A lot has changed in Aoife O’Donovan’s life since her last solo album, 2016’s In the Magic Hour. She has become a mother, moved to different parts of the country, and continued on creating, working with a wide range of artists including the Grammy-Award winning folk-trio she’s a part of, titled I’m With Her. Following the release of her third solo LP Age of Apathy, O’Donovan caught up with Web Services Coordinator Nora Onanian. She talked about how places — such as her hometown of Newton, Massachusetts — manifest in her work, opened up about the cameraderie she has felt as a woman in music, and more.
LAST NIGHT, I WAS LISTENING TO A LITTLE PODCAST THAT YOU DID JUST ABOUT A MONTH AGO AND I HAPPENED TO CATCH THAT YOUR MOM LISTENS TO WERS—
Aoife O’Donovan: Ohh yeah!
— AND TURNS YOU ON TO A LOT OF NEW MUSIC. I LOVE THAT LITTLE PERSONAL TIE TO THE STATION SO MUCH. I FIGURED I'D ASK SOMETHING LIGHT AND ASK IF YOUR MOM HAS GIVEN YOU ANY NEW MUSIC DISCOVERIES LATELY?
AO: My parents actually just were telling me about a band. Oh my gosh, they're a band that they're going to see this week at Club Passim, and I'll look it up as I'm on the phone with you.
You know, the other fun tidbit — my dad got his start at WERS.
AO: Yeah, he's a radio host at WGBH right now, but he got his start [there]. He went to Emerson for graduate school. He was at that radio station first with Brad Paul, who I work with as my kind of radio guy. So it's really nice to still get the love from the station.
Let’s see these bands they were telling me about. Oh gosh, It's more just like my mom will hear stuff and be like, ‘have you heard the new Drive-By Truckers album or to Susan Tedeschi?’ It's just all really, really fun stuff that they've been listening to. I can't find this band that my mom was just telling me about, but let's just say she's always telling me about cool, cool bands that she's hearing about on the radio. I can't think of anything specific off the top of my head.
THAT’S GREAT, I LOVE THAT! I HAVE TO CONGRATULATE YOU ON PUTTING OUT YOUR NEW ALBUM, AGE OF APATHY. IT CAME OUT JUST ABOUT A MONTH AGO ON JANUARY 21ST, AND IT'S REALLY, REALLY BEAUTIFUL. AND IT SEES YOU KIND OF AT YOUR MOST PERSONAL YET WITH A LOT OF ANECDOTAL LYRICS. A LOT OF ARTISTS HAVE BEEN ENCOURAGED DURING THE PANDEMIC TO GET MORE VULNERABLE. WHAT DO YOU THINK HELPED SHAPE YOUR LATEST SONGS INTO BEING AS PERSONAL AS THEY ARE? AND WOULD YOU SAY IT'S A CONSCIOUS CHOICE?
AO: I don't know. I mean, I think it certainly is somewhat of a conscious choice because I've chosen to record them and put them on the record. How the songs kind of came to be, I don't think I set out to sort of say, ‘oh, this is going to be a more, you know, personal record than previous records.’ Because my last records are also personal to a certain extent.
I think this record is the most specific. It kind of just recalls very specific experiences. and even very specific times and places like dates and actual bars and buses. You know, music venues — like I talk about the Lizard Lounge and one of the songs I talk about the Ice House, a bar in Brooklyn. I talk about a very literal road trip I took back down 95 from Canada and getting stopped at the border. And I think just sort of taking those experiences and putting them in song and not sort of clouding them with trying to make them more universal, I think was definitely a conscious choice.
And I think it also had to do with the pandemic kind of coinciding with, you know, this is the first solo album I've made in many years. The first album I've made since I became a parent, since I had this experience touring with I'm With Her. I'm just in a different place in my life than I was before.
YEAH, I WAS ACTUALLY GOING TO TALK A BIT ABOUT HOW PLACES MANIFEST IN YOUR WORK. I CAUGHT SOME REFERENCES TO BOSTON. I KNOW THE TITLE TRACK “AGE OF APATHY” HAD A REFERENCE TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE CENTER, AND THEN BROOKLYN GETS REFERENCED IN “B61.” I SAW THAT YOU MOVED FROM BROOKLYN TO FLORIDA RECENTLY. DOES THAT MANIFEST AS WELL IN THERE?
