Music Stars Making A Social Impact: Why & How Tanya O’Callaghan Is Helping To Change Our World
Changing plates changes the world; I want this project to breakdown a lot of the often overwhelming information out there and show just how easy it is to implement more and more plant-based foods into your lifestyle.
As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Tanya O’Callaghan, a globally established freelance musician, speaker and activist with an eclectic impressive career to date. A lifelong advocate and activist for animal, human and environmental issues. Tanya has toured the world with some of the biggest names in music and continually uses her platform to influence positive change in the world. An entrepreneur and woman on a mission, she also produces and co-hosts an exciting new TV show Highway to Health and is founder and CEO of Plant Potential.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I grew up in a little town in Ireland called Mullingar. I had a lovely, small town, simple childhood. All my relatives within walking distance, especially wonderful was having both matriarchs close to me with one grandmother living with us and the other only a 10/15 minute walk away. We had no phones, only two TV channels and playtime was outside with all the other neighborhood children. This foundation is something as an adult I am so grateful for — humble, simplistic beginnings, pre-social media dilemma days.
My entire childhood was about animals, my mission in this life was very apparent from the get-go. Since as far back as I can remember I was bringing home strays and rescuing any living being that crossed my path. I spent 10 years volunteering at a rescue shelter in my home town and those years shaped me and my work ethic, also making it impossible for me to look away from the injustices happening to animals and our planet. I was born with an overwhelming desire to be part of something bigger than myself, activism was clearly in my DNA. Then in a plot twist, I picked up a bass at 18, fell in love with the low end and so began my whirlwind journey into the music industry
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was around 18 my path took a serious 180 turn. I had always been a fan of music and was very immersed in the local music scene. I was a huge concertgoer and was always organizing music events for animal charities. I had never in my entire childhood thought about becoming a musician as my whole world, mind and heart were focused on animals. I had volunteered for 10 years in a rescue shelter at this point and everyone around me presumed I would become a veterinarian. A local band had asked me to sing background vocals for an upcoming show and I figured why not, I always liked singing. A very long story short, while I was up on stage that night something came over me and I immediately knew in that moment, I wanted to be a musician, a performer — even though I was terrified up there and didn’t yet play an instrument, there was just something magical about the stage. I went home that night and wrote a letter to my parents saying I wanted to pour myself fully into this new dream and that I was leaving school to do so. Much to their very understandable shock and dismay as I was a straight-A student… my poor parents in hindsight :-) But, I had had that guttural feeling before, I knew it and I knew to follow it. When I was around four or five years old I had the exact same guttural feeling about not wanting to eat meat once I understood it came from animals, and I never did once that feeling kicked in — same with this new feeling, I just knew I wanted to be on stage. It wasn’t for any egoic reasons, it felt like an escape and a platform that could be used for good.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?
I’m gonna leave this answer brief and just say that if I were to write about some of the funniest or most interesting things that have happened throughout my career on the road with some major artists… well, I’d have a multi-million-selling “tell-all’’ book on my hands, but alas, my lips are sealed. That’s not to say it’s all crazy rock n roll stories, far from it most of the time. Let’s just say the lesson is: not everything needs to go on social media and people’s privacy is more important than instant hits of dopamine from likes or shares for popularity on social media platforms. Even the biggest rock stars are just fallible beings like the rest of us with everyday, mundane problems. Overall, life on the road is one big lesson, from dealing with new people every day and learning to just roll with the punches, it truly is the “school of hard knocks’’. The past 10 years touring all over the world with different bands and ever-changing groups of colleagues has taught me more life skills than any college ever could; constantly adapting to scenarios and working together as teams; intense and exhausting travel and turning on and off “performance mode” all the while trying to maintain some semblance of a “normal” personal life. It is not for the faint-hearted.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Follow what excites you, chase your passions and not just your pension. Sit back, turn off all the screens, log out of social media, think long and hard in your own mental space with no outside influence, not your family, not your friends, not your cultural or existing biases: what is it you really want to do?… What is your purpose and what will give my life meaning? This doesn’t have to become your full career, it can be using time outside of existing careers to follow up on the things that truly put a spark in your heart. We live in such capricious and socially pressuring times, especially for young people with next to impossible standards set by false idols on social media platforms. It is a power in itself to disconnect from the rat race and really find your purpose. Read books, not news headlines that are influenced by paid marketing — life is a school, don’t forget to always be learning and growing. There is no end to education and education is power. You should not measure “success” with only material goals; success should be centered around how happy you are and how much happiness you brought to others, how much good you did with your time while you were here. Yes, of course, it is lovely to have nice things and be financially successful, there is nothing wrong in having those goals also, just make sure that’s not all you are aiming for. Travel as much as you can, it is the greatest teacher there is.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“A bird in a cage puts all heavens in a rage” -I have no idea where I saw that quote originally, it was many years ago when I was young and eager to get out in the world. It is a double entendre to me as it speaks to my complete distress over animals being caged also, especially birds who are meant to fly and be free.
