How the pandemic and Joe Henry brought musical space and enabled a weird type of collaboration.
Aoife O’Donovan is a serial collaborator who also enjoys a solo career within the folk rock and americana genres, but her approach to music is not constrained by any simple genre definition. She first came to prominence as a member of Crooked Still and has since been a member of Sometymes Why and I’m With Her. Her collaborations include providing guest vocals for Yo-Yo Ma’s ‘Goat Rodeo Sessions’ and she has recorded and toured with the Punch Brothers, the Milk Carton Kids, Kate Rusby, Infamous Stringdusters, the Kronos Quartet and many others including various symphony orchestras. Additionally, her songs have been recorded by Alison Krauss amongst others, and have been placed on various films and television series. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Aoife O’Donovan at her Florida home over Zoom to discuss her new acclaimed solo record ‘Age Of Apathy’ which was recorded under pandemic restrictions and why she enjoys maintaining a solo career as well as being a band member. She also explains how her family and upbringing helped develop her love of music and ensured she followed a musical path, something she is now also helping develop with her own daughter. While she expressed disappointment that her UK tour dates have had to be rescheduled due to pandemic travel restrictions, she confirms that she is looking forward to touring the UK later in the year and getting her fix of Haribo Tangfastics.
I hope you, your family, and your friends have escaped the worst effects of the pandemic.
I did have it over New Year in January despite being triple vaxxed, but it was nothing, I just had a sniffly nose for about 24 hours.
‘Age Of Apathy’ is your latest solo album but you have also been a member of Crooked Still, Sometimes Why and I’m With Her and your session work is extensive. How important is your solo career to you?
I came up playing in bands and obviously started my career with Crooked Still, and I have done a lot of band work over the years, and I’m With Her is the most recent band I have spent time touring and recording with, but I have always had throughout the whole thing my solo stuff as well. When I stepped aside from Crooked Still when the band took a break in 2011, that is when I made my first solo album, and I’m really glad I did because it gave me chance to do my own original music and be out there on my own. I think I will always do both, I will always have my solo stuff as well as other collaborations I am working on.
What do you enjoy about your solo work that you can’t do in your collaborations?
I think I enjoy them all equally, they are just different. I do enjoy writing my own music as a sole writer, but I also equally enjoy writing duties with a band. I think there is just something about being on the road and being fully on your own, like travelling actually by yourself which I don’t do that often anymore, I love the mystery and adventures you can have by yourself because when you travel alone you have more chance encounters. When I’ve been on tour all by myself in the UK driving in a tiny Corsa with the BBC on, driving up and down the M4, you might end up going for a pint with the promotor, whereas if you are with your band, you are probably doing your own thing. All things like that, seeing friends who may not have called if you are with your band because they knew you wouldn’t have time because you were dealing with your band or hanging out with your band. There are pros and cons to both, but mostly pros, haha.
You have been a musician all your life, your parents were musicians and so is your husband, how has your family influenced you musically?
The family influence is really deep, my parents are musicians, my siblings play music, my extended family in Ireland all sing, my grandfather played the mandolin, and he was Greek, my daughter who is three years old has just had her first cello lesson. I think when you grow up surrounded by music, and when you see people around you who you love finding joy in music, then you want that, and I think just now having a child who is just getting into it my hope for her is she will grow to love music. You can see her tiny brain process the emotions of music when she is listening to songs from the new movie ‘Encanto’. It has an incredible soundtrack with scores by Germaine Franco and my daughter is having an emotional reaction to the music, and that is all I want for anybody listening to music is to feel something from it. I was definitely given that as a child by my parents, and as you say, my husband who is also a musician grew up in a very similar fashion, and music is such a great part of the fabric of our lives, and it just makes me so happy.
You’ve had a formal musical education. How much did this help you in your career?
It definitely hasn’t limited me in any way. I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who felt limited by education, and I’m a firm believer that all education, in general not just musical, is hugely important. It gives you the tools and you are more than welcome to put those tools aside and follow your instincts or your more visceral lead of whatever you are pursuing. I think just having the education gives you more colours in your palette to choose from, and definitely for me, it gave me a lot of confidence going out there and being put in sideman positions or being asked to sing harmony with someone or play in somebody’s band. I think having had a formal musical education makes it easier for me, I can read music I can make a chart, I know what is happening in a song, and I think it is only a good thing.
You have structured classical aspects to your music, and you are a proven improviser, at any one time how do you decide which muse to follow?
