n paper, Aoife O’Donovan is the busiest woman in the music business. If we believe Wikipedia and other online informational sources, O’Donovan is still active in her longtime band Crooked Still and her side project Sometymes Why, in addition to managing her flourishing solo career.
In reality, O’Donovan is not juggling those particular chainsaws. She’s toured regularly herself since her 2013 solo debut, the acclaimed Fossils, and has spent recent spare time recording her sophomore album (again produced by the renowned Tucker Martine), slated for release early next year. Still, she is not the perpetual-motion machine of Wikilore.
“Crooked Still is a huge part of my musical past — we’re actually doing (Colorado festival) RockyGrass this summer — but (there are) no immediate plans to resurrect the recording aspect of that band, “ O’Donovan says from her Brooklyn, N.Y. home. “We’ll see. Never say never. Sometymes Why is in the same place.”
O’Donovan does have a new side project that’s risen to prominence in her busy schedule: mini-supergroup I’m With Her, which coalesced after O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins toured together earlier this year. They planned to call their circuit “The I’m With Her Tour,” but instead used the name for their new alliance. Capitalizing on its unmistakable chemistry, the trio will festival hop this summer, playing new material currently in progress.
“I’m coming to Cincinnati from Los Angeles, where I’ll be rehearsing, writing and playing a show with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz,” O’Donovan says. “We’re doing a bunch of festivals all summer, and that’s sort of the bulk of my summer touring. We’re trying our hand at writing music together, which we haven’t done as a trio, so hopefully it will yield some good songs and confidence. Those two women are incredible songwriters, and we’ve got a great working style so far. I think writing together will go well. The term ‘supergroup’ is a little daunting, but it is a super group of people, and I’m really excited to be part of it.”
O’Donovan’s next Cincinnati stop will be a solo show … of sorts. She’ll join the Cincinnati Pops at Riverbend on July 4 for their annual Red, White & Boom! music/Rozzi fireworks presentation, along with the May Festival Chorus, baritone Nmon Ford and the USO Show Troupe.
“It’s just going to be me,” O’Donovan jokes. “Well, me and a hundred people. But it’ll be really fun. We’ll be doing some music from the ‘American Originals’ program we did in January and some July Fourth standards — ‘This Land is Your Land,’ ‘America the Beautiful’ and an original song of mine called ‘Red & White & Blue & Gold.’ It’s going to be great to work with those guys again.”
O’Donovan has been having fun with music since her Massachusetts childhood, when her love of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez led to exploring Folk music. She also spent summers in Ireland, learning and singing the songs of her Celtic heritage. Ultimately, she enrolled in the contemporary improvisation program at the New England Conservatory of Music.
In 2001, O’Donovan met Corey DiMario at the Conservatory, and the pair formed Crooked Still with Berklee College of Music cellist Rushad Eggleston and MIT graduate student Gregory Liszt. Over the next decade, the band — with cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas added after Eggleston’s 2007 departure — released four studio albums, a live collection and an EP, touring globally.
O’Donovan formed Sometymes Why in 2005 with Ruth Ungar Merenda and Kristin Andreassen, releasing a pair of albums before shelving the project in 2009. Although Sometymes Why and Crooked Still never officially disbanded, neither band has been particularly active in the past four years.
O’Donovan’s decision to go solo was relatively organic. She released the exploratory EP Blue Light in 2010, but her profile truly rose when Alison Krauss covered O’Donovan’s “Lay My Burden Down” on Paper Airplane in 2011.
“It gives you cred, in a way, and it’s just such an honor,” O’Donovan says. “That’s the biggest honor for a songwriter, to have an artist like Alison Krauss cover your song. That she wanted to do it, even if she hadn’t released it, just the fact that she called and said, ‘I love that song and I want to sing it,’ that’s all you need.”
The final Crooked Still EP, Friends of Fall, came six months later, followed by O’Donovan’s contributions to the Goat Rodeo Sessions (featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile) in 2011 and her second solo EP, Peachstone, in 2012. O’Donovan quickly discovered the advantages and disadvantages of going it alone.
“When you’re in a band, you make decisions with the band, you split everything equally, you share the joys and the pain,” she says. “If you have a great show, you can have a beer with your bandmates and go, ‘Great show!’ When it’s just you, it’s like, ‘Was that a great show?’ It can be lonely at first, but ultimately it’s just this different thing, and both are creative and rewarding. It’s been a really fun journey for me.”
O’Donovan signed with Yep Roc Records in 2013, and her debut full-length, Fossils, established her as one of the leading lights of the Neo-Folk movement.
“I wanted to make Fossils for a long time and when I finally did, it felt like a big release — and I mean that emotionally and musically — to have those songs out in the world,” she says. “Crooked Still played traditional old-time and Bluegrass music. I did sort of save a lot of songs, just because they weren’t appropriate for Crooked Still; I didn’t want to steal that band’s mission with my own agenda. So I think it worked out well to hold off and wait until it was my turn for a solo album.”
Fossils was worth the wait, and O’Donovan’s upcoming follow-up could exceed the impressive benchmarks set by its predecessor.
“When you make your first record, you can pick from your large pool of every song you’ve written in your whole life, and for the next record, it’s like, ‘Oh, I have to write a record,’ ” she says. “It gives you more of a specific goal. You can think a little more about what they’re going to be about and the process and the journey. And there’s definitely more pressure. Of course — it’s a sophomore release, so it’s classic pressure.”
So, in retrospect, Aoife O’Donovan is working with the Pops, touring/writing with I’m With Her, doing a one-off festival with Crooked Still and dropping a new record next year. Maybe she is the hardest-working woman in music after all.
AOIFE O’DONOVAN joins the Cincinnati Pops Saturday at Riverbend. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.