[drɪŋks wɪð] Jim O’Neill

Jim’s story is a bit of a whirlwind, and so is the story of his story. Due to some technical difficulties, I thought the recording of the interview (which lasted for about two and a half hours) was completely gone. Jim, with his generous demeanour, just said: Well, it was a good evening, so don’t be too upset about it. What a guy.

Thanks to a good friend (thanks Gregor! You’re the best!) at least part of the recording was recovered, and so I’m able to present you with some of the amazing tales of Jim O’Neill, the man with the beard, who looks more like what the rest of the world thinks Canadians look like than most Canadians I know, and has the voice of a bloody angel.

Jim’s journey starts in Papua New Guinea, where his parents lived when he was born. This and the fact that they then moved to Australia when Jim was still a little one, makes him not the biggest fan of winter. Except for mulled wine, of course, and winter food. Which, I might add at this point, I was served at la casa del Jim and Abby (Jim’s wife) on that dark winter night we sat down to have our “little” chat. Well, Vancouver winter, so it was pretty mild and rainy, but still. Delicious slow cooked winter food, which went well with the drinks we had. That he likes (and knows how to cook very well) about winter. And winter clothes. Because he looks better in winter clothes, Jim says. Also, the beard. Just works better in winter.

photo cred: Zach Lancaster/Steven Lane (we’re not quite sure)

But other than that, Jim is a summer child. Him and his family ultimately ended up in Melbourne, oh beautiful Melbourne. His Dad is a mechanic, among other things, all of which he taught himself. Like “machining up” new parts for cranes (!!!!). Sans Youtube, I might add. Most of the men in Jim’s extended family are working in some sort of trade – dock workers, engineers, Jim’s brother is a helicopter pilot instructor – and “super practical”, which makes Jim feel like a bit “out of place” at times. Because as the youngest of three brothers, he’s always been more of a creative mind, “drawing pictures of flowers and shit” and singing along to the radio as long as he can remember (which seems to become a bit of a theme on this ‘ere blog, I’m realising). Amazingly, his brothers never teased him. For that, anyway. And his Mom, hearing him and realising that there was something good going on, decided he was gonna take music lessons. Since having a drum kit in the house was out of the question (there were three boys, after all), Jim learned to play the piano on an early-1900s, banged-up piano a family friend had kicking around and didn’t know what else to do with.

While he didn’t really love the piano, he sure fell in love with music, and in his teens with Grunge, in particular, which inspired him to learn the guitar. Ah yes, the 90s. He gathered some similarly inclined friends, none of which really knew what they were doing either, and formed a band. Luckily, for Grunge, not being super advanced on your instrument doesn’t lessen the musical experience, and eventually, this rag-tag High School band morphed into Autumn Gray, a 7-piece band that toured parts of the country and recorded a live album on Melbourne’s iconic Federal Square. With an orchestra. We’ll get to that in a minute.

“We were terrible for ages. We were never a successful Grunge band.”

Autumn Gray had a pretty good run, about ten years they played together in slightly varying constellations, while Jim went on to study first Public Relations, then realised he hated working in Public Relations, and went back to school for Design and got a job as a graphic designer after getting his degree. Around that time, he lived in one of those crazy student sharehouses, which they called “The Hovel”. It sported live-in mice, resident rats, a tree root growing through the kitchen floor and vines covering the in- and outside of the outhouse. His housemates liked to party, while Jim was playing in a fairly successful band and had a “real” job in graphic design that he needed to get up for every morning to catch a one hour tram ride to St Kilda. It sounds terribly exhausting.

One morning, on his way to work, barely awake, Jim stumbled across the tram tracks when a four-wheel-drive pulled up next to him and his long-lost friend Luke “Leggsy” Legs offers him a ride into town. Luke, whom Jim used to work with in a record store and also played in an Indie band with for a while before Luke disappeared from Jim’s life for a few years (which, apparently, is something that he does), turned out to be living two blocks over from “The Hovel”. And he was looking for a roommate! So Jim moved in, and ended up joining Luke’s forming project Luke Legs and The Midnight Specials, with which he recorded their first album in 2010, the same year Autumn Gray put out their first album. Jim does like to keep busy, it seems. With Luke’s band, who was (and still is, just without Jim) playing Leggsy’s beautifully written and composed folk music, Jim toured a fair bit more – touring with a four-piece is a lot easier and cheaper than with a group of 7, and Leggsy “had a knack for booking gigs”, Jim says. They went up and down the east coast of Australia, and all the way down to Tasmania, playing gigs along the way and a couple of “decent-sized” festivals as well.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, Autumn Gray was playing a “moderately succesful pub gig” in Brunswick, where Zach Tay, conductor of Orchestre Nouveau, heard them play one night. Zach likes to experiment, and one thing he does is to arrange music of bands for his orchestra. He had booked a gig on Federal Square with what Jim calls a “much more well-renowned” band that – unfortunately for some, fortunately for others – dissolved a few weeks before the show was gonna go down. So Zack was in a bit of a pickle, and he also really liked what he saw and heard at that pub gig in Brunswick, so he contacted Autumn Gray and, sure enough, they all somehow managed to arrange the newly-released album Diary of a Falling Man for Zach’s 40-something piece orchestra, and to rehearse and actually pull off the show to a nearly sold out Federal Square. And to record the whole thing, and – with the support of a government grant – mix and release Live at Fed Square a year later. Pretty impressive, me thinks.