AO: I think you can hear the Florida influence. Maybe you can’t even hear it. But for me, because I wrote a lot of these songs in Florida, like the sort of landscape of Central Florida is just sort of like, it's kind of the backdrop to all of this music.
I'm from Boston and lived in New York for many years and still consider myself a Northeast kind of lady. So being in Florida and sort of feeling [like] a little bit of an outsider, but then finding so much beauty and so much to love in that sort of natural landscape. Because Florida is just not what most people think it is. I mean, it can be, certainly, but there's also a lot about Florida that's incredible. And I think just having that much access to nature and space and sunlight while writing this music is really important.
AND YOU ALSO HAVE TALKED A LOT ABOUT TAKING INSPIRATION FROM YOUR IRISH HERITAGE AS WELL. SPENDING SUMMERS IN IRELAND AS A KID AND DRAWING FROM THE MUSICAL STYLE THERE. I WAS WONDERING IF THERE ARE SPECIFIC MOMENTS OR MUSICAL TECHNIQUES THAT YOU COULD POINT OUT FROM THE ALBUM THAT DRAW FROM THAT?
AO: I don't know if there’s specific techniques on this album that would draw from Ireland, but certainly from Irish music, then folk music, then old-time Appalachian music and bluegrass. “Prodigal Daughter,” the song that I wrote with Tim O'Brien, who's a bluegrass musician. That sort of instrument that he's playing is a bouzouki. And that's an eastern instrument. I mean it’s from Greece, really. But that really was popularized in Celtic music by the playing of Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny. And Tim O'Brien really kind of brought it into bluegrass music. So I think it's a real full circle moment.
VERY COOL. A FAVORITE SONG OF MINE OFF THE ALBUM IS THE LAST TRACK, “PASSENGERS.” I JUST REALLY, I LOVE THE SOUND. IT'S SO UPLIFTING AND WARM. AND I LIKE THAT THE LYRICS GET INTO GREEK MYTHOLOGY A LITTLE BIT. SO I HAVE A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS OFF OF THAT. WERE YOU LIKE READING MYTHOLOGY WHILE WRITING?
AO: I mean, not so much, but I do love Greek mythology. And actually, since I wrote that song, my daughter has gotten really into the Hercules story. And just sort of all these characters and the moons of Jupiter.
I just think there's like endless fodder for songwriters just in the moons of Jupiter. Just sort of all of the extraterrestrial landscape of that song does feel very mythological to me.
AND DID YOU WANT TO END THE ALBUM ON A HIGH NOTE LIKE THAT?
AO: 100 percent. It was really important to me to end this album looking forward. And in some ways, I think of “Passengers” as being a companion piece to the last track on my previous record, which is actually called “Jupiter.” And it's not uplifting at all. It's really sort of like a post-apocalyptic love song, and it's a very intense song, and I think that song kind of led me into this.
If you listen to the end of that album and to this album, it is kind of a jumping off point for the next album. And Age of Apathy ending with “Passengers,” which kind of takes you back to outer space as the setting for the song and referencing Jupiter. In the song “Jupiter,” I say “I hit Jupiter and hang a ride” and then “Passengers,” I say, “Jupiter’s by my side and we watch galaxies collide.” I feel like it's Jupiter the planet, or its Jupiter the God. And it's, I don't know, it's trying to sort of tie all those things together.
ONE OF THE THEMES I PICKED UP ON IN THE ALBUM IS KIND OF THIS OVERWHELMING OVERFLOW OF LIKE WORLD EVENTS AND TRAGEDIES AND IN A MORE GENERAL SENSE, JUST LIKE A LOT OF NEW INFORMATION COMING IN. SO I WANTED TO ASK WHAT SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE WAYS OF HANDLING THAT AND CALMING DOWN ARE?
