The Glad Tears of Aoife O’Donovan

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Photos by Joanna Chattman

“I’m really happy to be home,” says Aoife O’Donovan after she arrives at a coffee shop in South Slope, Brooklyn, just a short walk from where she lives. It’s late afternoon on a Friday in mid-December, and once she gets through a few more interviews, O’Donovan will finally get to enjoy a couple weeks of rest.

2015 has been a busy year, to say the least, for the 33-year-old singer-songwriter; she performed in 26 states, formed Americana supergroup I’m With Her with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz, finished recording her solo album, played in eight countries (including Japan) on three continents, co-wrote and performed a 12-minute piece of orchestral music set to poetry and toured the US with Glen Hansard. In the new year, O’Donovan will fly to Ireland and begin another cycle of non-stop touring, but for now, she’s home.

Despite her hectic schedule, O’Donovan somehow still finds ample time for the type of recreational musical engagements for which one imagines a professional musician eventually becomes too busy. Later this evening, she’s hosting a small show at her house. Last night, she went to see the Sweetback Sisters, a local country band from Brooklyn, perform their annual Christmas show. Tomorrow afternoon, she’s going to see a chamber music concert at Town Hall. After that, she’s thinking about attending a modern dance interpretation of The Nutcracker later in the evening.

“It sounds so cheesy,” says O’Donovan, “but I love playing music so much.”

Over the past 15 years, Aoife O’Donovan has played with a half-dozen or so different groups, most notably with New England bluegrass revivalists Crooked Still, but these days she’s entirely focused on her solo career. Her brand new record, In The Magic Hour, is the follow up to Fossils, her 2013 debut that announced the singer as a formidable solo artist and earned her a fan in Barack Obama. Without explanation or warning, the President included the album’s sultry highlight “Red & White & Blue & Gold” on his “Evening” summer playlist in 2015, right between Al Green and Lauryn Hill. “My manager emailed someone at the White House and was like, ‘Do you know how this happened?’” says O’Donovan. “And they responded, ‘No, he really just picked them himself.’ I love the image of Obama really getting down on the night time playlist to some sexy country jams.”

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In The Magic Hour is O’Donovan’s finest work, a collection of deeply personal tales of family history and childhood memories mixed with adult revelations and self-assured musings. The singer, who grew up in Boston but spent many of her childhood summers in Ireland, says several of the songs were largely inspired by her grandfather’s recent passing. Those Irish summers feature prominently on the record, inspiring both the title track and “Donal Og,” a rendition of an old ballad that O’Donovan’s father (both her parents are musicians) used to sing to her as a child. The album version of “Donal Og” even features an iPhone clip of O’Donovan’s grandfather singing “The West’s Awake,” another Irish traditional, during the song’s outro.

The death of her grandfather left O’Donovan meditating on her own youth. She decided to use a picture of her and her cousin on an Irish beach in the late dusk of summer for the album’s cover. The photograph was taken during what the singer calls “the magic hour,” or, as she puts it in the title track, “past the time of the dinner bell, but before the shine of Orion’s Belt.” In that song, O’Donovan channels grief and loss into a reflection on faith, family and personal growth, eventually arriving at the all-too-relatable conclusion: “I wish I was young again.”

O’Donovan’s voice has a gentle warmth, a reassuring soulfulness that most often gets compared to singers like Alison Krauss (who recorded O’Donovan’s song “Lay My Burden Down” in 2011) and Shawn Colvin. Such a voice lends itself well to the soothing, familial material on In The Magic Hour, which was recorded in Portland, Oregon over the course of seven months.

One of the most striking features of the album is the singer’s sophisticated use of color and highly detailed imagery. “On this record, I was really trying to create a scene and a very vivid image from start to finish,” she says. “The first line is ‘see that gull on the old sea wall.’ I want people to see. I want them to be staring at a real thing when they’re listening to it. They’re not metaphorical images.”

It’s a pleasure to talk to O’Donovan about her new record, in part because she is so genuinely excited about it herself. Folk singers sometimes have a tendency to be self-deprecating, if not falsely humble, about their own work, so O’Donovan’s confidence in her new material comes as a refreshing change of course. She’s quite excited about the lyrics to her new song “Detour Sign,” and she’s particularly proud of the recording of “Jupiter,” which she describes as an “apocalyptic love letter to the end of the world.”

“Earth’s shifting, temperatures rise,” she sings in the latter, chronicling a world of stark destruction and chaos, “But I’ll never forget the way your skin tastes in July.” It’s a classic O’Donovan lyrical turn, finding compassion in the unlikeliest of sources.

But O’Donovan hardly limits her tireless enthusiasm about great songwriting to her own work. She’s ebullient when I mention “A Hundred Miles,” the unreleased Gillian Welch song that I’m With Her has been performing in recent shows after Welch offered the song to Sara Watkins. “That song has one of the greatest lines in it,” she exclaims, before reciting the lyric from memory: “‘See the road stretched out to the old home place/ See a glad tear standing on Grandma’s face.’

“That line is so intense, it makes me want to cry,” she says. “When we sing that song live, I’m the one who sings that verse, so I always want to make sure people understand the phrase ‘glad tear,’ because it is such a beautiful line.” 

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With its romantic devotion and eternal commitment in the face of chaos, “Jupiter” is a rarity on In The Magic Hour. Despite its many warm recollections of family gatherings and childhood companionship, at its heart, the album often feels like an exploration of the idea of spending time alone, of accepting, appreciating and celebrating the state of being by one’s self. Listen to the record and it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer number of characters that are leaving, or else saying goodbye to one another, throughout its 10 songs. There’s the restless vagabond love interest in “Porch Light” who “kissed my cheek and left me on a city street”; the adventurous couple heading South in “Hornets,” whose journey gets interrupted when the narrator’s companion decides to bail on the trip and head back; and then there’s the song titled, simply, “Not The Leaving.” 

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