Alexa O’Kane: Graduating, Releasing a Book, and Writing Music Reviews

Alexa O’Kane on getting contacted by musicians, debuting her first book, and getting ready for grad school.

O%27Kane+wearing+her+%22New+School%22+sweatshirt.

O’Kane wearing her “New School” sweatshirt.

“I wouldn’t say I’m really scared, I feel very ready. Champlain, by the end, definitely makes you feel ready to take on a career; take on whatever the next step is for you,” Alexa O’Kane says about graduating in May and starting the New School’s graduate program in the fall. O’Kane is a fourth-year at Champlain College studying professional writing with a focus in creative writing. She recently ordered the first physical copy of her debut non-fiction poetry book to give it one last look before she releases it to the world on May 5, 2021. 

O’Kane is from the Long Island town of Merrick, New York. She was drawn to Champlain College after coming for a tour and finding out that they had a professional writing program. During her time at Champlain, she has dipped into all the genres and learned that she enjoys poetry and young-adult writing. 

O’Kane has been growing a blog where she writes music reviews, and occasionally updates her audience about her life, Lush products, and her fitness journey. She created the blog in her second year of college when she was assigned to create a website for her portfolio class. She recalls thinking, “What was the point of making this website if people weren’t seeing it and I wasn’t using it yet? So, I made a blog, and it took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to write about. But I’ve always been involved in music, and I really like music, so I figured why not start writing music reviews?”

At first, writing music reviews was just a way for O’Kane to add content to her website. She says, “But a couple months in, it actually started, not blowing up, but people actually started to read what I was writing. And I had bands start contacting me asking for reviews of them and stuff like that. So it kind of just bloomed into something I never thought it would.”

“I mean, I was excited even by the first five or ten views. I was like, oh that’s more people that [have] read my writing than ever have before.” O’Kane says. “Because it’s kind of just like, other than workshops and classes, things like that, you kind of just write for yourself until you make that decision to put yourself out there. So, it’s nice to have people not only trusting me to represent their music, but to share it with my little audience.”

“It was really weird at first,” O’Kane says, describing bands contacting her from all over the world. “I was like, I have an email from, I don’t remember who the first one was, I think it was Tuesday X. Who I think lives somewhere in the Midwest, I don’t know off the top of my head. But I was like, wow, this is actually a person and they actually want me to write about them which is amazing.” 

O’Kane’s experience writing music reviews has helped her learn about time management, multitasking, and important writing skills. She also says it taught her to “just go for stuff because you never know what will happen. You don’t have to wait to be out of college or out of high school or whatever to actually get started in your career.” 

Not only has O’Kane been able to watch bands grow, but she’s also grown with the bands that she’s written multiple reviews for. “There was this one band Rags & Riches who reached out to me about a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago, for like their third song or something like that. And since then, I’ve written like five reviews for them on new songs. And it’s really cool seeing the progression and stuff like that, and we feel like friends now, honestly.”

Writing music reviews has landed O’Kane some incredible opportunities. She says, “I got to write a piece about the lead singer of the Plain White T’s side project, so it was just so cool to me that like this artist that I’d known of for a while, I actually got to communicate with and write about.”

O’Kane’s love for music stemmed from her father, who was the lead singer of an Irish rock band called Gael Force. She says, “As a kid, I would go to the things that were closer to home, so I remember seeing him on stage at Coney Island and in Long Beach in the bandshell. And it was kind of just normal for me, I didn’t really make the connection, that you know, not everyone’s dad did this.”

O’Kane photographed with her bass.

She started playing guitar her first year of high school when her cousin in Ireland started learning. “He was complaining about how hard it was, and I was like, I could do that,” O’Kane says.

O’Kane’s dad started teaching her guitar and she ended up liking it. A couple of weeks before she and her dad went to purchase a guitar, her dad brought home this old “dilapidated” bass that his friend planned on throwing away. When the two went to go purchase O’Kane’s first guitar, she recalls, “I ended up coming home with a bass because for some reason I was just so drawn to it. And my dad saw that and said ‘you know what, you’re holding a really nice Fender Stratocaster, you should be worrying about this but I see looking over at those.’ So he ended up getting me a bass and from there I just started playing.”

