Quick Q&A With The Right Now’s Brendan O’Connell

Ahead of its March 31 Jazz Kitchen gig, a guitarist and songwriter for the soul-meets-pop septet talks Chicago, Quincy Jones, and Black Lives Matter.

Inspired by the sounds of Chess Records and Quincy Jones, Chicago-based band The Right Now has been touring the country since 2009, opening for acts such as George Clinton and Fitz & The Tantrums. The pop-meets-soul group recently released a new album, Starlight, which sees the seven-piece outfit defy genre with a blend of myriad influences and rhythms. Social and political commentary also set Starlight apart from its previous albums.
On a 10-show tour across the Midwest, songwriter and guitarist Brendan O’Connell checked in with IM before a March 31 stop at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis.

How did the seven of you get together to form The Right Now?
Stef [vocalist Stefanie Berecz] and I were the first to meet. I met her when I was playing in a trio about ten years ago, and she was friends with the owners of the restaurant I was playing in. They were friends of mine and told me, “You have to have a singer up there with you, and she’s great.” It’s something that she normally didn’t do. She’d grown up in girl bands and doing the pop music thing, but she hadn’t sung much with a band. She got up and we did a couple Aretha Franklin tunes, and from the moment she started singing, I knew it was special, and I knew I needed to start working with her. So, that’s how we met, and one by one, I roped in the other members of the band. There’s a great music community here and some great music colleges. All of the members who aren’t from Chicago originally migrated here to go to music school.

Has the group played in Indy before?
We’ve been coming to Indianapolis since 2009. It’s been a few years. A really good friend of ours, Kyle Hodges, who lives in Chicago now—he was a DJ and promoter in Indianapolis, and he was the first to bring us there. We did a session for My Old Kentucky Blog way back in 2010. Indianapolis was great for us. It was one of the first places where someone believed in the band and wanted to bring us down and showcase us. We love coming to town.

How does the Chicago scene influence your sound?
It’s impossible to divorce ourselves from Chicago and the music scene there. From a historical perspective, with Chess Records and Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan being from here, there are so many great artists from Chicago. That’s just a part of growing up here, and what you hear on the radio, and the culture. All of this creates a stew of soul and R&B and roots music. If you’re listening to music or a musician growing up here, you can’t avoid that being a big part of you.

During times of unrest, politically charged music tends to be pessimistic. Do you feel obligated as an artist to offer audiences a more optimistic view of what’s happening?
I think that’s the next record. I’ve written these songs over the past five years, and it was before this current insanity. Some of the songs are incredibly poignant, by happenstance of that. To me, I think a couple songs on this record are really full of political commentary, like “Everything is Broken” and “That’s Enough.”  “If It Was You” is directly about Black Lives Matter. I think those songs are more descriptive than hopeful. I suppose “That’s Enough” is the song where we’re talking about brotherly and sisterly love and trying to pick each other up off the ground and help as much as we can, despite the dire situation. The next record will focus on “where we go from here.”

Starlight is such a diverse album. The group has talked about Quincy Jones being an influence, but what influences are you pulling from when you branch out into different genres?
I’m someone who gets inspired directly by what I’m listening to. For “Love You Better,” I was thinking about the vibe and sound of that Macklemore song “Can’t Hold Us.” I just sat down with that in mind, and “Love You Better” came out of that. The more classic soul tunes like “Too Late” and “That’s Enough” were inspired by retro soul stuff like Sharon Jones. There’s a lot of direct influences.

Is it difficult touring with such a large group?
It would of course be easier and cheaper to have a smaller group that we could all just hop into a minivan and tour. That’s the obvious con. The pro is, especially with this group, there’s something in this collective that is just a little bit magical. I think it’s the energy that we get and feed off of each other, and the deep friendships we have. There’s no negativity in this band. If it wasn’t the right group of seven people, it’d be different. But with this lineup, somehow the bigger group makes things more fun.

You’re playing smaller venues on this tour, but some of the tracks on Starlight are really heavy instrumentally. Do you subdue your sound for smaller venues, or do you keep it as it is on the record?
Oh, we blast the audience out of the room [laughs]. We try to be appropriate for the venue that we’re playing. But the idea is to bring a kind of show that you’d see in a 1,500-seat theater. We’re just trying to make people feel like they’re getting something really special when they come out to our show.

More details and ticket info for The Right Now at The Jazz Kitchen
Before the Jazz Kitchen show, The Right Now will be at Luna Music  for a free, in-store, all-ages performance at 6 p.m.