobbold took over, but the tapes were allegedly abandoned in Virgin’s 'too difficult' pile

"I loved the Celtic crosses and the sheep rolling around the hills by the studio in Wales. But for Virgin to go from, 'You can do whatever you want,' to 'What have you done?' — that was tough," O’Hara told the Guardian in 2008.

3. The album ended up being rescued, sort of, by Michael Brook, formerly of Martha and the Muffins

According to Dalton and Koss, Brook helped O’Hara and her band re-record four songs that summer and remixed seven of the original cuts. Brook is listed as the sole producer, but in fact Joe Boyd is an uncredited producer on the record, and O’Hara herself produced the bulk of the songs herself.

4. O’Hara told the Guardian she wrote Miss America’s lead song, 'To Cry About,' in the bath

"Virgin said I wrote that about my boyfriend who died. I didn't. I wrote that song in August 1980, in the bath, when we were still together." When she played the song to her boyfriend, full of lyrics about loss and timed disasters, he said it was about him, but she didn't agree. A year later, he drowned. "And then the lyrics were obviously about him, as if I'd seen it happening."

5. When Miss America was reissued in 1996, it boasted a sticker with an endorsement from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe

Stipe called O’Hara “one of the most powerful singers I’ve ever heard” and a “performer of astonishing force.” But one of the earliest people to observe O’Hara’s unique talents and find himself possessed by her brilliance was actually Morrissey. He recruited O’Hara for what would be his 1993 record, Beethoven was Deaf.

Here, Morrissey talks about O’Hara in a 1990 interview with the Face.

I was massively intrigued by her album. I thought it so beautiful I suddenly realised I hadn't in a decade heard someone singing because of deep-set personal neurosis, absolute need and desperation. You'd think she might fall apart at any second and become a pile of rags and bones onstage. For the first time in almost a decade I was 'high' — mentally really, really high. What kept coming back to me was 'Horses.' Mary Margaret also sings on another track, 'He Knows I'd Love to See Him.’"

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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