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On The String: No Apathy Detected On Aoife O’Donovan's Newest

Aoife O'Donovan
Omar Cruz
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Certainly one of the most anticipated Americana releases of this early new year, Aoife O’Donovan’s Age Of Apathy arrives this Friday from Yep Roc Records. The songwriter has been vividly visible in recent years, recording and touring with the elite Goat Rodeo Sessions ensemble while her trio I’m With Her won Grammy and Americana awards. But in Episode 195 of The String, we focus on her first new solo album since In The Magic Hour six years ago.

O’Donovan dove into the project after moving in late 2020 from her long-time home in New York to Orlando, FL, where her husband was busy in his job as music director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. The change of geography worked for her.

“I did find myself for the first six months of the pandemic, just being pretty creatively defeated, if you will. I just sort of felt like I had nothing to say. I was kind of scrambling to do live streams and create content. As well as take care of my child,” she says, adding a sincere disclaimer about the struggles of many others who’ve had it harder. “But all that to say, when I got to Florida in September, and kind of found space and sunlight, I felt this profound shift where I was able to look back at the previous six months and start uncovering some snippets of songs I sort of started during those that time and was able to kind of finish those songs as well as really come up with a kind of a thesis for what the record was a kind of, or just a mood that I was able to sort of maintain for the entire writing process.”

The new city brought her in contact with recording engineer Darren Schneider, who integrated O’Donovan’s creative process into the classes he teaches at Full Sail University, the audio/video production school in nearby Winter Park. The met through her husband and he offered her empty studio space as she worked out elements of her emerging record.

“We had a great vibe,” she says. “And after a couple of sessions, we decided to livestream the audio sessions to the students of Full Sail. So it kind of became this interactive thing where students could watch me kind of creating these tracks and listen along to Darren and me as we were kind of figuring out what comes next.”

Then they got really remote when O’Donovan asked revered musician Joe Henry to produce the album from his base in coastal Maine. “It was just a really cool process. We'd send him stuff. He would send it to musicians that he wanted to play on it. They would send it back. Darren and I would kind of mix it in. And it took a long time to make a record in that style, but it ended up producing something that was very different than I think I expected.”

Aoife O'Donovan

O’Donovan emerged as one of the standout artists from a unique confluence of young roots musicians in Boston in the early 2000s who’d been drawn together by the city’s music conservatories. She’d grown up in a highly musical home in Newton, MA and attended the New England Conservatory, and by the time she graduated she was already part of the folk collective the Wayfaring Strangers and the lead singer of the new and hotly innovative string band Crooked Still. They were leaders in a scene that also cultivated the careers of Sarah Jarosz and Sierra Hull, plus bands such as Joy Kills Sorrow, The Bee Eaters and Lake Street Dive. Bluegrass and newgrass pickers from that time and place became members of Punch Brothers, the Infamous Stringdusters and more.

Even as she launched her solo career in the 2010s, O’Donovan was expanding her world as a valued collaborator. She sang and recorded with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. She was a staple on A Prairie Home Companion and its successor Live From Here. She was the vocalist tapped to be part of the prestigious Goat Rodeo Sessions ensemble with YoYo Ma and Chris Thile. And her side trio I’m With Her - with singers Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins - became a roots audience favorite and won a Grammy Award.

All this because, let’s be plain about it, Aoife O’Donovan has a stunning voice, somewhat in the vein of Allison Krauss’s famous purity of tone but with more texture. Her sense of phrasing and dynamics is rare and she’s brought a totally original point of view to American folk music. The limpid textures, stretched structures and floating rhythms she established on her early solo records are back and even more refined on Age Of Apathy. And there are lyrics to ponder for years to come. She traces an arc that lines up with her adult life, the disillusionment of 9/11’s aftermath through the traumas of recent years and her own creative rebirth that fueled these eleven songs. Progressive folk stars Allison Russell and Madison Cunningham make guest appearances, including Cunningham on the newest music video from the record, "Passengers."

Aoife O'Donovan - "Passengers" (ft. Madison Cunningham) [Official Music Video]