Women Making Music
Spotlight on Singer/Songwriter, Kathryn O’Shea
By Peggy Ratusz
A few years back I was asked by the music director of our local all-female choir, Womansong, to join them for a special concert of the season. I was to sing alongside Kathryn O’Shea, the daughter of the choir’s accompanist, Lytingale. From our first embrace, we became kindred songsisters and getting to know her better over the years has been delightful.
For this interview, I sent Ms. O’Shea a series of questions; and it pains me to have had to edit out so much of her rich and inspiring take on life, song and music. I encourage you to visit her music pages. Consider supporting her through her patreon page . And keep up with her music schedule here.
Talk about your back story.
I was born in Asheville and raised in Mills River. My parents ran a new-thought church together in Mills River so I learned very young how to put on a show. My brother Michael is a musician/producer too. The first time I sang into a microphone I was 4 years old at a Halloween party. Mom says she ushered me on stage, handed me the mic and then ran to start the tape I was supposed to sing along to. Before she could push play I started singing a cappella, pitch perfect (so she says) and didn’t stop until the end.
How/Why did you decide to become a songwriter?
I was writing songs before I picked up an instrument and it was long after that I decided to be a songwriter. I pursued theater and puppetry until I was 25. Oddly, I realized the theater lifestyle didn’t suit me, at the same time I realized I had an album’s worth of original songs written.
Because my mother was constantly writing songs, I never questioned how to write a song; it wasn’t a mystery to me; but when I started playing banjo at 17, the songs truly started flowing. I walked away from acting and decided to put all my energy into a career as a singer/songwriter. I came home to myself.
Tell us about your writing process.
When something noteworthy happens in my life, the logical next step is to write a song about it. Singing and songwriting has always been a reliable, deeply therapeutic undercurrent in my life. It’s important to notice the parts of life that flow effortlessly, understanding that those undercurrents make a person who they are.
When I write, I am typically deep in some feelings or experiencing a moment of clarity about something that has been weighing heavy on my heart, and the song itself serves as a little love note or reminder.
I sit down with an instrument and come up with a simple, repetitive instrumental part that I can loop on repeat without thinking about it. Then I hit “record” and start singing. Whatever comes out is illuminating and helps clarify what words or ideas are simmering inside, ready to come out.
When I wrote the lines “Couple of good friends tell me that it’s gonna be okay, so hell, might as well believe those things they say“ in my song “Sunflower,” no big traumatic event had occurred, I just felt I might crumble under the pressure of, well….all of it. I’ve learned to reach out to my friends to see myself through their eyes.
Talk about practicing and singing.
I’ve been asked “how do you learn to sing runs like that?” I obsess and polish them for hours on end. I listen to my favorite singers while I do the dishes and throw the kitchen window open on warm days. I sing what feels good; I emulate tones or copy difficult parts that are out of my comfort zone. Songs that used to feel above my skill set have become approachable.
I live in an apartment above some businesses and neighbors hear me when I do this and when I went to a restaurant on my block, the cook came out with my to-go box and said “is that you upstairs, singing all those crazy scales all the time? We can hear you when we take our smoke break in the alley, and we love it!”
What do you find compelling when listening to a vocalist?
The most compelling part of any vocal performance boils down to tapping into your own natural voice. Singers can fall into the trap of mimicking vocal tones that don’t suit their anatomy which can lead to vocal fatigue. As listeners we can intuitively feel when a singer is fighting their voice versus when they are working with it.
As a vocal coach, I tell my students to focus on feeling, rather than the sound.
There’s a balance. I learn about my own voice by listening to and mimicking other artists. For me those singers are Yebba, Lianne La Havas, and Eryn Allen Kane. I have learned the most from my mom who is a brilliant vocalist.
Talk about what it feels like to be on stage sharing your songs and what keeps you pursuing opportunities to do so?
Music and lyrics are therapy. Sources of enormous fear and shame have dissipated when I find the courage to express them in a song. It’s magical expressing my vulnerability onstage. The act of putting something traumatic into words and speaking the truth of it into a microphone takes the power away from that particular scar.
These feelings are universal and relatable! Listeners say things like “your music makes me feel seen and less alone;” the greatest compliment I could hope to receive. Receiving this validation, reaching people through my songs has been a life force that keeps me going when imposter syndrome wants to tell me that I have nothing important or original to say.
You recently released a single produced and arranged by your buddy Lee Dyer. Could you talk about the inspiration behind writing it?
Yes!! Snakeskin is essentially a call to action, to remind the listener of the necessity to liberate ourselves from the prison of our own shame. “Free your head, free your head!” When I began writing this song, I had done much work on myself. During the shut-down, I used the time to prune and revitalize nearly every major element of my world; my surroundings, my coping mechanisms, my approach to relationships.
It was emotional heavy lifting, but I felt stronger every step of the way. Still, no matter how many positive changes I made, a deep self-loathing lingered like a black cloud so that’s why I wrote, ‘I’m praying to escape the shame of a skin no longer mine.’ That’s where it started. I knew I’d shed the skin that no longer served me. But the feelings of insufficiency continued to cling to me.
It wasn’t until I got farther into writing the piece when I learned something about snakes: when snakes shed their skin, they free their head first. They know the rest of the body is primed and ready for renewal too, but instinctively they start by freeing their head. I was struck, yet again, by the poetry of our natural world.
What can audiences expect to experience at a performance?
For the first time, I am working on full band arrangements for all my songs! This is a goal I’ve been loosely working towards while simultaneously performing solo. I’ll have multi-instrumentalists, Laura Boswell and Patrick French on board who are outrageously skilled creatives and dear friends. My mom will help us flesh out some juicy 4-part harmonies. Lee Dyer will make guest appearances on trumpet.
So for upcoming shows, like our premier at LEAF Retreat in Black Mountain this May I won’t be alone. Performing at LEAF Retreat has been a goal of mine since I first started attending the festival as a little one. I thought it would take longer, but here we are! The gratitude for all that is happening and about to happen for me musically, is overwhelming. And I’ll have my friends with me which brings joy I can hardly describe.
Peggy Ratusz is a vocal coach,
song interpreter, and songwriter. For vocal coaching email her at