I think it just happens. Obviously when you are setting out to compose a particular piece of music you set boundaries and parameters for what you are doing, and in terms of writing this album I knew I was trying to write a set number of songs that would fit a traditional song structure between three and five minutes long, and you want to have a collection with certain themes that you build upon and come back to as a piece of music but ultimately as a collection of songs. In other areas, depending on what I am working on, if I am just singing a set of covers then I may be more free and more improvisatory. I just did an orchestral piece I wrote this last summer and that was a totally different parameter, it had to be x amount of minutes, and it had to be in this specific field which I didn’t decide. It just really depends on the project.
What did Joe Henry bring to the recording process for ‘Age Of Apathy’?
Joe is one of those people who have so much wisdom at their fingertips, and usually, you want to be in the same room as Joe to bear witness to his magical powers as a sage of the community. For this record we weren’t in the same room, he was in Maine, and I was in Florida, and he just brought a sense of calm and a sense of space to the music. There is just like a wild freeness that hasn’t been there on my previous records, and I think that is due to the music and how it was written with COVID, the 21st Century, and all that, but Joe made an unmistakable mark on it with his musicians and the feeling of space he left on these songs.
How did that space come about, and did you record yourself at home?
I didn’t record at home I recorded at a studio here at a university engineering school. That is where I recorded, and we would then send the stuff to other musicians. I think the space came from the constraints of the pandemic, I think that when you are the first person to see these tracks, just guitar and vocals, sometimes multiple guitars and sometimes piano that I would put on, and Jay Bellerose the drummer who was first to get them and he is just such a sensitive musician and he is being guided by Joe the producer, so he left a lot of space and sent it back to us. The next person was the bass player, and he found a lot of space in the recording, and he played differently than he would have played had he heard a full drum kit for the whole song. So, I think because everyone was treading lightly, and yet putting a lot of their own personal stamp on their parts it just turned into something that it wouldn’t have if we had all been in the same room together.
When you recorded the initial tracks yourself, how did you imagine the rhythm track?
I was playing rhythm guitar for the basis of all these, and it just depended on the track. For some of these, I would hear the drums in my head a certain way, but I didn’t necessarily communicate that to Joe or Jay. I think ‘Phoenix’ is a really good example, when I first started playing it and I heard it I thought the drums would be in double-time, and he sent it back and it was in a kind of half-time. My first reaction was it makes the song sound slower and less energetic, but then I realised very quickly that it was actually the perfect approach to the song and just made it groove, and it let the guitar really drive it and the drums are like the big wheels under a truck. It was a really cool image.
Was there ever a time when you got something back that you thought, no this is wrong, and I don’t like it but eventually you grew to like it?
There was a lot of stuff like that. A lot of the idiosyncratic personal things from musicians, not that I necessarily didn’t like it, but when Alison Russell first sent her harmonies back for some of the songs, I was like I didn’t expect her to do this, and I then had to take a minute to listen to it again with totally fresh ears, and once I did that I was like this is unbelievable and the best thing I’ve ever heard, haha. It was this weird collaboration that felt very freeing and very different from anything I’ve ever done.
When you record your next album, hopefully, the pandemic will be over, so will you use the same techniques or go back to more traditional in-the-room recording?
Haha, I would love to go back to a more traditional setting, but I am already working on new music. I’m supposed to be in the UK today but I’m not I’m here in Florida, so I’ve been back in the studio, just trying to get more demos done and just take advantage of the time at home to keep writing and keep working. But no, I think most musicians are very eager to be back in a room with other musicians and feel that energy, haha.
In terms of your own vocals, what is most important to you, the sound of your voice as an instrument or is it the words you are singing?
It is a mixture of both. I have spent a lot of time and put a lot of hours and energy into getting to know my voice and training it to really act as a full instrument, especially in the context of my original music. On this record, I think I was able to take it to places I hadn’t been able to do on previous projects. So, shouting, being very quiet, employing breath, how I deal with a phrase, how I sing a phrase. I’m thinking about the words and how to communicate the words, and I’m also thinking about the sound of my voice and the timbre, the same way a string player or a woodwind player would, to really manipulate their sounds to enhance the message.
Streaming is challenging the concept of the album. Is ‘Age Of Apathy’ a series of songs that can be listened to separately, or should listeners treat it as a song cycle to be consumed whole?
I would really like listeners to hear the album as a whole, but I recognise the fact that some people don’t have the time or the interest, or maybe people just hear a song on a playlist, I’m not going to chastise people for doing that. I do that myself sometimes, I will find an album and then listen to my favourite track over and over again. But I think for any artist you really admire who puts out a new record you should try and give the album at least one listen all the way through because I want to do that, the same way if my favourite writer puts out a book, I’m not just going to read the extract I want to read the whole book. I don’t put on one episode of the Sopranos in the middle of the series, you want to watch it from the start to the finish because there is an important narrative. But you are right, we do live in a streaming world right now, we live in a soundbite world, we live in a headline world, it is click, click, click, but I do think people are craving the long-form experience more these days, even at this stage of the pandemic, people are realising maybe I do want to take this in the way the artist wanted me to.
