Ellen O'Brien Is Back and More Alive Than Ever | Tracy's New York Life | A New York City Lifestyle + Travel Blog Tracy's New York Life | Best Lifestyle, Culture, and Travel Blog in NYC

Ellen O'Brien Is Back and More Alive Than Ever

by Tracy Kaler

Ellen O'Brien is a vocalist in New York City--photo by Barry Fidnick

Wander down Restaurant Row on W. 46th St. to Don’t Tell Mama on a Friday night and you’re bound to hear the bluesy, soulful voice of Boston native, Ellen O’ Brien. O’Brien has recently joined the cast of seasoned belters at the popular Midtown cabaret – she returned to New York City in October 2012 after a seven-year hiatus – and began singing at the theater district club in December. One could say that O'Brien is fortunate to have found a gig like this one so soon after her arrival last year. 

"I'm now immersed in a world [Broadway] that many people suggested I should get into, but never thought I would," O'Brien explained in her charming Southie accent. She observes the nightly shows in the cabaret rooms booked by legendary performer and manager, Sidney Myer. "I learn from every situation," she said. 

The vocalist is thrilled to be in the heart of the New York musical theatre scene at Don't Tell Mama, a spot where Broadway veterans like Cuba Gooding Jr., Rosie O'Donnell and Joanna Gleason frequent. Though O'Brien tends bar during Monday/Thursday happy hours and Friday evenings, she also hits the Midtown nightclub's stage. She is rehearsing well-known Broadway tunes like "And I'm Telling You" from Dreamgirls, and "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago. 

But if you catch the singer during one of her Friday night sets, more than likely, she'll be crooning a tune from one of her idols like Etta James, Jill Scott, or even Stevie Wonder.

"To come into Mama's on a Friday Night, the place is packed with people who love music," she said. "The amount of incredible talent that everyone has blows me away, and inspires me every time they get up and sing."

Though technically a newcomer, O'Brien is no stranger to the city that never sleeps. Originally, she moved to New York with $700 and suitcase full of dreams in 1995. She played various popular venues in the city such as the Apollo Theater, Blue Note and the Iridium Jazz Club. Her long list of accomplishments includes opening for Tony Bennett, performing solo at Lincoln Center, and singing the national anthem in front of a sold-out crowd at Shea Stadium.

O'Brien originally moved to New York with a suitcase full of dreams in 1995.

But after years of a successful singing career in NYC, O’Brien got a call to move back to Boston to help an ailing family member in need, leaving in 2005. With her heart still in the borough she called home for a decade, she always knew that one day she would end up in Manhattan again.

“The electricity and energy feels like no other place,” she said recently during our sit-down. “I love waking up and walking out the door not knowing what will happen that day, but it’s always something amazing.”

Last September after singing at a Manhattan wedding, O’Brien felt like herself for the first time in years. Her time away from New York spiraled her gradually into a depression, and she only recognized it during this return trip to the city. Just one day back and she knew that it's New York where she belongs. It's no surprise that just a  few weeks after the wedding gig, the songstress packed up and drove to NYC with her dog and wardrobe in tow for a second chance, planning to pick up where she left off in 2005. 

She had a friend who was kind enough to let her bunk for a few weeks until she got on her feet and started working. She went on to stay just outside the city with another accommodating friend, and is currently searching for a Manhattan apartment in which Sparky, her adorable 10-year-old Greater Swiss Mountain Dog can live too.

Sparky goes to the beach when he has a day off!

O'Brien is savoring every moment now that she's back in New York. Whether she's behind the bar mixing cocktails or belting in the spotlight on stage, she feels right at home. "To see people have such a good time and enjoy what we're doing up there is amazing and never gets old." Aside from performing at Don't Tell Mama, O'Brien makes her rounds singing at various open mic nights around town. When she's not on the stage, she's probably in the studio working on her upcoming album, scheduled to be released this fall. 

Though this Bostonian is comfortable singing R&B, Blues, Broadway, Rock and Pop, no matter which tunes she rehearses or where her career takes her in the future, New York will always be her home."New York keeps me alive. New York is my lifeline."

Follow Ellen O'Brien on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to her webisodes "Boston to Broadway" on YouTube.

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