photo cred: unknown

Despite all of that, and due to some other stuff that went on in his life (as it does), Jim eventually “got the shits” with Melbourne and decided to mix things up. So in 2013, he packed his bags and went to volunteer in Indonesia for a year. He had signed up with an organisation that connects professionals with NGOs, and ended up not only falling in love with the country, but also with his housemate Abby. Even though he may not have admitted this to anyone, “least of all myself”, for the first little while. Eventually, however, it became pretty clear he wasn’t ready to leave Indonesia or Abby, who was working on a contract for another year after Jim’s had ended, so he looked around for other opportunities and “chanced upon a job” with a major research organisation in the city they lived in. When they both came out of their respective contracts, Jim was set on moving to Canada, and “now I get to play music in Vancouver”, he says. The rest, as they say, is history. They made their move to Vancouver in the spring of 2015, after Jim met Abby’s family and the downtown east side at Christmas the year before and cooked them a roast dinner (the family, not Chinatown). Seems to be a thing, this roast cooking business.


He started his Vancouver music career at Trees Organic, a staple of the open mic scene, which is also where he met Zach Lancaster. What came of this fateful encounter will be fodder for another story. Thanks to his NGO experience, Jim scored a contract with Unicef, and his business keeps growing from there. Music has always been a passion, but never was meant to be a career, although, Jim says, “if it accidentally happened that’d be cool”, too. Frankly, with this much talent kicking around in one single person I’m wondering how much longer this accident is gonna wait to happen.

Jim’s music is intricate, unassuming and just plain damn beautiful. It sneaks its way into the heart in the most subtle way possible. His voice, as mentioned, is angelic, with an amazing range and a vibrato that will melt your soul. And Jim’s a fantastic storyteller to boot. His song “Saving Kathleen” is one of my favourites, and returns to his family roots. Jim’s grandparents, after immigrating from Ireland, lived in two caravans by a river, with his dad already born. Jim’s grandpa was working on a Union project, helping setting up dams. Someone had an issue with the Union (or something along those lines, Jim’s not quite sure what actually happened), and blew up a dam further up the river, which led to a flood where Jim’s family had their little settlement. Jim’s grandpa, thankfully, woke up and saved the caravan they were sleeping in at the time, but the second caravan with basically everything they owned was washed away.

Although Jim still can’t piece together all the facts, he ended up writing his story after his grandma, “very politely”, passed away while he happened to be in the country. Because he didn’t know the whole story, he invented a stranger, enamoured with “Nan Kath”, who saw the flooding from afar and went up to her van to save her. Like I said, pretty darn beautiful.

photo cred: Zach Lancaster. For sure this time.

Jim’s also a master of sing-along songs, like “Don’t go out”, which gave myself and many others shivers at the Anza Live Community Showcase hosted by the aforementioned Jess Vaira that Jim played. There’s just something about his music that is capable of quieting down a noisy room, of calming the mind and raising those little hairs on your arms.

On top of that, Jim is an ambassador for furthering the music community of… well, I guess Vancouver right now, but really anywhere he settles down. When he first got to Vancouver, and Abby was travelling for work quite a bit, he forked through the pages of Georgia Straight, looking for interesting shows to see, and potential locations to play. While in Melbourne he had had a network of contacts and a music scene he literally grew into, he had to rebuild this network for himself on the other side of the Pacific. When he booked his first gig at Slickity Jim’s on Main Street, he invited Zach to come along and play with him. Later, he did the same thing with another musician he met at some event, and got the feedback that “nobody really asks people to play gigs here”. Jim’s response?

“What the hell? Why not? What else are we supposed to do?”

It’s true that the Vancouver music scene can get quite competitive on certain levels, despite strong efforts to build a community by people like Jim, Michael Averill, Jess Vaira, Kavi and many others. There’s just so many venues to play, and the people of the city don’t seem to seek out original live music, for some weird reason. If you’re a cover artist or band with a gig in a casino or Gastown – great. Beyond that? You have to not only be really good, but also have a strong fanbase that will go to see even the fourth gig you play in the same month. Which is tough in non-commitment capitol Vancouver. Anyhow, I’m ranting. The point is: If you’re an original artist wanting to score some gigs, a good way to do that and build a sustainable network is to invite others along. And while that doesn’t necessarily imply that the favour will be returned, it fosters a sense of community and support that I, for one, believe to be top soil for a diverse, flourishing music scene of any city. So that’s what Jim’s been doing. Exchanging gig slots, going to see his friends play whenever he can, teaming up with fellow musicians. About which, like I said, we’ll soon learn more. In the meantime, feel free to give the man a thumbs up, digitally and literally, and get excited for future shows. I know I am.

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One thought on “[drɪŋks wɪð] Jim O’Neill

  1. Hi Jim. I like your music. When I was living in Whyalla in 1959 – 60 attending Town Primary School, there was a student called James or Jim O’Neill. He had an amazing voice. I am wondering if you could be related to him? Best Wishes Lou Crow


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