Interview: Aoife O’Donovan on “All My Friends” coming to the Barbican

Credit: Saha Israel

Folk music is music for the people and is the best genre fit for an eclectic artist.

Aoife O’Donovan’s latest album ‘All My Friends’ is a celebration of America’s 19th Amendment and the history of women’s rights. Not only is this album a significant artistic statement but Aoife O’Donovan will be bringing the album to London’s Barbican on the 18th of June giving her UK audience a chance to experience a big orchestral production of all the songs on the album and other songs from throughout her career. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Aoife O’Donovan over Zoom to talk about the background to ‘All My Friends’ and what is involved in putting on the Barbican concert. While the album looks at the impact of the 19th Amendment, Aoife explains that the songs apply to all women’s rights irrespective of country and that she wrote the songs through modern eyes and from the perspective of how it has impacted her own life. When asked whether she thought folk americana was still the right genre to describe her music, Aoife confirmed that she didn’t want to be constrained by any particular genre definition, but that as folk music is music for the people she felt it was the best fit.

We last talked around the release of ‘Age of Apathy’ which has proved to be very successful. Did the level of success take you by surprise?

It’s hard to say. It was a busy record and I did a ton of touring behind that record. It did reach kind of a wider audience than my earlier albums, and it was fun to play so many shows but it hasn’t changed much in terms of my day-to-day existence. I’m still here playing my guitar and working on songs and all that.

What were your initial responses when you were approached with the commissions that laid the groundwork for ‘All My Friends’ which covers the fight for women to get the vote in America? 

It was a daunting request, I was scared to imagine what I could possibly produce that would be at all worthy. I’m glad I stuck with it, and I’m really happy with the way the album turned out. The subject matter is coinciding with other big pieces that have just been released covering the same subject matter. There’s a new Broadway musical that’s just been nominated for a bunch of Tony Awards called ‘Suffs’ and that is very similar subject matter. A lot of people are finding inspiration in this historic event, which of course is the passing of the 19th Amendment.

artwork for Aoife O'Donovan album "All My Friends"You had to get the songs right, so how did you go about writing the songs for the album?

I approached it in a very similar way to my songwriting in general, which is that I’m always trying to put myself into the mix. Even if I’m writing a song that isn’t necessarily from my perspective, I want to be able to give life to the narrator and bring my own experience to the voice I’m trying to recreate. So, I think I just tried to think how this material was relevant to my life, and to the lives of other people around me. What I think I ultimately created is folk music. When you listen to it, even if you don’t know what it is about, it will still sound like folk songs that you can find your way in regardless. That’s my goal, at least.

You have a co-production credit on your new record. Was that by accident or design?

It was a little bit of both I suppose. I worked with my husband, Eric Jacobson, and also with my mixing and recording engineer, Darren Schneider, and we were able to work very slowly on this record. We started before ‘Age of Apathy’ came out, and I think I even started working on the demos for this record before I even started writing ‘Age of Apathy’ so it’s been in the works a long time. To be able to take my time on such a big record was really helpful.

You have a multitude of musicians on the album, how easy was it to manage the logistics?

Again, I think it would have been a lot harder if I’d been doing it over two or three weeks, but because it was over two years it was easier to manage. I had a lot of help on that particular task from Eric, who was organising the recording sessions for the orchestra, and the string players, and the brass players. He was really helpful for all that.

What feedback did you get from the musicians as you recorded the record?

People were really excited about it, but obviously, people hadn’t heard it all because nobody heard the finished product until the very end.

Do you think the folk americana tag can still accommodate the breadth of your work or do you now have a broader canvas?

I think so, but I think it is also important to remember the description of folk. I’m someone who doesn’t want to be constrained by genre, or somebody else’s description of a genre, but I think folk music is the easiest one because folk is music for the people. Yes, it’s a bigger canvas and a broader canvas for sure, but I just want to write songs and sing songs and do what feels good to me in the moment. To me that is creating music and playing music that feels resonate in many different ways.

You are known for your vocals, and when you write your own songs do you write for your vocals?

