Essays-Shanna O'Brien

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Shanna O'Brien-Bakersfield, CA


     "I was born in LaGrange, Georgia but didn’t live there long because six months after I was born my dad, who was a career Army officer, was transferred to Germany. Mom went on to have 5 kids and I was the oldest. I can’t remember when I didn’t sing.  Growing up we had talent shows in our back yard and Dad always asked me to sing my favorite songs every night at the dinner table --  songs like Berle Ives, “Little White Duke,” “High Hopes” and “Jimmy Crack Corn.”  Music was a part of our everyday life, with Mother singing her favorite hymns while cooking in our busy kitchen to Grandmother whistling her favorite folk songs while she puttered around the house. My Dad was eventually stationed at Ft. Benning, GA and we lived in Columbus.  It was there at the age of 10, that I had a defining moment when I “knew” I was a real singer.  I was a member of our church choir and one Sunday, during the morning service, the Preacher asked me to sing “The Lord’s Prayer.”  I was sweaty and petrified standing at the alter that warm Georgia morning. But when I looked out at the congregation and saw everyone smiling and nodding to each other, I got goose bumps of happiness all over my body.  After I finished singing, I heard the church bells ring and I ran to Mom and Dad and told them I knew what I was supposed to do with my life.  My Dad smiled and told me I did a great job and then he said, “You can sing all the songs you want to Sweetheart – just be sure you learn to type.”  Well that actually turned out to be good advice -- but at the time it felt liked my dreams had been squashed like a bug.

As I grew up, all kinds of music played on our 78 stereo record player – musicals like “Flower Drum Song,” and standards by Peggy Lee, Julie London and Harry Belafonte.  I loved that music -- but really came alive when I first heard Buddy Holly sing, “Oh Boy” and “Rave On” and Brenda Lee sing, “Sweet Nothin’” and “I’m Sorry” on the radio and then along came Elvis, Connie Frances, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles – and I was in musical heaven listening to my little AM radio in my bedroom, learning every song by heart, dancing around the room and singing into my hairbrush microphone.

I married at 19 and soon had two children.  I didn’t want to have children right away but the Viet Nam war was raging and my husband, who had just graduated from college, suddenly became eligible for the draft.  He came to me the morning he received his draft change notification, which said I had to be pregnant within 9 months or he would be drafted.  What choice did I have?  So my son was born within one and a half years of our marriage. I was barely 21.  I still had aspirations of being a singer but knew those dreams would have to be on the back burner for quite some time because of starting a family.


Soon my husband was offered a job in Hawaii where he opened the first TV Guide Magazine office.  While living on the island of Oahu, where my daughter was born, I went to a José Feliciano concert and was lucky enough to sit only a few feet away from the stage. I was so moved by José’s performance that I went straight away and bought a classical guitar that sat around gathering dust until the day I heard “bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air” – the song was “Clouds” by Joni Mitchell.  I did my best to learn that song but the rigors of taking care of two little kids made it quite difficult to have any time to myself for learning songs – much less guitar.

After two years in Hawaii we moved back to the mainland and settled in a little town called Fairfax nestled in the hills of Marin County.  The kids were a little older and not so demanding by then and that’s when I had time to pick up that sweet classical guitar, teach myself a few chords and I started playing songs from my childhood and other folk music for my kids in pre-school, nursery school and 1st through 4th grade when all of a sudden the Bee Gee’s hit.  After that my children thought my songs were just too juvenile for them and I stopped going to their school to play for their classrooms.

One day while I sat in my living room, feeling quite musically rejected by my own children, I closed my eyes and quietly asked what I was supposed to do with myself now that the kids were in school and I had all this free time on my hands.  I “got the message” intuitively that I was supposed to write my own original songs and communicate my thoughts and feelings through them.

I was doing just that one spring morning when the doorbell rang.  I had my guitar in hand when I answered the door and standing there was a young man who introduced himself as Dallas Smith, a Fuller Brush salesman.  I told him I was just too busy writing a song to look at Fuller Brushes and his eyes opened wide. He smiled and said he was really a musician and would love to hear my song.  He was studying flute with Ali Akbar Khan, whom I heard was living in Marin,. Something about Dallas’ gentle demeanor made me trust him and so I invited him onto the porch, I played my song for him and as we talked, found out he was from Columbus Georgia and had gone to the same high school as me but we didn’t know each other back then.  I found that quite amazing!  Out of the blue, someone from Columbus, GA, who went the same high school as me, is at my door.  He asked if he could come back later in the day with his flute and I said yes and “that” was the beginning of my musical journey. 

Dallas got our first real gig at The Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, CA and we went on to play several other venues and music festivals in Marin County.  That was 37 years ago and he and I have recently reconnected through the internet.  I found out that he has a very successful business in Reno where he lives with his wife who plays electric harp.  Their business is called Healing Healthcare Systems and they provide healing music and videos to hospitals.   He is also in a band called Mynta and they tour India and Sweden. Back then Dallas helped me form my first band consisting of tabla, sitar, bass, flute and me on guitar.  After several gigs together, we dissolved due to other demands in each of our lives and he went on to pursue his dreams while I continued raising my children, writing songs and eventually formed my first rock band called “Siren.”  By then I had a Les Paul guitar and a Marshall Stack! Siren was made up of a bass player, lead guitar player, drummer and me.  We were just beginning to build a following by playing College concerts when my drummer passed away from a brain aneurysm in his sleep on the first night of a two night booking at Chico College in Northern California.  That was such a blow.   It devastated me and although the other band members wanted to continue, my heart just wasn’t into it and I went back to sitting in my living room writing songs and stayed busy with my children.


