What She Wants From Herself
Aoife O’Donovan’s Irish roots and American upbringing have met in music that honors both without being burdened by either.
Aoife O’Donovan is a Grammy-winning songwriter, known as the lead singer of folk band Crooked Still and for a celebrated solo career.
O’Donovan was born into an Irish-American family in Boston in 1982 and raised in nearby Newton, Massachusetts. She studied contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she met bassist Corey DiMario. Together with two other Boston-area students, the pair formed Crooked Still in 2001, and released their first of five albums, Hop High, in 2004.
O’Donovan began recording as a solo artist in 2010 and put out her debut album, Fossils, in 2013. Her fourth full-length studio recording, Age of Apathy, came out in 2022.
She has collaborated with a variety of acclaimed folk musicians, accompanied Garrison Keilloron on several A Prairie Home Companion tours, and performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony, and other classical ensembles. She is a cofounder of all-woman folk supergroup I’m With Her. The trio received a 2019 Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song for the song “Call My Name.”
Aoife O’Donovan grew up in a family that was closely connected, though it spanned an ocean.
Aoife O’Donovan: I think this is one of the things that my parents gave to us, which is just the real reverence for the importance of family. And we’re close to all of our cousins, and they just really make the effort to keep those ties really strong.
O’Donovan’s father was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in 1980. Growing up, she spent summers with her extended family in County Cork on the south coast of Ireland. Those were big gatherings, says O’Donovan. She’s one of more than two dozen grandchildren, all of whom would sleep in bunk beds in a single room at the family’s Clonakilty cottage.
O’Donovan: I would say I’m closer to many of my cousins than many people I know are to their siblings. I mean, like much closer to my cousins. I mean, I speak to them several times, like all the time. Once every couple of weeks, and before the pandemic would see them at least once a year, and we’re all planning a big trip to Ireland.
O’Donovan has called these summers magical. Over the years, the magic has morphed, but not vanished. As a songwriter, she tries to create a similar spell with music, and it’s worked. She’s won a Grammy and collaborated with some great musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, and Edgar Meyer, as well as several major symphony orchestras. Yet O’Donovan says she can be daunted when collaborating at such a high level.
O’Donovan: Often I’m like, why am I here? Because these people are so much better than me. But I think that that’s probably how a lot of people feel. If you’re in the room with Yo-Yo Ma, you’re like, why am I here? He doesn’t need any of us. I feel like I just strive to surround myself with people who are better than me and then I strive to meet them on their level.
When she wasn’t spending summers in Ireland, O’Donovan was in Massachusetts, where family was just as important in informing her music as it was in shaping her character. In both of these homes, she learned the fine art of focused listening, of tuning in fully so as not to miss any of the finer details, spoken and otherwise.
O’Donovan: When I think about just mythology, the Irish, the way of telling a story, the way of, even my dad, who will just tell stories, like, I mean, just kind of just a casual thing you do. Just the way to sort of spin a tale and to really pull in all the elements and just to be aware of everything that’s going on in the room or in a song. It’s not, and sometimes it’s not even what you’re saying, but it’s what you’re having somebody else imagine. That’s my favorite thing about songwriting is that you give people music, you give people melody and chords, and you give people words, but there’s so much there that you’re not saying, but you are thinking.
O’Donovan’s family also helped her to see the connections music could create. Her siblings and parents played together and often welcomed others to join in.
O’Donovan: I definitely idealize that. As a teenager, my parent’s social life really revolving around music, and we would have these Christmas parties every year where it would be hundreds of people, literally hundreds of people on the Saturday before Christmas singing Christmas carols around the piano. Like, every obscure Christmas carol you have never heard of was sung in harmony around the piano, my mom at the piano.
O’Donovan went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, where in 2001 she helped form the bluegrass band Crooked Still. She wrote songs and was the lead singer of the group, which has described itself as defiantly non-traditional. She’s also been part of other groups, including the folk trio Sometimes Why and I’m With Her, a collaboration with fellow folk and bluegrass musicians Sarah Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. This was also the time when she was building her skills and the discipline to sustain and grow them.
O’Donovan: My voice is much more reliable now or in my thirties than it was in my twenties just simply because I party less than I used to. So I think there were certainly times where I would be at the end of a Crooked Still tour and we would’ve been up all night, every night, for two weeks and drinking beers—
AJC: As was your duty at that time in your life.