I guess it really spoke to me personally also being so driven from a young age to get out in the world myself and live my purpose.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think life has a series of mentors for us, even when you don’t know that it’s happening, they are there subconsciously influencing us. For me it’s hard to pinpoint one person as there are many great people along my path who had profound, inspirational impacts on me. It definitely began with my parents who are just wonderful, kind people and allowed me to be me, and I was definitely a pain in the ass child at times ha! :-) They never tried to stop my passions and because my mum and my dad are very different personalities I always had a yin and yang balance of influence from them, unknowingly at the time, but it’s so interesting to look back as an adult and recognize that.
I’d be here all day if I listed other mentors along my journey but let’s just say that musically, business-wise, philanthropically and in the activism realm I have met and learnt from the best of minds and hearts. You are the sum of the people you surround yourself with, choose wisely.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
My whole mission in life is using my platform for good. What is the point in having a platform, big or small (and we all have them these days with social media) if you’re not using that platform in a positive light? Personally, my mission in life is focused around the plant-based, environmental and animal welfare realm. I’m very passionate about the power of conscious consumerism, it is truly incredible how much power we have as consumers and if we harness this power as a collective we can literally change the world to benefit everyone involved. For our own personal health, the health of the planet and the end of animal and human suffering, it’s all connected once you start to really look into our very broken, unsustainable food systems around the world. One of my main projects right now is a plant-based, rock n roll TV series called ‘Highway to Health’ that I co-host with a friend of mine and legendary heavy metal vocalist, Derrick Green, from the Brazilian band Sepultura. Highway to Health is a huge passion project that I spent the past almost two years developing, shooting and editing with a group of amazing friends. It is a docu series-style show. We’ve been going all over the world sharing stories from many different walks of life and industries, showing eco-friendly innovations and plant-based foods, sharing meals with lots of celebrities and also locals and activism groups. It is now deep into editing and I cannot wait to be able to announce updates, let’s just say, watch this space!
I have also just begun developing another plant-based health project called Plant Potential — utilizing my connections in the corporate world and these big businesses’ desires to try to make their companies more green and improve employee well-being. As a speaker and plant-based health coach, I will be putting together fun, approachable and easily implementable steps for large groups of employee bases to utilize their powers as consumers and have a profound effect on their own health, while halving, if not more, their carbon footprints as individuals and entire company structures. It’s all well and good to have companies do things like remove plastic straws from their building, but that is just a drop in the ocean to a way larger problem. Changing plates changes the world; I want this project to breakdown a lot of the often overwhelming information out there and show just how easy it is to implement more and more plant-based foods into your lifestyle, in doing so you are truly making a difference by taking your hard-earned money as a consumer away from unsustainable, environmentally degrading food systems and shifting towards sustainable eco-friendly food systems. This sends a strong message to the companies and industries to shift with us as consumers who are demanding better, it truly is a win-win.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
Animals and factory farming. I volunteered in a rescue shelter in Ireland for ten years and saw some of the most horrific animal abuse you can imagine both to domesticated animals and farmed animals. It was in those years in my childhood and teens that I saw the ugly truth behind the meat and dairy industries and simply could not remain silent about it. Since I was a little girl I always had an innate instinct to be close to and protect animals, they are so kind and pure and can teach us a lot of lessons if only we’d look closer; nature and animals are mutually symbiotic until we mess with them. There’s a reason factory farms and slaughterhouses don’t have glass walls, none of us would agree to let these archaic systems stay in place if we had to witness the suffering firsthand. Take away the neatly packaged animal product, the clever marketing to make the consumer feel better; “cage-free”, “grass-fed” — shouldn’t those be basic rights given to animals ?… and “humane slaughter” — isn’t that the biggest lie we can tell ourselves?… the greatest oxymoron; humane and slaughter cannot coexist as words in a logical sentence. Not to mention the inevitable development of more zoonotic disease emerging if we don’t stop pushing animals and nature to its brink. So, it’s always been about animals and my heartbreak for them, to do my best while I’m on this planet to be a part of the change of shifting away from these horrific, antiquated systems we simply no longer have a need or excuse for.
As my good friend Jim Greenbaum, an amazing activist and the king of effective altruism puts it: “being a bystander to suffering is not an option”.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
With music I just said yes to every possible opportunity to get myself out there as soon as I started playing, and in doing so was constantly opening doors and circulating into wider circles — no one particular “Aha moment” more a series of life experiences, always following my gut and embracing all opportunities. With activism and animal welfare, when I was five or six my brother told me what meat was and I will never forget it, the light bulb went off, I said I’d never eat animals in that moment and never have. As far as deciding to step up and take action, we are our actions, so live by example. The greatest fulfillment in this life is to contribute positively to others, something we can all do, so why wouldn’t we literally be the change we want to see in the world?
