Brooklyn-based Indie Americana songstress Aoife O’Donovan’s sophomore LP, In the Magic Hour, is simultaneously a celebration of solitude and familial roots. The album’s composition began at the time of O’Donovan’s grandfather’s passing. The inspiration for the tone of the 10 tracks seems to be equally indebted to seemingly perfect childhood memories of times spent with family in Ireland, the realization that things are rarely as perfect (or eternal) as they may seem to a young soul, and the feelings associated with the experience of being able to travel the world, all the while remaining more or less alone (for better and worse… but primarily better). The album serves as the follow-up to O’Donovan’s full-length solo debut, Fossils, which hit shelves almost exactly (to the day) three years ago.
Although her solo career is still relatively fresh, Aoife O’Donovan has been making music professionally for about a decade and a half now, perhaps most famously for lead vocalist of progressive bluegrass outfit Crooked Still, who existed between the years 2001 and 2011. She’s also a member of trios Sometimes Why and I’m With Her (with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz), with whom she’ll be reuniting in the very near future. In fact, she’s currently on a pretty insanely extensive tour that will apparently take her into next year, which includes dates with Bruce Hornsby, Garrison Keillor, The Wood Brothers, and Lake Street Dive, along with a plethora of major festivals and a handful of intimate headlining shows. However, she did recently find some downtime to chat with me about her latest album and how she feels about all the time she’s spending on the road.
Izzy Cihak: So your sophomore solo album, In the Magic Hour, came out early this year and you’ve spent quite a bit of the year touring. What have been your highlights of 2016, so far?
Aoife O’Donovan: The most fun thing for me has been playing live with Steve Nistor and Anthony Da Costa. The songs and arrangements on ITMH were really born in the studio, so to have to come up with new ways to play them as a trio has been an exciting challenge. We’ve been exploring the lower registers of both the drums and the electric guitar, providing bass where there is no actual bass. It’s been a blast.
Izzy: How do you feel as though In the Magic Hour compares to your debut solo full-length, Fossils, both in terms of sound and just the process of writing and recording it? I understand the writing process was pretty solitary.
Aoife: I’m glad that my two albums are pretty different. Fossils consisted of songs that had mostly been kicking around for a few years, with a few numbers finished right before the sessions. Every song on Fossils existed with a live band arrangement – I sort of knew how I wanted it to go before we went into the studio. With the new album, the songs are from one batch – there wasn’t a ton of time between Fossils’ release date (June ’13) and the first session for ITMH (Sept ’14). I had just spent a ton of time touring alone, which gave me more time on the road to spend writing. It was a treat. In terms of the recording, Fossils was tracked live with my NYC band: Jacob Silver on bass, Ryan Scott on guitar, and Robin MacMillan on drums. We piled into the studio with Tucker Martine and just kind of did our thing, which was a great way to make the first record. With ITMH, it was just Tucker and me for the first session, making tracks and building them up from the bones of the songs.
Izzy: I really like the album, but I especially love “Porch Light,” which is one of my favorite songs of the year, so I have to ask how that particular track came about?
Aoife: “Porch Light” is the first song I wrote for the new record. I started it while in North Carolina over the summer of 2013 – the images of porches and yellow moons were everywhere. We started that track with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, and then added bass and drums. Little by little, tiny sparkles were added, such as Eyvind Kang’s inspired fiddle-like viola, Tim Young’s electric guitar, Tony Furtado’s banjo on the choruses, and my favorite, Chris Thile’s harmony vocal. I love how that track turned out.
Izzy: In addition to the dates you’ve already played in 2016, you have a ton of upcoming shows, including a number at some pretty massive venues. Are there any gigs you’re especially excited to play, or just cities you’re especially excited to visit? I see you’re playing a handful of shows with Lake Street Dive, who I love, in addition to a lot of pretty major festivals.
Aoife: We just finished a crazy weekend of festivals, kicking off at Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio. It’s always a blast to get to run into friends on the road, and get inspired by what they’re doing. We played two shows with the Wood Brothers a few days ago, and it made us super excited for our big hometown show in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, where we get to open for them again! I’m especially excited about Newport Folk Festival. It’s so legendary- and for good reason. I love it there. And the LSD shows will be great – I went to college with those guys and have been a fan since the early, early days.
Izzy: On a related note, what is your favorite kind of show to play? Do you like the super intimate shows, where you can really bond with a relatively small audience, or do you like the huge shows, where you may have to share the spotlight, but possibly reach a larger number of people? Or are you charmed by certain aspects of each? Your music would seem to lend itself to many fairly diverse settings.
Aoife: I love it all, I really do. Sometimes the smaller shows are the scarier ones! I love playing shows to people who may have never heard me before, but become new fans. I like shows where the audience is hungry for music – sometimes you get that more in the smaller towns, where people might not have as much access to concerts as they would in say, NYC.
Izzy: What can be expected of your upcoming live dates? Does it vary night to night, or based on setting, or are there certain things that you always like to keep in mind?
Aoife: We’ve been throwing some older songs into the mix, some more deep cuts from Fossils, as well as some new covers. And as the summer goes on, there may be some new originals in there as well.
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you? What are you hoping and planning for after your touring in 2016 wraps up? Anything you’re especially excited for, or are you just excited to continue touring?
Aoife: The touring will continue into 2017! I can’t wait to get back to Alaska in November, and hope to go across the pond at least one more time in 2016. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz in a few weeks at the Kennedy Center too… Lots of fun stuff ahead!