O’Kane’s history with music mixed with writing at Champlain helped her create her blog posts. She also says, “Focusing on the nuances of things, and really listening to words kind of helped me listen to music and put those feels and sounds into words more. So, at the beginning, it was more focused on, ‘oh this is this cool band’, but as I got better at it I kind of looked at it more as a creative writing project than a music review per se, I think that’s really helped.”

Through her classes at Champlain, O’Kane was drawn to poetry. “I was never really interested in writing about my emotions and stuff like that, it just wasn’t something that felt like it was for me. But being in Jim Ellefson’s poetry classes, like my first and second year, I kind of found out that poetry can be anything you want it to be,” she says. “And I was more drawn in by that and the fact that you could communicate so much with, like, a word or a sentence or a line. And just experimenting with it made it so much more appealing to me.”

Now O’Kane has three poems coming out in Willard & Maple, and two other poems appearing in Sage Soup and The Bryant Literary Review. She’s also debuting her first chapbook, Troubles. 

“Troubles” book cover.

Troubles is a creative non-fiction poetry book based on her dad, Patrick O’Kane, who grew up in Ireland and came to the US with only 50 dollars. The poems cover historical events like 9/11 and the Troubles in Ireland, which was a conflict in the 1960s and ‘70s. It also explores personal aspects of their relationship, her dad’s childhood, and his music career. 

O’Kane’s dad has been telling her stories about his youth since she was little, but he never dug into the serious aspects of his life. In her transmedia storytelling class, she decided to take a deeper dive into her dad’s stories. This project included a story map of all the places he’s been, a photo album, and a video. From there, she knew this project could turn into something bigger, and that’s exactly what she did for her capstone. 

“The reason I made it in poetry was I read Brown Girl Dreaming, and it really, like, connected with me. The way that the author was able to show so much in so little words, and kind of communicate in between the lines, so I wanted to give it a try,” O’Kane says. 

The process was a challenge, O’Kane remembers, “Especially at first, kind of getting the big story and then having to condense it because there is so much to them that I couldn’t really communicate in words, because my dad’s a very verbal storyteller. So, it was hard just getting the nuances of his stories in just a couple of words, and make it sound good as a poem… It made me think a lot more about diction and the way words flow together because I couldn’t just put the story on the page and be done with it. I had to make it sound pretty and look pretty too.”

O’Kane was nervous about working with her dad at first, but she says he was amazing throughout the process. He even learned how to video-chat with her to make the experience more enriching. Although listening to his stories wasn’t easy. O’Kane knew about what happened during 9/11 and that her dad grew up during a difficult time. She says, “So it was really important to me to be, like, gentle about things like that but still get the story that he wanted to show the world.” 

O’Kane and her dad, Patrick O’Kane.

As a result, O’Kane adds, they grew closer, and she now understands the experiences that made her dad the person he is. In turn, her dad got a new perspective of her. O’Kane says, “I was able to handle the things that he was telling me and turn them into something beautiful which I think, for him, was also very powerful.”

O’Kane learned a lot about her dad in the process of creating this book. She was amazed to hear that he was arrested during the Troubles. She says, “Like, I knew he was strong but I never thought he was that strong. So it kind of put his whole life into perspective, cause as kids, we don’t really realize that our parents had lives before us and how complex those lives could be.”

By publishing a book, O’Kane is achieving one of the many goals young writers have. “I mean, honestly, it feels amazing,” O’Kane says. “I never thought it would be poetry, cause I had never even wrote [written] poetry before I came to Champlain. But it’s really cool to know that it’s out there, and people care about it. Cause I never thought like people other than my family would be interested.”

Completing this project has made O’Kane feel like she can handle anything that comes her way. In three years O’Kane will be graduating with a dual concentration creative writing MFA. O’Kane says, “I’d be happy in like five years if I was working as a manager at Lush and writing on the side and just having a good time.”

O’Kane’s silhouette, photographed by Derek Mann.

Whatever her future holds, O’Kane is ready for the next steps. She says, “I’m really gonna miss my friends and like doing all the things around Burlington that I love. But I’m really excited to move to New York City and start a whole new chapter there, even though it’s also kind of terrifying.”