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
It’s hard to pinpoint one individual. I’ve received lots of sweet inspirational messages from people over the years which I am always greatly humbled by. Sometimes it’s young female musicians who tell me they have been inspired to become a professional musician after worrying for years that it’s a male-dominated industry, but then realizing gender does not matter if you’re focused and talented. Other times it’s from people who have suffered bad health from years of poor dietary choices who switched to a plant-based diet from following my social media story and are having great successes in their health. I get a lot of messages on social media from people who originally started following me as a musician but have had profound, positive health shifts from following my plant-based stories and switching themselves to partial or full-on plant-based lifestyles. I love to hear those stories, it really makes me smile that something as simple as using my platform to post about delicious and healthy food can influence someone’s health so positively.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
1: Listen more: we all have to stop being keyboard warriors, shouting into echo chambers of people who think only like us. We need to open up healthy, constructive dialogues with people who think differently from us, that’s where growth is. For instance, in my world that’s listening to people like farmers in the animal agricultural business, I am from a farming country, I think farmers are the hardest working people on the planet. I’m not here to attack their work, just learn and discuss new ways to shift towards farming crops instead of live animals. Governments should be subsidizing these shifts also, helping farmers transition and prosper. We all come from very different backgrounds, we can’t expect everyone to instantly understand one another’s points of views, so listen, learn and grow together.
2: Be a more conscious consumer: Read labels, research your products. You would be amazed at how many household and cosmetic products are tested on animals, or how many big brands are directly linked to some type of workers’ mistreatment. We vote with our wallets every day, make each purchase count, it sends a powerful message to companies.
3: Governments and politicians step up!: You guys are supposed to be civil servants, you work for us, the people. Stop with the delusions of grandeur and hyperbolic rhetoric; the endless and exhausting political “sides”.
Our leaders are not leading us, in fact they are dividing us. In the majority of countries around the world they are failing us. Politicians and lawmakers have the ability to profoundly change this world for the better with the strike of a pen. Most of those in power are cowards, too afraid to say what’s in their hearts; what they know is the right thing to do for people and this planet. They go along with corrupt, repetitious and detrimental decisions for fear of being ostracized from their “parties” or “sides”…in fear of losing popularity. This world is starved for authenticity, if you are in these positions of great power you need to think for the collective planet and not play this dangerous political game anymore. Step up, put into law changes that will help us all and this planet; redirect where subsides go in the food system and stop supporting and encouraging unhealthy and unsustainable industries. We need leaders who are cool, calm and collected; logical thinkers and healthy skeptics who can clearly see where impactful change should happen and how to go about it — not emotional hot heads who often only remain in their positions due to nepotism or popularity. To quote Sarah Kendzior “A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity”. Again, at the simple stroke of a pen, our leaders could write into laws, game-changing, positive action plans.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
1: Don’t sweat the small stuff: Get into the habit of asking yourself as stressful things arise: can I control this or not? Don’t waste your energy and emotions on external things that are beyond your control. Don’t presume things are personal if you suffer a disappointment in life, work or even love. When I was younger and “greener” as we say in the music industry, I remember being upset on several occasions early on in my career when a gig fell through or someone didn’t get back to me after what felt like a really great, productive meeting. I learnt over the years that often gigs fell through because of trivial things like, I am female, I am an immigrant or they simply didn’t want to pay me my asking rates. I cannot change any of those things, nor do I want to — plus if productions were being so shallow as to make decisions based on my gender or not wanting to pay me what I know I am worth, then I don’t want to be around that. So let go of stressful things you cannot control, it is a very freeing mental practice.
2: Don’t ever react in the heat of an emotion: It is never a good idea to react to anything in the heat of emotion, not online, not in person. If you find yourself boiling up with anger, sadness or any overwhelming feeling in response to something that was said, recognize that it’s happening, take a deep breath (or ten). and wait to respond. Nothing good ever comes from people reacting in the heat of emotions, other than art! Some of the greatest albums and art were created in the depths of emotions — some random examples off the top of my head (Fleetwood Mac — Rumors. Alanis Morrisette — Jagged Little Pill. Marina Abramović and Ulay — The Lovers Great Wall Walk. The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo)
For me, I learnt as a hot-headed animal welfare activist when I was young and emotionally driven, that although my intentions were pure and I was acting from genuine heartache for the animals, not everyone had seen what I had seen; not everyone worked at a rescue shelter like me; not everyone had seen animal abuse and neglect first hand or had researched the animal agricultural business as deeply as I had. So, my emotionally charged responses back then to attacks on me being a young vegan and activist were moments not well navigated in hindsight. It actually makes me giggle when I think back to my young self out on the streets protesting things like blood sports, fur production or veal crates. It was genuine passion and anger but I was such a little hothead ha! To clarify, I am still very fiery (I’m Irish, we’re sparky by nature) … but I’ve learned to redirect my passions into direct action, impact projects and compassionate conversations.
