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Aoife O’Donovan interview

Aoife O'Donovan singer songwriter all my friends
Aoife O’Donovan by Sasha Israel

Aoife (pro: “EE-fuh”) O’Donovan has been a standout in the Americana, folk, and bluegrass worlds for more than 20 years. She’s been nominated for five Grammys, winning in 2019 with the song “Call My Name”, recorded as part of the trio I’m With Her (with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins).

Since 2010, O’Donovan has released ten EPs and albums. The Colorado Sound presented her this past October in Boulder when she performed her Aoife Plays Nebraska album, honoring the Bruce Springsteen release. We present her again on March 30 at the Newman Center on the Denver University (DU) campus in Denver.

Recently, Aoife and I had a lively conversation together. We spoke of her new album, All My Friends, which looks at the past, present, and future of the Women’s Movement, as well as a cover song she chose as a coda to the collection. Not a surprise that after she and her mother spent time in her ancestral Ireland, she is now doing the same with her daughter. We finished by discussing the wonderful sense of community she feels in the Americana and bluegrass world.

Below are highlights from our interview.


The Colorado Sound: There’s somebody you reference a number of times in the album, and I want you to talk about her: Carrie Chapman Catt. Can you give us a brief history lesson of who she is and why she’s important to you on this album.

Aoife O’Donovan: Well, I can’t really speak as a historian and I don’t want anybody to really take this as a history lesson per se, but I made this record very inspired by suffrage, by the passage of the 19th Amendment. I was asked to write a piece commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, and when I got into the weeds trying to figure out, how am I going to distill this gigantic movement that spanned decades into 20 minutes of music in the style of folk song? So it was a bit daunting.

How I settled on using Carrie Chapman Catt as a focal point was I got a book called The Woman’s Hour by Elaine Weiss, and I was doing a bunch of casual research, and really it seemed that this woman, there was a lot of information about her online. There were a lot of her speeches, letters, archival text that really resonated with me. And that’s why I decided to use her as a figure that I then really used my own imagination and artistic license to flesh out as really like a fictionalized version of herself, I guess I should say.

I read most of her Crisis speech from 100 years ago, and I couldn’t help but feel that that could be written and delivered today.

Honestly, that was the speech I read, and I wrote a song very inspired by Crisis, even using some of her direct text in that speech. And exactly, I felt like, “Wow, how was this written in 1916? This is insane.” Really, there’s a part where she implores aging senators to step aside to make room for new blood and new ideas, and of course, it’s almost hilarious to think like, “Wow, this was still happening today in 2024,” it’s crazy. So it was inspiring, a little bit disappointing that we’re still facing so many of these inequalities. But also I really enjoyed working on this piece, and it’s been very cathartic to finish the record and to be ready to put it out in such an interesting time in history.

Your song “Daughters” feels like you were not just looking back but looking ahead. That line where you write, “Daughters of our daughters, which causes us to futurize,” I feel like for me, what I heard was you were trying to inspire people today with the past to lay the foundation for the future.

That’s exactly it, and I think it’s even laying the foundation, that specific image is at the beginning of the song…it’s almost like I imagine that song being in the apocalypse. You’re sitting there, and it’s black all around you, and somebody lights a match and there’s light and you say like, “Wow, everything that was around me was once this tiny spark and sometimes it blossoms into fire, and sometimes it’s immediately quelled,” but thinking about, who are the women who laid the stones?

We think of all of these great things we take so for granted, and who are the women that carefully laid – not the literal bricks of course, because women weren’t bricklayers in those days – but who paved the way for us, and who will continue to pave the way for the daughters of our daughters? And in that chorus, there’s almost like a canon happening with the San Francisco Children’s Chorus behind me, and it’s just almost this canonical thing of driving it home. This is all a circle, and the daughters of the daughters and the daughters and the mothers of the mothers of the mothers…there’s a lot of that on the record.

There is, and I feel like “Someone to Follow,” another song on the album, is written for your daughter. I felt like you were writing something to her at a time that she wouldn’t understand it now, but she’ll pick it up 20 years from now and see this time as motivation, strength, and support for her future.

It’s true, and”Someone to Follow” initially really started as me trying to go back into the 1800s and think about what Carrie Chapman Catt’s mother would have been thinking, and these really strong and bold and brave women from a different time, who were their mothers? And what were their mothers thinking? Were their mothers encouraging them? Certainly, some of them were, and some of them probably weren’t, because it was scary to be a powerful woman in those days. And so that song, I really did start writing with that in mind. Those are words that I think every parent can relate to. You want your children to be leaders, and you want your children to be the ones who are fighting the good fight, and I think every parent can relate to that.

And ‘fighting the good fight’ takes me to another idea, that the lyrics talk a lot about war analogies, fighting battles, even the term ‘into the fray’ is in one of the songs. What is your perspectives on that?

This chapter in US history…something shocking to me as I got deeper into it was the fact that World War I was going on when the 19th Amendment was passed. And I think to many people, one of the ways in which they were able to get so much support was by convincing the American public that women were part of the war measure, were part of the way that the US was going to participate in this war.

