Tanya’s ‘slow but fast’ rise through the rock music ranks

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Tanya with her trusty bass. Photo by Melissa Castro.

Dropping out of school and college isn’t usually the wisest life choice, but to say things have worked out pretty well for Mullingar rock musician Tanya O’Callaghan is an understatement.

Tanya and her new Whitesnake bandmates are taking part in the legendary rock band‘s farewell world tour, which opened in 3Arena with a large contingent from Mullingar cheering on the latest local musician to make his mark on the world stage.

Now firmly established as one of the best and most in-demand session musicians, or “mercenaries,” on the American rock scene, Tanya’s journey to the top of her field is anything but conventional.

A self-proclaimed “total nerd” and animal rights activist long before it became popular, Tanya seemed far more likely to become a vet than a rock star when she was growing up.

However, that all changed after she performed at a concert in Mullingar when she was in her final year of high school at Loreto College.

“When I first announced that I was going to be a musician, I didn’t play an instrument (laughs). I had done a gig in The Stables in Mullingar and was doing backing vocals for Johnny Cronin and the guys. It was my first night on stage and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.

“I left school and went to take a FÁS music course. Started as a drummer. I didn’t have a proper drum kit, then I saw a local guy Niall Masterson playing bass and I was just hypnotized.

Tanya (then 18) started playing within weeks of picking up bass and cut her teeth in numerous bands, including her cousin Justin McNabb’s heavy metal band.

Although she did not complete her Leaving Cert, she was granted a place at Dublin’s Newpark Academy of Music in the Jazz programme, but due to the increased demands of her budding concert career and the progress she was doing, she decided to quit.

“I really jumped into the gig from the start. He quickly became my teacher. I was always going into gigs that I wasn’t ready for and had to learn quickly. I think, looking back, he was my best teacher because I’m completely self-taught.

“I was playing in four or five bands at a time and you make all these mistakes, but you learn from musicians who have been around way longer than you.

“Everyone was saying you should stay and do the diploma and get the piece of paper, but I was just playing and playing so much that after a year I decided to stick with the gig. My poor parents (laughs). They always supported me and they were used to me staying in the center anyway. They weren’t kind of surprised, but over the years, as one thing after another followed, they began to see that I was determined.

Through hard work and the “fire” within her, Tanya gradually rose through the ranks of the Irish music scene, and then further.

“People accepted my eagerness. I was constantly joining corporate bands, marriage alliances, original bands, and then I started getting houseband gigs at RTÉ. Then I did stuff with Sharon Corr and Brian McFadden. It was a slow but rapid rise through the Irish music scene.

“I had some great artists who took a risk on me as a young player. It really drove me to the heights I have reached. Mayard Keenan from Tool brought me to the States before I moved there and helped me record a few tracks with him and when I moved to the States it was so amazing to have his name on my CV – it got me into doors.

“There is no magic formula. You have to be playing because that’s what happens, you get seen, you get hired. That’s how I got the Dee Synder gig. That’s how I got the Steven Adler gig. That’s how I got the Whitesnake gig. The guys saw me play.

Tanya moved to Los Angeles seven years ago and after a period of back and forth while getting established, she is now based in California, also spending a lot of time in Manhattan.

The same qualities that helped her establish herself on the music scene at home have also accompanied her across the Atlantic. Being Irish also helped, she thinks.

“We are a bunch of talkers (laughs). When I moved to the States, everyone called it networking, but it was just going out and talking to people and going to concerts. It’s funny that he wears that industry networking tag, but when I look back, it really does, I went to that jam night. I met this person, I jammed with her. I went to their concert. It is this sequence. This music industry is always a struggle and a turmoil, but [it is also about] just show up and be there.

Tanya’s day (night) job as a musician is just one of her interests. For as long as she can remember, she has been a strong advocate and activist for animal, human and environmental issues. She is grateful that her high profile gives her a platform to promote her other interests.

“I love it. I’ve always tried to find the most fun ways to encourage healthier movements for the planet and its people, using the rock ‘n’ roll side of my life to post about these things and getting involved in public speaking. They work so well together. People love what I do for a living, because it’s a bit more unusual, but it also opens doors. (Continued below) -versus)

Shortly before the pandemic hit, Tanya and fellow vegan friend and fellow metal band Sepultura, Derrick Green, had just wrapped production of an eight-episode plant-based food and travel show called Highway to Health. they hope to air soon.

The couple traveled and explored different cuisines and cultures. They interviewed a host of big names, including Moby, actor/director Kevin Smith and Irish twin brothers David and Stephen Flynn (aka The Happy Pear). Tanya says doing the show was a “dream project” for her.

“Hopefully we can announce that it’s coming out soon. Derrick has been my good friend for years and he’s also been vegetarian/vegan all his life and he’s really into the environment and all that fun stuff. It was awesome. We did an episode here, it was so much fun.

“My two best friends have a production company in Dublin and I’ve been able to take them all over the world and film these really interesting subjects. It’s a show about plant-based foods, but it’s not about only food We did an episode in Mexico on ocean conservation We were with Ford Motors in Brazil discussing whether electrification [for cars] was the answer. There are many different topics covered.

“We decided to do home episodes, me in Ireland and Derrick in Cleveland. We’re going back to our roots. We were destroyed. We were on tour with our bands and we did this in the meantime, but it was amazing We can’t wait to get it out. We’re ready for season two already,” she said.

The second season may have to wait, as Whitesnake’s world tour will last two years.

Now based outside Los Angeles in the small town of Joshua Tree, Tanya says not being able to return home to Ireland during the pandemic to see family and friends was “brutal”.

She visited Mullingar for a few hours when she was in Ireland for the Whitesnake gig at 3Arena and plans to return for a week when the European leg of the tour is over.

While Ireland “will always be home”, Tanya says California will be her immediate base. She lived in Los Angeles for the first six years after moving to America and says she has a complex relationship with the city of Angles.

“LA will forever be a huge catalyst for everything that’s happened in my career, but it’s a huge city where you can get lost or get lost easily. There’s a lot of fake personalities around but one important thing for me, in life in general, it is to always surround yourself with good people.

“I have an incredible community of friends, but [LA] served its purpose. I’m in the music scene now. It’s not like I have to be in Los Angeles anymore. I still like it. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with LA because I’m a small-town girl.

“Now I live in a small town, smaller than Mullingar and I love it, but I have that balance because I also spend a lot of time in Manhattan. I like having both.

As to whether she would return to Ireland, Tanya says there are certain aspects of her life in the United States that would be hard to leave behind.

“I don’t think I would fully live here [in Ireland]but I would really like to own a house here, because it’s still my home, but when you get used to the Californian climate, it’s hard to give it up,” Tanya concluded.


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