Has your move to Florida from New York made any difference to your music?
The biggest difference for me has been the access to space and light, and I think especially given the circumstances of the last two years, having so much empty space just right outside the front door which is an expanse and I live in the middle of Orlando. There just aren’t as many people here and I could go for a long run and maybe I will see three other people in the middle of the day by beautiful lakes, there are beautiful trails, and I can drive fifteen minutes and I can be literally in a sort of jungley area with oak trees, kayaking down a river with an alligator of my right. I didn’t think I would love Florida as much as I do, but I really enjoy being here.
Going forward it isn’t as musical as New York, what do you think?
My husband is with an orchestra here and going forward I think we will probably go back to the Northeast because our families are there. But until then, we are really enjoying this moment, and when you have a little kid, you just want them to be outside. We are literally outside until it gets dark every day so I’m just going to enjoy that while she is little. I was just thinking yesterday of the memories she is getting when I picked her up from school and took her swimming and then we went to a playground, it is just playing outside, and it is the middle of winter, and we are so lucky we can do that.
How healthy do you think the new acoustic music scene is, the first generation are now getting older so how do you think the genre is going to develop?
I think it is evolving very naturally because there are so many opportunities for younger musicians to be exposed to a wider variety of styles. The scene just seems to be getting richer and richer, there are bands like The Punch Brothers who are so influential on younger artists who really do straddle that bluegrass world and chamber pop world, they are very influenced by Radiohead and other modern bands, not forgetting New Grass Revival, there is also a very rich singer-songwriter scene who like americana as a concept. When I was coming up americana was not very connected to bluegrass, it was more Lucinda Williams who was an original americana artist and she was more Texas rock & roll, there was Lyle Lovett and these people were country but not really country, then it was alt-country. Now it is much more integrated, and the format has definitely provided a home for those people who don’t feel they are wholly folk, or wholly bluegrass, folk with drums or whatever you want to call it. I try not to get too locked into associating with any particular genre, I think it is nice to spread your wings a little bit, haha.
What are your plans for 2022 and how confident are you they will be achieved?
Definitely, as I said I’m back in the studio working on some new music, and I will be back on tour in the US in a few weeks with ‘Age Of Apathy’, and after a bunch of US touring, I will have my third time rescheduled UK tour with some dates in June in Ireland and Manchester, and a lot more dates in England in October. I am hoping it will be easier to travel, haha.
Who will be in your touring band?
The band will be me on acoustic guitar and vocals, a great guitar player Isa Burke from New England folk band the Lula Wiles, a drummer called Robin MacMillan who is a great friend of mine, and a bass player called Ethan Jodziewicz who has played with Sierra Hull and The Milk Carton Kids. So, a quartet with high energy renditions of my new music as well as from my back catalogue.
We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists, or albums on your playlist?
I’m listening to the new self-titled Anaïs Mitchell record, and I think it is just incredible, one of my favourites. I’m also really into the Aidia Victoria track ‘Magnolia Blues’ that came out in the past fall, and as I hinted earlier, I’m obsessed with the ‘Encanto’ soundtrack and I listen to it even when my daughter is at school, haha, it is that good.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
I can’t wait to be back over in the UK, it is one of my most favourite places to tour, and I’ve got a new album out which I would love you to hear. Also, it is much harder to find Tangfastics here in the States and my favourite thing about touring in the UK is eating bags of Tangfastics after shows, haha.
Aoife O’Donovan’s ‘Age Of Apathy’ is out now on Yep Roc Records.
Such a nice interview with such an articulate person. I think Aoife established her ensemble chops with Wayfaring Strangers, even before Crooked Still; they were a very diverse collective. I’ve only had the opportunity to see her live twice and she’s such an engaging performer. On the Transatlantic Sessions tour she gave a heartfelt and focussed rendition of Hallowell to a pin-drop quiet auditorium before Teddy Thompson whispered something to her and she totally cracked up. Then at the first I’m With Her show in the UK she was laughing and joking at the merch desk. Not that the Misses Watkins and Jarosz were withdrawn in any way, but Aoife was the one who seemed to make the connection most. I so hope I can make one of the shows later in the year.
Age of Apathy is a terrific album. I recommend the ‘de luxe’ version with the 8 acoustic tracks on a second disc.
Aoife was a joy to interview Jeremey, and as you’ve said, she has a great sense of humour even if she has a serious Tangfastic problem.