O’Donovan: For sure. So I think I definitely experienced more kind of hoarseness or less facility within the range, but I think you hit a certain age and you just don’t really do that anymore, I guess.
As Aoife O’Donovan cultivated that more reliable voice, she was also honing her skills as a songwriter, with several solo albums: 2013’s Fossils and 2016’s In the Magic Hour. Both draw on her upbringing. Fossils features several folk songs O’Donovan sang growing up, and throughout In the Magic Hour she reflects on her childhood trips to Ireland. Her latest record, Age of Apathy, may mark a particular turning point. Released in early 2022, the album originated in the disorienting early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Donovan: I had such a creative lull from March of 2020 until September of 2020. I think many people did. And it was not, it was nothing compared to the devastation worldwide, me not being able to write songs or whatever, but that said, when I finally was able to sort of like find my way out of that, I feel like I saw a lot of stuff in a new light, kind of after this period of feeling like what am I doing, why am I doing it? Because performing is one thing, and that’s definitely always been my main thing, my main focus, and much more so than songwriting or creating things. And I feel like now I’m getting a little bit more comfortable with being on the other side of that. Like being a writer and figuring out what I wanna say, whereas before, I think even before the pandemic, I would’ve been like, yeah, I’m a singer and I write songs, but like, I’m a performer, and that’s it.
That newfound belief in her writing is evident in Age of Apathy. One of the songs, “Galahad”, explores the tension that can arise when different voices approach the same story. In this case, the tale of the mythical medieval knight Sir Galahad. O’Donovan wrote her own take on Galahad and his fellowship in King Arthur’s Round Table, and contrasted it with a poem also about Galahad by the 19th century British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, an excerpt of which is read for us here by the highly distinguished former US poet laureate Billy Collins.
(Excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad”, read by Billy Collins)
I muse on joy that will not cease,
Pure spaces clothed in living beams,
Pure lilies of eternal peace,
Whose odours haunt my dreams;
And, stricken by an angel’s hand,
This mortal armour that I wear,
This weight and size, this heart and eyes,
Are touch’d, are turn’d to finest air.
O’Donovan: I was just sitting in my sun room one night where I wrote a lot of the songs on this record, and I kind of came up with that little guitar riff. And as I do sometimes, I write down just phrases that pop into my head, and the phrase that I had written down maybe a year ago is, “You’re a white knight on a dark horse.” And I kind of tried to reimagine my own version of that tale where the woman was sort of not really trusting that he was who he said he was or that, I read the Tennyson poem that same night and I was like, oh, this is cool. I can kind of play into this, and it’s my word against Tennyson’s.
AJC: And it’s a heroine who sings that, not Galahad, right?
O’Donovan: Exactly, exactly. It’s sort of, yeah, it’s sort of they say somebody told me you were stronger than a hundred men, but it’s my word against Tennyson and I’m alive, I’m alive. Like, I’m the one who’s actually, I’m the one who’s actually here telling the story.
O’Donovan sees herself in opposition to Galahad in her rendition, but her own journey also had its own legendary quality. Galahad was on a quest for the holy grail and its elusive magical powers. Aoife O’Donovan, too, has long been in pursuit of her own unique destiny.
AJC: What did you want to be in 1993?
O’Donovan: I mean, literally in 1993, what was I? 11 years old. I think I wanted to be what I am right now, which is, I mean, looking back on my life, it does feel like the inevitable, which is a singer and a musician.
Aoife O’Donovan knows that this sense of inevitability is unusual, and acknowledges that she’s been lucky in life, but she’s not rested on the laurels of good fortune. Her life has not been defined by adversity, but by a drive to make the most of the time and talent she’s been given and cultivated.
O’Donovan: I’ve never been somebody who thought that only great art could come from a tortured-
AJC: From misery, yeah.
O’Donovan: From misery. It’s not, it’s just not true. But you can have inner misery or even inner turmoil, or you can have a tumultuous heart without being from a sort of tortured set of circumstances. No part of me looks back longingly at the past, although I can look back on it and say that was really fun and those were some good times, but I think this is what happens to people. You become more yourself as you get older.
One of the greatest virtues a musician can strive for is to be a good listener, and Aoife O’Donovan long ago learned to keep her ears wide open, taking in the big and small moments that add up to the transformative magic that is all around, which is there for all of us if we can just open our senses to it.