How I’m going to sing it is all attached to the writing process, but I usually start with music and then lyrics come afterwards.

You close the new record with Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ from 1963. How much do you think America has changed in those 60 years?

It would be silly to say we haven’t made great strides, because we have, and I think it is important to acknowledge the work that’s been put in for not only women’s liberation but also civil rights in general and equality for all. There is such a long history of people engaging in civil disobedience, knocking on doors canvassing and working so hard to make change. I think to come at it with a negative attitude and say it is exactly the same is not fair, but I do think we need to remain hopeful and remain engaged in our political system. I think it is probably the same in the UK and elsewhere, you need to be involved and participate in your democracy, and that is regardless of your personal philosophy. Whatever your opinion is, you need to participate and vote, and you educate yourself and you figure out what your neighbours think, and you have conversations and build bridges and not burn them down. That’s my opinion.

You slipped out a cover of Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, how much of an influence is he?

I just love that record, and my covering of it took on a life of its own, I think. I did the songs and a concert over COVID in my apartment in New York. It got a lot of attention and so I released the audio of that, and then my team and I said let’s do a couple of shows, say five shows, and that turned into the vinyl craze, and I think I ended up doing twenty-five shows. They were all really, really cool, and very special.

I think he’s influenced me a lot, and it was also pretty cool putting out the Springsteen project right before ‘All My Friends’ because it is more narrative-based and it’s embodying historical characters, and obviously ‘Nebraska’ isn’t a historical document, but it is very much a time and a place. The characters provide all these different perspectives and I think it was a good warm-up for this record.

What are your thoughts on the Barbican show on 18th June?

I’m actually coming to the UK a full week before. I’ve got one little solo warm-up show in Bristol, I’m going to pop over to Ireland and Denmark, and then I will be rehearsing with the Guildhall Session Orchestra, the band and a choir. It is going to be a big orchestra production at the Barbican. It is going to be very, very special, and it will be a full set of music, not just the new album. We will do all the songs on my new album and songs from my back catalogue. I love the Barbican, I played there during the ‘Age of Apathy’ tour, it was an amazing show and I love that part of London. Anyone who knows me and is following me, knows I come to London and the UK all the time. London is one of my favourite cities in the world, and we are going to see Taylor Swift at Wembley Stadium a couple of days after the Barbican show. It’s going to be a great trip.

On the one hand, the subject matter of the new album is very American, what do you think the lesson will be for the rest of the world?

I don’t think it is especially American. I can remember first hearing about Suffragettes in ‘Mary Poppins’ when I was like three or four years old, the mother is a Suffragette. So obviously the UK has a long history of women’s rights and women’s right to vote, and it was all happening at the same time. Even back then without the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, women in other countries were always aware of what was going on in these fights, especially in the West. I did this piece in January in Glasgow with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and it got a great response from the crowd because people have their own history with suffrage and women’s rights and it is not something uniquely American. Unfortunately, a lot of countries, particularly in the West, had to deal with the same thing around a hundred years ago.

If you look forward a hundred years, where do you think women will be in society?

I continue to be hopeful, I have a daughter and I continue to put a lot of hope and stock into the next generation and really educating our children. I’m teaching them how important it is to participate in our democracy and to vote, use your rights, and use them to make a change.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks, albums or artists on your playlists?

I have a new track that’s been released recently with a friend, Kaia Kater, and she’s putting out a great record and the song I got to sing on is called ‘The Witch’, and every song she’s put out is absolutely insane. I’m really excited about Amythyst Kiah who has a new record coming out and I was listening to some advance tracks. I got to do the Grand Ole Opry with her a few weeks ago. I’ve just got back into a record from the ‘90s by the great Chris Whitley, ‘Dirt Floor’, I’ve been listening to that a lot recently.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I can’t wait to get there and see you guys.

Aoife O’Donovan’s ‘All My Friends’ is out now on Yep Roc Records.
Tickets for Aoife O’Donovan’s Barbican concert on 18th May are available here.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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