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After 10 Years On The Road, A Debut: Aoife O’Donovan’s ‘Fossils’

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Aoife O’Donovan is a fast talker. She speaks in a husky voice and circular sentences, syllables tumbling over each other in their haste to meet the air. She sings in the same throaty timbre as she speaks, but with considerably more finesse, and, usually, less speed. If her personality crackles with the force of a small explosion, then her songs are like the smoke released in the aftermath, leisurely but with a faint whiff of fire.

Her solo debut, “Fossils,” is 10 original tracks with the languorous pace of a hazy summer afternoon. In recent years, O'Donovan, who will play at the Sinclair in Cambridge on June 8, has gained notoriety for guest appearances with Yo-Yo Ma and on “A Prairie Home Companion,” but she is best known as the frontwoman for Crooked Still, a Boston-based neo-stringband famous for its novel take on American folk music, and for having a cello. (The group went on hiatus in 2011.) With its country-rock, noticeably cello-free instrumentation, “Fossils” may seem like a stark departure, but to those who know O’Donovan, it has been a long time coming.

“I personally don’t want to give away too much of my inner soul,” says Aoife O’Donovan of her songwriting. “But you have to give away a little bit. It has to be real.” (Courtesy photo)
“I personally don’t want to give away too much of my inner soul,” says Aoife O’Donovan of her songwriting. “But you have to give away a little bit. It has to be real.” (Courtesy photo)

“I’m constantly trying to be open to the fact that some people will like [the album] and some people won’t. Definitely nobody is universally adored,” she tells me recently over the phone, then pauses—an O’Donovan -sized pause, which is not very long. “Except for maybe the Beatles.”

O’Donovan is a native of Newton, Massachusetts, which accounts for her New England briskness, but not her Irish name. That is the legacy of her father, Brian O’Donovan, a County Cork transplant and host of WGBH’s “A Celtic Sojourn.” The four O’Donovan children, of which Aoife (pronounced “ee-fuh”) is the eldest, were raised in a music-filled household. As a child, she sang in the church choir, took piano lessons, and studied Irish step-dancing. (When I texted to ask if she had been a step-dancer she answered, “Yes obviously.”) Her younger sister, Fionnuala, sings harmony on “Fossils.”

I first met O’Donovan in 2001, around the same time that she co-founded Crooked Still as a student at New England Conservatory in Boston. She wore glasses, a down vest (it was fall in New England), and her blond hair in a demure bun. At 30, she has not completely shaken the wholesomeness of her 18-year-old appearance—she is more often bespectacled than not—but the sensuality always so present in her singing has settled subtly, and comfortably, into her being.

In the 12 years that we’ve been friends, she has developed into a singer of understated virtuosity and a songwriter enamored of eerie, impressionistic imagery. In March, she released the first single from “Fossils,” a yearning, mid-tempo jam titled “Red & White & Blue & Gold.” The song features a mournful pedal steel solo and a series of melancholy visions that do not so much describe heartbreak as allude to it.

“I personally don’t want to give away too much of my inner soul,” says O’Donovan of her songwriting. “But you have to give away a little bit. It has to be real.”

Sometimes, this involves looking outside herself for inspiration. One of the standouts on “Fossils,” a haunting number called “Briar Rose” is based on an Anne Sexton poem in which Sleeping Beauty is depicted as the victim of sexual abuse by her father. In O’Donovan’s rendition, the original fairy tale is evoked to chilling effect: “Everyone loves a sleeping beauty/ On the stage or on the screen/ So you take it like a man, do what you can, while you can/ Try not to scream.”

The menacing, unearthly quality of “Briar Rose” is achieved with the unusual pairing of snare and banjo, which together tap out a sparse, syncopated beat. Guitar, bass, and pedal steel make stealthy entrances, until at last, with the crash of a cymbal, an accordion unleashes its sorrowful song.

“Fossils” owes much of its textural inventiveness to producer Tucker Martine (R.E.M., Laura Veirs, The Decemberists), who worked with O’Donovan and her band to adapt their live arrangements in the studio. On “Fossils” he favors a moody, atmospheric palette with the merest touch of twang. The result, says O’Donovan, “is just very me.”

For O’Donovan, “Fossils” undoubtedly marks an escape from the buzzwords that have nipped persistently at her heels throughout her young career: “tradition,” “roots,” “folk.” But as she enters the murky realm of “indie” music, she seems, paradoxically, ever more sure of the solidity of the terms that she has exploded in her more recent work.

“I will never step away from folk music,” she says. “That’s the foundation, that’s the world that I come from, and that’s the world I want to live in.”

“I just think that a song has to have a basic element that people can relate to,” she explains. “And that’s like the basic tenet of folk music, right? It’s music of the people.”

Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog: blog.ameliamason.com.

This program aired on June 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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