Aoife O’Donovan “All My Friends”

Yep Roc Records, 2024

Grand-scale choral and orchestral project paying tribute to the American suffragists.

artwork for Aoife O'Donovan album "All My Friends"It’s election year in the USA and it looks like there’ll be at least another four years to wait for the first female president. ‘All My Friends’ is Aoife O’Donovan’s tribute to the suffragist, Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the fight for American women to have the vote. Not an overtly political songwriter, in this her fourth album, Grammy-award winner O’Donovan has highlighted the struggle that led to Tennessee providing the decisive vote to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Moving from Iowa, Chapman Catt made her home in San Francisco, and appropriately the city’s Girls Chorus, under Valérie Sainte-Agathe, form an integral part of the record. Opening the album with the title-track, O’Donovan’s a capella vocal is joined by a beautiful humming chorus like something from ‘Madama Butterfly’.

Then, in ‘Crisis’, O’Donovan inhabits the spirit of Catt, quoting her actual words –

“Oh America look up the star is getting nearer
It’s time to shout aloud to everybody who can hear us”

With lyrics drawn on such a grand scale, the record is equally impressive in its musical ambition. Alongside the choir, there’s a chamber orchestra, The Knights, led by O’Donovan’s husband Eric Jacobsen and a brass quartet known as The Westerlies. Imaginative scores and unusual time signatures permeate the album though these are never overbearing or intrusive, allowing O’Donovan ample scope for her expressive vocalising of the suffragist’s real or imagined words.

Echoing the themes taken up in Leonard Cohen’s ‘Democracy’, the song ‘America, Come’ references Lady Liberty, ironically the feminine symbol of a democracy where females were denied a voice. Quoting the century-old words of Chapman Catt, the song rails at elderly politicians unwilling to step aside, a point not lost on today’s voters.

The penultimate track revisits O’Donovan’s previous release, ‘Age of Apathy’. Arguing that the need for commitment is as strong now as it was a century ago, ‘Over the Finish Line’ looks to the future with a reminder that complacency must be resisted –

“Once in a lifetime
The power is ours
But we’d rather stare at our phones”

With all but the final track written by O’Donovan, who co-produced with Jacobsen and Darren Schneider, the album closes with a cover of the Dylan lament for ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. Like a Salvation Army band, The Westerlies provide a few bars of ‘John Brown’s Body’, the civil war era tune about the abolitionist executed in 1859. Accompanied by O’Donovan humming, the brass falls away as, a capella, she opens the tragic tale of the black waitress who died following an assault by a white male in 1963. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, the song has an enduring relevance.

With so many musicians featured on the recording it’s hard to pinpoint individuals, though Griffin Goldstein from Dawes is a well-known presence on percussion. In support of ‘All My Friends’, Aoife O’Donovan will be touring with various orchestral and choral ensembles over the coming months, including a June date at London’s Barbican. On the back of such an innovative, laudable and moving album, the stage is set for a truly memorable evening.


About Chas Lacey 16 Articles
My musical journey has taken me from Big Pink to southern California. Life in the fast lane now has a sensible 20mph limit which leaves more time for listening to new music and catching live shows.
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