Alejandra O’Leary Photo by Annemie Tonken

More than 8,500 miles away, the island country of Palau is where Portland native and rock musician Alejandra O’Leary calls home these days. She’s been there since September with her husband, Jack Dafoe, who works as a clerk for the Palau Supreme Court, and their 4-year-old son Tom. O’Leary is teaching English composition at Palau Community College. The entire country has a population of just over 18,000 and, as of last week, have been spared from coronavirus.

O’Leary just released her sixth full-length album, “Sunlight,” and it’s part of a discography that dates back to 2009. “Sunlight” will be on all streaming platforms on June 5 and physical copies can be ordered on her website (alejandrasongs.com).

The album has a solid rock foundation with a ’90s vibe that made me think of acts like Letters to Cleo and Garbage. It also has its tender moments, like the opening track “Everything and Anything.” “Sunlight” bends a bit toward psychedelic on “Breakdown” and toward acoustic singer-songwriter on the title track, then ends with the jangly pop gem “It Ain’t Over.” We corresponded via email about her upbringing, her musical influences, the new album and her life in Palau.

Alejandra O’Leary Photo by Annemie Tonken

O’Leary was born and raised in Portland in 1981. At the time, her father, John O’Leary, was mayor. She’s a 1999 graduate of Portland High School and lived “all over the place” in her 20s and early 30s before landing back in Portland in early 2014.

She got deeply into music during her time at King Middle School, and when her school orchestra played a Beatles medley, she showed her father the sheet music, which prompted him to play the “Revolver” album and O’Leary to become totally overcome by The Beatles for the rest of her adolescence. “I am still overcome by their art, creativity, engagement with the music and the world around them,” she said.

She started writing songs in high school after teaching herself to play guitar from a, you guessed it, Beatles songbook. O’Leary cites some of her other influences as The Strokes, Lucinda Williams, The Smiths/Morrissey and Fiona Apple. “They influence me as musical stylists and icons of cool and unyielding creativity.”

O’Leary’s primary instrument is the guitar, though she also plays some piano. Most of her composing is done on the guitar. “I like to exploit its percussive capabilities,” she said. Her favorite track on “Sunlight” is “Everything and Anything” because she loves the feel of it. “It captures the laid back, emotional, textured vibe we got on this record,” said O’Leary.

“Sunlight” features Joe Beninati on drums and percussion, Todd Hutchisen on guitar, Pat Sylvia on guitar, David An on bass and Mark Robinson on organ, piano and harmonica. O’Leary was quick to praise them. “The whole band are just so amazing – great individual talents who are also uncannily excellent at listening to musical ideas and coming up with exciting contributions to fit a spontaneous burst of collective energy.”

The songs on “Sunlight” were written over what O’Leary described as many “scattered months and intense nights” between 2017 and 2019. It was recorded at Acadia Recording Company in Portland by Hutchisen who O’Leary said played a major creative role. “He offered us much needed feedback and guidance as we improvised in the studio, always had perfect ideas for recording techniques and equipment to use to serve the feel of each specific song.” Hutchinsen also mixed the album, which was mastered by Pat Keane.

O’Leary decided to release “Sunlight” now because she finally got the songs sounding just right. “I communicated a lot with Todd and Pat on post-production stuff from Palau.” She also had another reason: “I thought it was a good time to put something positive into the world – I hope people experience it that way, as a little tiny ray of hope or happiness or just fun.”

O’Leary described life in Palau as very laid back with inspiring natural beauty and some of the most progressive environmental and wildlife protection laws in the world. “It’s also a tropical island setting with lizards and downpours and beautiful endemic birds outside our door,” she said.

She and her family were planning on returning to the U.S. this fall but are in a holding pattern due to the pandemic and may end up staying longer. The country is shut down to all incoming and outgoing air travel, which O’Leary said makes her and her family feel safe. “People here are cautious, but we are able to see people and visit the ocean. We feel very fortunate.”

In a country so small, there isn’t much of a music scene for O’Leary to find footing in but she and the musicians who played on “Sunlight” are thinking of ways to work remotely until they’re reunited and back in a recording studio. In the meantime, O’Leary will continue to get the word out about “Sunlight” as she keeps an eye out for her favorite bird in Palau, one with a long white tail that looks like an angel. These days we all need to find solace anywhere we can. Listening to “Sunlight” is another way.

“Sunlight” cover. Album art by Agne Aleknaviciute.


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