Tanya with her trusty bass. Photo by Melissa Castro.

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

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

Tanya and her new bandmates in Whitesnake are on the legendary rock group’s farewell world tour, which opened in the 3Arena with a large Mullingar contingent cheering on the latest local musician to make a mark on the global stage.

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

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

That all changed, however, after she performed at a gig in Mullingar when she was in her last year of secondary school at Loreto College.

“When I first announced 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 I was singing backing vocals for Johnny Cronin and the lads. It was my first night on stage and I was like, ‘Yeah this is it’.

“I left school and went off and did a FÁS music course. Started as a drummer. I didn’t have a proper drum kit, and then I saw a local fella Niall Masterson play bass and I was just mesmerised.”

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

Despite not completing her Leaving Cert, she got a place in the Newpark Academy of Music in Dublin on the jazz programme, but due to the increased demands of her nascent gigging career and the progress she was making, she decided to quit.

“I really jumped into gigging from the get-go. That became my teacher fast. I was always going into gigs that I was not ready for and had to learn fast. I think that, in hindsight, was my best teacher because I am completely self taught.

“I was playing in four or five bands at a time and you are just out there making all these mistakes but you are learning from musicians who have been around a lot longer than you.

“Everyone was saying that you should stay and do the degree and get the piece of paper, but I was just into gigging and gigging so much that after a year I decided I would stick with the gigging. My poor parents (laughs). They were supportive always and they were used to me being left of centre anyway. They were kind of not surprised, but over the years as one thing after another clicked in, they started to see that I was determined.”

Thanks to hard work and the “fire” inside her, Tanya steadily rose through the ranks of the Irish music scene and then further afield.

“People were accepting of my eagerness. I was constantly joining corporate bands, wedding bands, original bands then I started getting houseband gigs at RTÉ. Then I did stuff with Sharon Corr and Brian McFadden. It was a slow but fast climb through the Irish music scene.

“I had a couple of big artists take a risk on me as a young player. It really led me to the heights that I got to. Mayard Keenan from Tool brought me over to the US before I moved there and helped me record on a couple of tracks with him and when I moved to the States it was such an amazing thing to have his name on my CV – it got me in doors.

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

Tanya moved to LA seven years ago and after a period of going 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 get established in the music scene at home stood to her across the Atlantic as well. Being Irish also helped, she believes.

“We are a chatty bunch (laughs). When I moved to the US, everyone called it networking, but it is just going out and talking to people and going to gigs. It’s funny that it has this label of industry networking, but when I look back, it really is, I went to this jam night. I met this person, I jammed with them. I went to their gig. It’s this sequence. This music industry is always a struggle and hustle, but [it is also about] just showing up and being 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 an ardent advocate and activist for animal, human and environmental issues. She is grateful that her high profile gives her platform to promote her other interests.

“I love it. I have always been trying to find the most fun ways of encouraging healthier moves for the planet and its people, using the rock ‘n’ roll side of my life to post about these things and to get involved in public speaking. They work so nicely together. People get a kick out of what I do for a living, because it is a little bit more unusual, but it also opens doors.” (Continues opposite)

Shortly before the pandemic, Tanya and her friend and fellow vegan Derrick Green, from the metal group Sepultura, had just finished making an eight-episode, plant-based food and travel show called Highway to Health that they hope will be aired soon.

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

“Hopefully we will be able to announce that it is coming out sometime soon. Derrick has been my good friend for years and he’s also a lifelong veggie/vegan and is big into the environment and all that fun stuff. It was great craic. We did an episode here it was just so much fun.

“My two best friends have a production company in Dublin and I was able to take them around the world and film these really interesting topics. It’s a plant-based-food show but it’s not just about food. We did an episode in Mexico featuring ocean conservation. We were down with Ford Motors in Brazil talking about whether electrification [for cars] was the answer. There are a lot of different topics covered.

“We decided to do home episodes, me in Ireland and Derrick in Cleveland. We go back to our roots. We were wrecked. We had been on tour with our bands and then we did this in between, but it was amazing. We can’t wait to get it out there. We are already amped up for season two,” she said.

Season two may have to wait, as the Whitesnake world tour will last two years.

Now based outside LA in the small town of Joshua Tree, Tanya says that 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 concert at the 3Arena and plans to come back for a week when the European leg of the tour is over.

While Ireland “will always be home”, Tanya says that California will be her base for the foreseeable. She lived in LA for the first six years after she moved to America and says she has a complex relationship with the City of Angles.

“LA will forever be a massive catalyst for everything that has happened in my career but it is a huge city where you can lose yourself or get lost easily. There is a lot of false personalities around but a big thing for me, in life in general, is always surround yourself with good people.

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

“Now I live in a little town, smaller than Mullingar and I love it, but I have that balance because I spend a lot of time in Manhattan as well. I like to have both.”

As for whether she would move back to Ireland, Tanya says that there are certain aspects of her life in the US that would hard to leave behind.

“I don’t think I would ever fully live back here [in Ireland], but I would definitely like to own a home here, because it is always home, but when you get used to the California weather, it’s hard to give it up,” Tanya concluded.