AO: Yeah, I mean it's really important for me to be outside as much as possible every day. Like I said, I just went for a long run on the river here, the Potomac River, and just that is basically how I handle it is to try to get outside just without listening to music without focusing on anything stressful and just run every day. It's much more about my mental well-being than physical at this point.
But also just trying to really focus on doing things that make me happy and being with my family. I think for many people, a silver lining of the pandemic was getting to spend a lot more time with the people that they were close to. And for some people, that was, you know, had a whole other set of issues. But I was really lucky that for my family, it was just a beautiful, beautiful time. Still is.
YEAH, THAT'S SO NICE. LISTENING TO THE ALBUM, THERE'S DEFINITELY A SENSE OF THAT CALM SONICALLY AS WELL. LOTS OF LIGHT ACOUSTICS. AND IT WAS NOTABLE THAT THERE WAS A BASS LINE IN THERE, TOO. I HAD READ THAT YOUR LAST ALBUM DIDN'T HAVE ONE AT ALL?
AO: My last album did have tons of bass, but my last touring band didn’t.
AO: No, no, no, actually, you are right in that my last, my live album Man in the Boat, didn't have bass because I didn't tour with a bass player. But yes, because I didn't go on tour with a bass player, I think that bass was sort of like, I was kind of really used to not being tied down to a specific bass line. So on Age of Apathy, it was really cool to sort of bring that back in with this guy, Dave Piltch, an incredible, just a really cool bass player. And I loved all of his contributions.
AND ISA BURKE FROM LULA WILES DOES THE GUITAR AND SOME BACKING VOCALS, TOO, AND I BELIEVE IS ON TOUR WITH YOU RIGHT NOW?
AO: She is. She's just on tour, she didn't play on the record, but she's on tour with me. Yeah, so she'll be at the show if you're coming next week to the Sinclaire. She’s amazing.
COULD YOU SHARE HOW YOU FIRST MET HER, THOUGH, AND WHAT IT’S BEEN LIKE TO WORK TOGETHER?
AO: Yes! So I met Isa, I mean, so long ago. I met her probably when she was still a little kid because I knew her father through a mutual friend of ours, an accordion player named Jeremiah McLane.
Isa's father, David Surette, just passed away. And it's been a really difficult time, but so lovely for me to remember meeting him when I was 18 years old and sharing the stage with him at a recital in Brown Hall at New England Conservatory with Jeremiah McLane. And then fast forward, you know, 21 years, 22 years, and I'm on stage with Isa.
She's just been a real asset to this project. And we have gotten to make music together over the years. I met her at a fiddle camp. She sang with me when she was only, I think, 13 or 14, at Henry Fest up in Portland, Maine. She toured with me, opening for my band with Lula Wiles back in September of 2016. And Crooked Still as well right before the pandemic in 2019. So it's great to have her.
ANOTHER FULL CIRCLE MOMENT IT SEEMS!
ANOTHER THEME THAT WAS REPRESENTED IN THE ALBUM, AND MOST OBVIOUSLY IN THE SECOND TO LAST SONG THAT WAS TITLED “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM YOURSELF,” IS THIS SENSE OF BEING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR EMOTIONS AND KIND OF NAVIGATING THAT WHEN THINGS ARE OUT OF YOUR CONTROL — WHICH IS SO FITTING FOR THIS YEAR. CAREER-WISE, I WANTED TO ASK ABOUT HOW THAT VISION HAS GROWN FOR YOU RECENTLY AND WHAT YOU SEE FOR YOURSELF NEXT?
AO: So, yes, that's a really great question. I think “What Do You Want from Yourself,” to me, when it gets to the bridge section of that song [it’s] really trying to figure out, acknowledge that there are certain things that happen in life, there are things that have happened in my life, just simply because I was here or here (gestures left and right). And in addition to having to work really hard and never stop, there's also just, you know, who's running with a bum leg and who got a head start. It's just sort of like, that's just how the world works, and it's kind of a weird thing to have to grapple with.
So how do I see where I'm at right now and what's coming next? I think that the sort of creative phase I found myself in during the pandemic is continuing. I feel like I have a lot more to say, and I'm already working on my next record and a lot of new music and just want to continue to really keep on creating and never let that sort of lie dormant again.