3: Never stop learning: Life never stops teaching, so never stop learning. Read a diversity of books, not news headlines; talk to people from diametrically opposed viewpoints; do not descend into echo chambers with people who think only like you. Ironically, myself, as a “school dropout” back in the day, my passion for learning ignited after I left the traditional educational system. I couldn’t thrive in a standardized system, my path required customizing and as soon as I was free to think and learn outside the traditional box and follow my curiosities, that’s when I really started to come into myself. I didn’t “drop out” because I was lazy or behind, I was a straight A student, I was just ready to get out in the world sooner than the traditional system would allow me to. To this day it is still the greatest decision I ever made for myself at a young age, along with the decision to never eat meat — both these decisions shaped me immeasurable.
4: Surround yourself with a diversity of people: The best way to see the world and learn aside from traveling is to become friends with or at least speak with people who are from different backgrounds, different belief systems, different age ranges and different social classes. That’s where growth is. I’ve been lucky enough to tour all over the world several times and have accumulated an amazing, diverse array of friends through the years. People who make me think, challenge me and we can all play devil’s advocate when needed for one another. Dialog between people with different perspectives is essential if we want to make real, lasting changes in the world.
5: Recognize the mentors that come along your path: There are mentors everywhere if your eyes are open, some are more obvious than others. This can be anything from your grandmother to an idol you admire; a grocery store clerk or a peer in your industry. Watching how others navigate life and not being afraid to ask questions or advice from those who are doing well in happiness, work and life in general. If you are trying to achieve something very specific in your career, go and seek out people who are already doing what you’re trying to achieve; ask questions and absorb their wisdom, be around that energy and scene. If you notice that the clerk at your local store or someone in your family always seems to be content and happy, and you are struggling, ask them what it is that makes them so content, you never know what simple but life-altering mentorship could be right in front of you. Become willing to be taught.
When I decided I wanted to go out into the world and become a professional musician, I jumped in the deep end. I put my bass on my back, booked a ticket to L.A because that was where all the pro-touring musicians were based, and went directly into the eye of the storm; jam nights, music industry events, conventions, etc… I started to build my network within the scene I was trying to get into. I asked a million questions, went to every musician’s gig that invited me and slowly started to be asked into gigs myself, then your peers start to recommend you, that’s how it works. I simultaneously sought out the animal welfare and activism groups in L.A so that I could continue being involved with my main passions in activism while building my music career. Seek out and learn from mentors, they are everywhere if your eyes are open.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The plant-based movement, it’s already well underway but we do very much need to speed things up. Adapting a plant-based lifestyle can have a huge positive effect on many aspects of our own lives, not only health-wise but for the health of the planet. The current archaic model of industrial animal agriculture is a direct and dangerous threat to so many issues: health, climate, antibiotic resistance, zoonotic diseases, land and water waste, severe animal abuse, ocean acidification, deforestation…the list goes on … The good news is: we made it all up so we have the power to change it! Your daily consuming choices are more profound than you realize. Even by beginning to reduce your animal product intake you are sending a loud and clear message to industries that the consumers want change. Eating more and more plant-based is a win-win for everyone involved; it is the closest thing to a panacea for this planet that we have, not to say it is, of course nothing is a perfect panacea — but we do know the science and data is out, loud and clear on this one, so why not embrace this beautiful, delicious, nutritious future of food movement.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
John Paul Dejoria, Sam Harris, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dave Chapelle, Angela Davis, Al Gore, Jacinda Arden, Ayann Hirshi Ali, Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, Roger Lienhard, David Yeung, Jim Greenbaum, Khaled Alwaleed, Sarah Kendzior, Kyle Vogt, Paul Watson, Russell Brand, Carne Ross, Sir Paul McCartney… sorry, that’s twenty more than the “one” you asked for, opps :-) … but they all immediately come to mind! Can we all just have lunch together please? I think this group of people working together could literally change the world overnight. We would be here all day if I listed a reason for each person and some are dear friends already. If you’re not familiar with any of them a quick google will solve that. This particular concoction has an ingredient list of: brilliance, influence, empathy, direct action, philanthropy, honest journalism, tact, humor, healthy skepticism, modesty, critical thinking and all-around, game-changing, benevolent badassery! Please tag, I want any and all of these lunches to happen, one on one or as a power team. I’ll start thinking of our band name ;-)
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!