Former Hastings Secondary College student 18-year-old Blake O’Connor was crowned 2019 Toyota Star Maker winner at this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival. We caught up with him between recording sessions.
Blake, what has winning the Toyota Star Maker award meant to you?
I was so stoked to win! You have to be over 18 to enter Star Maker and this was my first shot at it, so it’s reassuring to know that I’m on the right track musically and that people seem to like my voice and my songs. It’s a really great honour to have won, and it’s going to be such a great boost for my career!
As part of the prize I get the use of a Toyota Rav4 and fuel for a year and I’ve got a lot of gigs coming up, so it’ll make it much easier to tour.
What are you up to at the moment? It must all be a bit crazy!
I’ve just got back from some time in the recording studio in Newcastle, next I’ve got to go to Tamworth for a big photo shoot that’s also part of the prize, and then I’m off on tour with Adam Eckersley and Brooke McClymont.
It’s been non-stop since the Country Music Festival. The craziest thing so far was when a lady came up to me in Coles the other day, and said, “I know you; you’re Blake O’Connor”- which kind of blew me away!
When did you first start playing the guitar?
My grandparents bought me my first guitar when I was six, but I didn’t really pick it up until I was about eight or nine. I had lessons with a few different people, but I just wanted to do my own thing, so I’ve kind of taught myself. I had a few singing lessons, but nothing much.
What’s your earliest memory of singing? There’s some pretty funny video of me singing in the lounge room with Mum and Dad aged about two – I think I’ve always sung. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash – a lot of Johnny Cash! – and singing along to the old-school country artists like Willie Nelson that my grandparents listened to. Later on I got into country artists like The Zac Brown Band, The Marcus King Band, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton.
You’re only 18, and yet your songs have a depth and maturity beyond your years – where do you get your inspiration?
When I first started writing, I was very young and obviously I didn’t have a lot of life experience, so I would have to just imagine things and try to write from other people’s perspective. That’s changed now – Adam Eckersley sat me down and told me I should start writing about myself and my own feelings; I think that was really sound advice. I reckon if you relate personally with a song, it’s bound to connect with other people.
You’ve been playing to some huge crowds. How do you keep it together?
When I was 15, I was a featured artist in the Schools Spectacular at the Sydney Entertainment Centre – four performances in front of 20,000 people; that was scary! It does get easier, but I still get really nervous and pretty sweaty just before I go on stage. I hang out backstage, drink a lot of water and do some vocal warm-ups, and as soon as I get out there and hit the first note, I’m all good – the nerves just seem to vanish.
To be honest, I used to get more scared about doing media interviews; I’d practically run away if anyone tried to pass me the phone to talk to the press! But I’ve had to talk to people a lot, particularly since winning Star Maker, and now it’s OK; I don’t mind it.
Your self-titled debut EP reached No.2 on the Aria Top 40 Country Album chart. When can we expect another release?
Yes, the EP did really well, exceeded my expectations – which is fantastic. Another great part of the Toyota Star Maker prize is studio time to produce a four track EP – I’m actually putting that towards the release of an album, because I’ve got a lot of material now, and hopefully it’ll be out later this year.
You’re about to head out on the road with Brooke McClymont and Adam Eckersley – how did that come about?
It’s actually my second tour with them; they’ve become great friends and mentors. A few years ago I was asked to play at a friend’s mum’s birthday party – Brooke, Adam and Shannon Noll were all there. I was only supposed to be doing a few numbers, but they kept getting me up to play with them, and the tour came out of that. I’m really excited to be out there with them.
Brooke McClymont is predicting a Golden Guitar for you at Tamworth in 2020. What are your goals for 2019 and beyond?
That’s really lovely of her; I’m so flattered! Obviously a Golden Guitar would be unbelievable. I just want to play in as many places as possible, get an album out and make the most of all the opportunities I’ve been given through winning Star Maker.
I hear you’re going to be touring overseas as well?
Yes, in May I’m going to the Buckle and Boots Festival in Manchester, England and I’m super excited, because I’ve only been on a plane once before – just up to Brisbane. I’m not too worried about the travelling, apart from hoping my guitar arrives in one piece! I think Mum and Dad are going to come to England with me, which will be great, and I’ve also got a ticket to Nashville, Tennessee, for the CMAFest in June.
Sounds like you’re going to be very busy! When can we hear you?
I’ll be at Wauchope RSL on March 2, opening for Brooke McClymont and Adam Eckersley, and people can follow my YouTube and social media pages – there are links at www.blakeoconnormusic.com
Interview: Ruth Allen.