YEAH, AND YOU'VE DONE SO MANY COLLABORATIONS. YOU'VE BEEN IN THE GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING FOLK TRIO I'M WITH HER, YOU'VE BEEN IN CROOKED STILL, AND WORKED WITH YO-YO MA, ORCHESTRAS, JAZZ TRUMPETERS AND SO, SO MANY MORE. IS THERE A DREAM ARTIST YOU'D LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH NEXT? OR, A DIFFERENT GENRE YOU'D LIKE TO DABBLE IN WITH COLLABORATIONS?
AO: Oh, man. I mean, I would love to jump out of I mean, anything, really. I think I'm just so down to play music and to sort of jump into any genre.
In terms of my own genre, still a lifelong dream is to get to sing harmony with Paul Simon. I know he keeps on retiring, but we'll see. But I would love also to lend my voice to electronic music or something. I love how the sort of folk voice settles in music with those kind of beats. I'm a big Sylvan Esso fan. You know, I love Amelia’s singing so much and what they do is very cool.
SPEAKING OF I'M WITH HER, DID I HEAR THAT YOU'VE BEEN WORKING OR THINKING OF CREATING SOMETHING NEW?
AO: Oh yeah, we're definitely — it's always on the back burner. We just got together to hang out at the end of last year. So the ideas are flowing. It's [just] everybody's got a lot of stuff going on right now. So it's not it's not in the immediate future, but it will happen at some point.
AWESOME. AND THEN SHIFTING GEARS A LITTLE BIT. INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY IS COMING UP IN JUST OVER A WEEK AND AT THE STATION, I MEAN, WE'RE CONSTANTLY PLAYING AMAZING FEMALE ARTISTS. WE DON'T MAKE A POINT TO ONLY PLAY THEM FOR THE HOLIDAY. BUT WE'RE REALLY HOPING TO RECOGNIZE THE UNIQUE EXPERIENCE OF BEING A WOMAN IN MUSIC AND ALSO THE REALLY AMAZING COMMUNITY AND CONNECTIONS THAT CAN COME OUT OF THAT AND WORKING WITH OTHER FEMALE MUSICIANS.
SO RATHER THAN ASK A GENERAL, ‘WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN MUSIC’ QUESTION, I WAS WONDERING IF YOU HAVE ANY ANECDOTES YOU'D BE WILLING TO SHARE THAT CAPTURES THE SIDES OF THAT. I KNOW THERE'S A POSITIVE SIDE, A NEGATIVE SIDE.
AO: My experience as a woman in music has been certainly — I feel very lucky that I've always felt just sheer camaraderie across the board as a female. I mean, it's like it's just one of my favorite things about being a musician is that everybody, there's a sort of a level playing field. I've always felt a very level playing field. And I feel so lucky that I came up in a community that really respected me and never made me feel lesser-than because I was a woman.
I think that having the experience of being the only woman in a band, or being a woman fronting a band of all men, or being a side-woman in a band with all men, in each of those experiences, and being in a band with all women with I'm with her, I feel that, you know, I can have a different role. But I think that when in my scene specifically of musicians, I don't think there is a “we're the guys” and “there are the girls” kind of thing. So I think that's been special. I think you definitely find it more from people who aren't actually musicians — from promoters, or the press, or the audience. But I think that among musicians, it feels pretty much like a big, happy family.
I THINK JONI MITCHELL IS AN OBVIOUS INSPIRATION OF YOURS. SO IF YOU WANT TO FILL THE SPACE WITH A LITTLE TALKED OUT LOVE LETTER TO JONI, FEEL FREE. BUT I WANTED TO ASK ABOUT SOME MUSICAL WOMEN YOU LOOK UP TO.
AO: Joni Mitchell, of course. Really, really love Shawn Colvin. I grew up listening to Shawn Colvin a ton and also a lot of Irish singers — Karan Casey, Cathy Jordan, Cara Dillon, those people. And then kind of going back to sort of jazz singers — Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and people whose phrasing I just absolutely admire. And in addition, my contemporaries, you know, my bandmates Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. I got to do a little mini press tour with Sara Bareilles back in 2018, or 2019, I guess. And that was— she’s a total badass. Anaïs Mitchell. So many, so many incredible women that I look up to.
