Solitude and songwriting

Irish-American singer finds inspiration in time alone

Aoife O’Donovan

Aoife O’Donovan

Photo by Justin Higuchi via Flickr

KZFR presents Aoife O’Donovan Friday, June 30, 7:30 p.m., at Chico Women’s Club. Alli Battaglia opens.
Tickets: $20 (available at Chico Paper Co. or
Chico Women’s Club
592 E. Third St.

‘I think time alone is time well-spent.”

That’s an idea Irish-American singer/songwriter Aoife O’Donovan takes to heart when it comes to creativity. At first glance, one might find that hard to believe. Besides her decade fronting the progressive bluegrass group Crooked Still and side project Sometymes Why, O’Donovan has spent summers traveling with A Prairie Home Companion, as part of the radio show’s musical cohort, and formed a supergroup with Grammy-winning Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) called I’m With Her. On top of that, there’s the endless momentum of her solo work.

“A couple weeks ago, I was on tour in Europe by myself, but I wasn’t driving around. I was schlepping all my stuff on the streets of whatever European city, up 10 flights of stairs onto a train, and that kind of leaves a lot less time for being truly alone and singing in the car or thinking about new music,” O’Donovan said during a recent interview. “I’m a really social person and I come from a big family, which is why it is nice to sort of step away and remember I enjoy the thoughts I have when I’m alone.”

It’s those solo moments that formed the base of her 2016 studio release, In the Magic Hour, a collection of clean songs that balance pop precision and folk tendencies that nod toward O’Donovan’s Irish roots. It’s O’Donovan’s voice that illuminates these songs, with its Alison Krauss-tinged angelic clarity and quick bluegrass dexterity, paired with tasteful acoustic undertones that seem to make the 10 songs glide by.

O’Donovan wrote the album shortly after her grandfather’s passing, which finds its way into the lyrical matter on songs such as “Magic Hour” and a step further by finding his actual voice layered into the tail end of “Donal Óg.”

“I think it just felt natural, and I of course didn’t want it to feel exploitative or anything like that. But, like I said, I’m very close to my family and his passing was certainly not tragic by any means—he was a very old man who had a beautiful life—but I think the reason why I wanted to bring his actual voice in is because I reference it in a couple other songs, and it just seemed fitting,” she said.

O’Donovan spent 2016 crisscrossing the U.S., and through those extensive tours the songs began to grow.

“When I was on tour with the band last year with a great drummer and guitar player, they definitely changed shape and took on completely new life, and that always happens when you go on tour with a record and you’re open to it,” O’Donovan said.

That new life led to Man in the Neon Coat: Live From Cambridge, a concert album (released last fall) dipping into the highlights of O’Donovan’s catalog. Though there aren’t any strong diversions from their studio predecessors, the live takes have a stripped-down, well-worn sturdiness, and O’Donovan’s vocal delivery remains pristine throughout the performance.

O’Donovan will be bringing an intimate solo version of those songs to the Chico Women’s Club on Friday (June 30).

“Looking forward to coming back to Chico, always good to be in California in the summer,” O’Donovan said.

Following her solo tour, O’Donovan will be hopping back on the road with A Prairie Home Companion, and I’m With Her will be touring with Punch Brothers and Julian Lage.