One day a guitar-teacher friend named David Fromer invited me to a house concert where I met a wonderful man named Matt Kramer, who was living in Los Angeles and booking the Troubadour.  Eventually Matt became my manager and we traveled up and down the West Coast touring colleges and doing house concerts.  I also performed at McCabe’s and The Troubadour as well as Westwood Art Faire. During that time my husband was making connections with the management of some of the biggest rock groups in San Francisco like Journey, The Doobie Brothers, The Tubes, Hewey Lewis and the News, Pablo Cruise and The Grateful Dead designing their album covers and hiring the best graphic artists in San Francisco, like Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, to render the art. Eventually the manager of Journey heard one of my songs and asked me to open for Journey at the Old Waldorf Hotel the night Steve Perry joined the band.  Here I was, a folk singer in a long skirt, standing alone in front of 1000 screaming Journey fans,  singing Jimmy Hendrick’s “Fly On My Sweet Angel.”  That took guts!

Later on I went into the studio with members of Pablo Cruise, The Tubes, Hewey Lewis and The News and Steve Miller Band to make various demos of my songs.  I loved working with such high caliber musicians and top level recording studios.  I recorded at The Record Plant, Wally Heider and Patrick Gleeson’s studio, Different Fur. We created a lot of great music but for various reasons it didn’t “make it.”  The powers listening said they “didn’t hear the hit.”  And sooner or later the bands went out on the road and I was left with great demos and no band – this was a very depressing period for me because I had the drive, ambition and in my opinion the talent – but in the end that wasn’t enough.

Feeling quite defeated by my aspirations to sing rock and roll, I retreated from the business for a while and started studying with a great vocal coach, Judy Davis, who had a studio in Oakland.   In her class, I not only learned how to protect and strengthen my voice, I also trained my voice and ear by singing the great standards like the ones I heard in my living room as a young girl.  Singing the standards was the way Judy taught articulation. The result of that was me performing in a showcase in San Francisco where several managers from Los Angeles came to check out talent.  That’s where I met Chuck Bennett who then became my manager and I started working on a show doing cover tunes like “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters and “I’m Not Leaving Without You” from Dreamgirls.  We took the show to Singapore to the Mandarin Hotel for a month to work out any bugs and after that to the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno.  It was in Reno where I had my first experience with vocal problems.  Performing two shows a night, six nights a week took its toll and I had to have cortisone shots in my throat to take down the swelling.  That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to continue in that direction. The words I “heard” in my living room years before were speaking to me again, “You were meant to communicate through your own original songs.” 

About this time my husband gave me an ultimatum “Give up your music career or give me up.”  So I gave him up and moved to Los Angeles.  This was the most traumatic period of my life.  I found myself emotionally devastated from being separated from my children who chose to stay with their father in Marin County, where all their friends were, and realizing that I had to get a job to pay my bills because my husband hid all our assets and I received no alimony whatsoever after eighteen years of marriage.  I realized I had to put my music on the back burner, again, and there it stayed for a good 10 years.

While working at a company called Medallion TV on Sunset Blvd., I met my next husband who was in the film distribution business.  We would frequently go out to the piano bars at the Cock and Bull and Mirabelle’s on Sunset Blvd.  So, of course, I would end up singing and eventually was offered a steady gig at a restaurant in Santa Monica called The Round Table.  One Saturday I decided to add a saxophone player to my show and went to Santa Monica Music Center to introduce myself to a player I had heard about.  I was told he was playing in a park close by with a jazz trio hired for a children’s park grand opening.  That’s where I met Terry Cano, who was playing keyboards. Terry and I started a relationship – which ended my second marriage.  He supported my dream of making an album of original music and over a period of four years produced my “Timeless” CD in our studio called Bird and Bear Studios in North Hollywood. The songs on “Timeless” were written over a period of many years and my friend, Dallas, performed “Sailin” (the second track) with me at The Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, CA, thirty-seven years prior. Terry and I went on to perform the great standards and swing music for hundreds of casuals, Elks and Moose Clubs, Country Clubs and Retirement homes in Los Angeles and Bakersfield.  

Soon I started performing my originals again at venues like Kulak’s Woodshed, The Talking Stick, The Guitar Merchant, Hallenbeck’s, Vitello’s, the M Bar in Hollywood, The Coffee Gallery and many others.  I became a member of Los Angeles Women in Music and served on the Board for over 5 years.  It was at Kulaks Woodshed where I met percussionist, producer Steve Reid.  We completed my second album, “Focus on the Light,” even though both of us were slowed down a bit by various medical conditions.

Music continues to flow through my heart, mind and spirit and as long as I can sing, I will.  I meet the most wonderful and interesting people.  I do it for the “love of it.” Creating and performing music continues to be a magical journey that fulfills my soul".

---Shanna has moved to Bakersfield, Ca where she sits in with local established players in various venues and has recently formed a band called "Waterfall" with her new love and percussionist, Greg Stanley. They will debut on April 27, 2018 at Bakersfield's Cafe Smitten. Shanna plans to release a new album by the end of 2018 as her music keeps flowing and flowing.