AND ARE THERE ANY OTHER WOMAN IN YOUR LIFE THAT AREN'T NECESSARILY MUSICIANS THAT YOU'D LIKE TO SHOUT OUT FOR HOW THEY'VE HELPED YOU REACH YOUR GOALS IN LIFE AND IN MUSIC?
AO: Shout out to my mother and my sister, Nuala. And also my sister-in-law, Miley. My sister-in-law, Miley, is a dancer and then my sister, Nuala, is a musician as something that she loves to do but it’s not her profession. And my mom and my mother-in-law. There are just people in my family who are just kind of constantly lifting each other up. That's a very special and important thing.
I LOVE THAT. I ALSO FOUND THIS REALLY COOL PROJECT YOU DID CALLED “AMERICA, COME,” WHICH WAS A GROUP OF ORCHESTRAL SONGS DRAWING ON CENTURIES OLD LETTERS AND SPEECHES BY CARRIE CHAPMAN CATT, WHO WAS A WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE CRUSADER. AND YOU PLAYED THAT WITH THE CINCINNATI POPS LAST YEAR. I WANT TO ASK WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DO THAT PROJECT AND IF IT HAD PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE TO YOU?
AO: Absolutely. So that project was a commission, and hopefully that's going to be coming out on an album at some point. Probably in 2023 — I’m working on that right now. It was commissioned by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in honor of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. So I wrote an orchestral piece. Twenty-two minutes, five songs.
I worked with an arranger, a female arranger named Tanner Porter. [It] was a total just absolute joy to get to collaborate with her and [build] out these songs for [a] full orchestra. And to really dive in and kind of get to go deep into these stories and into these letters and kind of experience, try to experience what these people were experiencing. And seeing so many parallels in how the world is right now with voter suppression and redistricting. People are still trying to deny people their right to vote. And it's just wild that a hundred years ago, there was a pandemic; there was poverty; there was war. It's just the more things change, the more they stay the same.
YEAH, DEFINITELY. AND YOU HAVE A YOUNG DAUGHTER, AND I KNOW YOU GROW UP WITH A VERY MUSICAL CHILDHOOD FROM YOUR PARENTS. SO I'M CURIOUS IF YOU'RE TAKING A SIMILAR APPROACH AND WANT TO RAISE HER MUSICALLY?
AO: Oh, of course. Yeah, she's only four, but she loves music, and she just started cello lessons. Her dad plays the cello. Yeah, and she loves music. And right now, of course, all we're listening to is the Encanto soundtrack, but she has pretty good taste.
LIKE WE MENTIONED, YOU'RE GOING TO BE IN MASSACHUSETTS REALLY SOON FOR TOUR. YOU’LL BE AT THE SINCLAIR IN CAMBRIDGE ON WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2ND, AND THEN NORTHAMPTON UP THERE ON MARCH 4TH. AND GROWING UP IN BOSTON, YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY VERY FAMILIAR WITH THE AREA. ARE YOU EXCITED TO BE BACK AND DO YOU HAVE SOME THINGS ON YOUR LIST THAT YOU WANT TO DO?
AO: I can't wait to be back. My thing that I look the most forward to doing when I'm in Boston is running. I love running in Boston and my parents live right in Harvard Square, so there's many, many-a-route you can take to really just get your Boston on. And I love getting coffee at Darwin's across the street from my folks house. I love being in Harvard Square and seeing friends.
WELL, THAT'S ALL I HAVE FOR QUESTIONS. DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU'D LIKE TO ADD OR SHARE?
AO: Sure, well, back to the sort of International Women's Day and strong women musicians, I'm on tour with a woman named Yasmin Williams who's opening these shows, who's a really phenomenal guitarist, and she's going to be with me at the Sinclair and also at the Academy of Music in Northampton. And people should absolutely come and check her out because she will blow your mind.
Aoife O’Donovan’s latest album Age of Apathy is available now.