And up until that point, I don’t think that the average citizen would’ve thought, “Oh, women are instrumental to our participation in the war,” but they really were. And then that track three of the album is called “War Measure,” and that was from a letter that Woodrow Wilson, who is himself a very controversial character, but his role in suffrage was indisputable. He was for it – although like I said, very controversial, very complicated, had a history of racism, eugenics. I’m not putting him on a pedestal in any way, but I do think that it’s interesting that he wrote this letter to Carrie Chapman Catt and he was saying, “I got your letter, and you’re right, women are a war measure and if they’re going to be helping us win the war, we need to be giving them the right to vote.”

Almost the Rosie the Riveters of World War I.

Exactly.

You’ve been a songwriter for two decades now. Given the scope of this album, did you feel that you had to work harder or differently on the lyrics of this album, because of what you wanted the entire album to be?

I wouldn’t say harder or… I feel like I’m always working hard on lyrics. It’s not something that I ever phone in. But in this record, I think obviously when you do something that has some sort of historical bent, people are going to come at you and say, “You didn’t do this right,” or, “That’s actually not factually correct,” or, “This didn’t happen.” But I think that it’s very important when you’re a songwriter, or a writer at all, you have to give the writer license to do what it is that they want to do and to achieve their artistic goal. That’s sort of why I’m always very careful to remind people that this is not a historical document.

Carrie Chapman Catt is a figure that I latched onto because she was so inspiring to me, but in no way am I trying to claim that I’m an expert on any of this. It’s just sort of a moment in time, but I wanted to work really hard on taking her ideas and these sort of speeches and modernizing them, so to speak, to really help them serve the song themselves.

So, I think in the song “Crisis,” where we talked about her speech and she has this part like, “Oh, America, look up at that North Star. One day it’ll come down. The time has come…” That whole part where she’s saying, “The woman’s hour has struck, the woman’s hour is now, the woman’s hour is here,” she really said all that, but I sort of had to fill in to make it sort of fit exactly in the song to maybe adding words here and there, taking away words here and there, to turn it into a song, and not just me singing monotone notes where I’m reading text. You don’t want it to be like that.

Well, like any artist who is going to interpret history, interpret real life, they’re going to speak from their heart, not from the page.

Exactly.

You end the album with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” What was it about that song that made it fit for you to put a final stamp on your album?

It’s the last track and in some ways it’s kind of a coda to these eight songs that are very much in one world, and maybe for some people it kind of comes out of nowhere. It’s almost like a hidden track, except it’s not hidden.

I was asked in 2017 to give a concert on the lawn of the Capitol, and this is the first year of the Trump presidency, and I was doing a bunch of original music with the National Symphony Orchestra, and my friend Gabriel Kahane, who’s a great singer and songwriter and composer, was going to arrange some songs for the orchestra, and he suggested that we do an arrangement of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and he wrote this gorgeous arrangement. We did it once with the orchestra, and that was the only time I ever did it.

I then really wanted to record this. As I was finishing up All My Friends, I was like, “You know what? I really think that this song needs to be on this record.” And we ended up starting it with a snippet from later in the arrangement, where the Battle Hymn of the Republic is playing in this very tense way under this instrumental section in Gabe’s arrangement. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, of course, is a song that everybody knows, but what people may not know is that the original text that people know -0 “Glory, glory, hallelujah, and my eyes have seen the coming” – it was written by a woman who was a prominent abolitionist.

It’s an event that Bob Dylan…he did not fictionalize it, but he definitely interpreted the event and wrote a backstory and kind of flowered it up to make it into a gorgeous folk song. But the facts remain, a woman was killed in a hotel bar, and the guy who did it got a slap on the wrist. And it’s just sort of like, “What is this democracy for which the world is battling?” And that’s another lyric from Carrie Chapman Catt that I sing many times on the album, and I’m quoting her now, not even quoting myself, but you just have to ask yourself, it’s 2024, where are we going and how are we going to get there?

I know that Dylan and Joan Baez were important to you when you were first learning music. For any upcoming musicians, are there any current artists you suggest they listen to?

Oh, gosh. I’m so inspired by so many of my peers. I’ve been loving the new Bonny Light Horseman, I love Fruit Bats, I love Hiss Golden Messenger, some new Jason Isbell songs are fabulous, the new Sarah Jarosz record – my dear friend and colleague – Nickel Creek. I’m so lucky to be in such a tight-knit musical community. And the truth is I do end up listening mostly to my friends.

All My Friends.

It’s not a lie. If you look through my Spotify, it’s probably like 90% Taylor Swift from my daughter, who hijacks my Spotify playlist, and then a lot of my own friends.

I find that the bluegrass and Americana community really is a community, very unique in its warmth, in its support, in its family feel. What does that bluegrass and Americana community mean to you?

I think about this all the time, and not just in regards to music, but in regards to life – making a life somewhere and finding your community, and how important it’s to make actual, real, physical, emotional, musical, personal connections with people. I feel so lucky to have come up in the bluegrass and old time and Americana world, so to speak, because it does seem to attract a really warm group of people, and it’s also very multi-generational.

Do you still get to go back to Ireland on a regular basis?

I would say at least twice a year every year, but it’s really important for me to bring my daughter and my husband to the place where I have made such happy memories growing up and just feel so lucky to be able to do that.

Aoife O’Donovan plays March 30 at the Newman Center on the DU campus in Denver, Colo.


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