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Work: Singer Ashley O'Brien's Audiences Span Cradle to Grave

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Name: Ashley O'Brien
Town: Winooski
Job: Funeral singer

As a professional musician, Ashley O'Brien may have the most diverse audiences in Vermont. They literally span from cradle to grave.

A classically trained pianist, O'Brien works as a composer and music director at Very Merry Theatre, a Burlington-based musical-theater company for children. She gives theater and music lessons at the Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield for teenage ski racers. Her Ashley O'Brien Band plays classic blues and rock covers at Snow Farm Vineyard. And for the dinner crowds, O'Brien performs with Neat, With a Twist, a local theater company whose shows include the musical-comedy revue "Ladies Who Laugh." (O'Brien sings Gilda Radner's "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals.")

But she has a serious side, too. As music director at the Catholic Center at the University of Vermont, O'Brien performs weekly at Sunday mass. Her most unique gigs rarely earn her standing ovations: singing at funerals.

The 34-year-old Winooski native got her musical start at 12 playing piano during Sunday services at St. Stephen Church. After earning a music degree at the Crane School of Music at State University of New York at Potsdam, she returned to Vermont. O'Brien's first funeral gig, in 2007, was for her own grandfather. She's played at funerals ever since.

Typically, O'Brien gets booked through local funeral directors, priests or the families themselves, many of whom know her from church or through her parents. In fact, she said, her folks occasionally attend the funerals of people they don't know just to hear her perform.

Because there's so little competition, O'Brien gets hired often, sometimes doing as many as four funerals a week, especially during the holidays. She's not sure why so many people die then, but she theorized that they know deep winter is upon them. As she put it, "Part of me thinks that people are like, 'I don't want to do this again.'"

SEVEN DAYS: Who picks the music for funerals?

ASHLEY O'BRIEN: The funeral directors have lists. Sometimes I'll speak to the family, and they ask for options. I can rattle off 50 songs off the top of my head. Sometimes they'll say, "Do whatever you want." In those cases, I'll do songs I never get to do.

SD: What are the most common requests?

AO: "On Eagle's Wings," "Ave Maria," "Amazing Grace" and Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up." My "Amazing Grace" is very gospel-y, with the rolling piano. But a lot of people don't want "Amazing Grace" or "Ave Maria" because they're so emotional. They want something more upbeat, especially if it's for an older person who lived a really long life. It's sad but not a tragic death.

SD: Do you ever get unusual requests?

AO: No, because there are rules within a Catholic mass. Unfortunately, I sometimes have to shut people down because a [song] isn't allowed.

SD: So, no Black Sabbath?

AO: No, and we're not doing "Highway to Hell," either.

SD: How do the mourners respond?

AO: Most of the time, I don't know. A lot of the churches have choir lofts, which allows me anonymity. I just go in there, do my thing and don't stick around with the grieving family. But I will often hear from them after the fact. Someone maybe sees me at another mass and says, "Oh my gosh! You did my mother's funeral. Thank you so much!" Sometimes I'll get a follow-up note or a call from the church office. But I know the music means so much to them ... and lifts them up in some small way.

SD: Do you get yourself into a certain mind-set for funerals? It's very different from singing "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals."

AO: Yes, it is! [Laughs.] That's more of who I am. But sometimes I do five to seven masses in a given week, so I know what I'm in for.

SD: Do you ever get emotional?

AO: I purposely don't look at [the grieving family] because it's sad. Even with people I don't know, hearing the eulogy can get me a little verklempt. But I do have techniques for singing through sadness. I have a couple of funny gag reels that I'll play [in my head].

SD: Is it bad to feel emotional as a singer?

AO: Getting verklempt isn't helpful. You've got to be able to take a deep breath [and] have things vibrating and moving naturally. It's not that I have a problem with the emotion. It's the body's physical manifestation of it that can get in the way.

SD: Not to sound crass, but do funerals pay well?

AO: Yes, it's a well-paying gig. And they come up fairly quickly.

SD: Do friends or family ever call you the Church Lady?

AO: My family does. If anything, it's an irony. My sister, who lives in Massachusetts, will come to Christmas mass at the Catholic Center. She'll do an eye roll and go, "Here comes Ashley's church voice." [In a mock serious tone:] "Please join me in singing the opening hymn, number 642..." It's like my NPR voice.

SD: Does the seriousness of funerals ever become too much?

AO: You do have to keep a certain levity when there's so much sadness around. It can get to you. But it helps knowing I'm bringing something joyful to the proceedings. It's a responsibility I take seriously and always want to do as well as possible.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mass Appeal"

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