One of America’s greatest vocalists and songwriters, Aoife O’Donovan’s new record charts territories of the apathy and malaise that have plagued her generation with life-affirming meditations and defiant hope.
She talks to Tanis Smither about relocating to Florida, spending too much time on Twitter, Joni Mitchell, and more.
In Joan Didion’s magnum opus on grief, The Year Of Magical Thinking, the late writer says: “life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” For Aoife O’Donovan, one of those life-changing moments happened as she watched the events of 9/11 unfold, on a seemingly ordinary day. The title track on the Irish-American singer-songwriter’s new album, Age Of Apathy, frames itself around the fallout from those events. “Hold me like you held me on the day the towers fell, when I stumbled over to the Christian Science center pool“, she sings.
“I was living in Boston at the time, and it didn’t directly affect me, but it did plunge my generation into this malaise that has been a really distant cloud over us as we’ve navigated adulthood and into this next phase,” O’Donovan tells me. “And now, here we are. And it’s kind of like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’”
‘Here’ is early 2022: in the midst of the pandemic, with a heavy reliance on technology and remote socialisation (we’re chatting over Zoom, naturally), and a consistent bad-to-worse news cycle. “I was just thinking about this last night. I spend two hours on Twitter and then I go: ‘people on Twitter really need to get a life!’,” she says, rolling her eyes underneath her baseball cap. “And I got off Instagram in October, but I feel like I now read every New York Times article. I don’t know what’s worse. But we’re all having this same thought, which is that we have to take a step back. We have to take a news break, we should only scroll for a certain amount of time. I think the pandemic exacerbated that so much, it accelerated this collision course that we’re on. Eventually, there will be some sort of breaking point. We can’t continue on this roller coaster. But it is also bigger than that. It started before social media, before the excess of information.”
O’Donovan could have written an album about grief, that death of society and culture, or any other of the innumerable reasons we have to be angry and worried about the state of the world at the moment. Though those themes may show up in moments on Age of Apathy, its overall ethos is life-affirming and hopeful. She finds strength in the natural world and solace in her relationship to other people, and from listening to Joni Mitchell on the radio to repeating the words “I’m alive” over and over again, O’Donovan reaffirms her physical presence in the world at every turn.
My own introduction to O’Donovan was through a tiny iPhone speaker in 2013, in a small music studio where I was trying (and failing) to learn guitar. It’s her impeccable vocal control and languid, nearly laconic phrasing that seems to grab people, and I was no exception. She has often been likened to Joni Mitchell—one of her heroes. “The first time I heard her was probably in utero,” she says. “Some of my earliest memories are of listening to and singing her songs.” However apt that comparison might be, there is something warmer and softer in her voice, and it sits her in a camp all her own. Musically speaking, Age Of Apathy is everything you could want from an Aoife O’Donovan record. Come for the painterly songwriting, stay for the freewheeling, fluid sense of time and one of the warmest voices you’ll ever hear.
Born in Massachusetts and having spent the better part of the past decade living in Brooklyn, O’Donovan is used to city-dwelling. But, in September of 2020, O’Donovan, her husband and her four-year-old daughter relocated to central Florida. Her husband, Eric Jacobsen, is the musical director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, and logistically, travelling back and forth with a young child during a pandemic prior to vaccine availability became impossible. Being separated wasn’t an option either. “Our daughter was enrolled in school in New York, and that’s where our life was. We had a community here in Florida, but we weren’t here full time. His orchestra figured out a way to do an entire orchestral season, because it’s Florida and you can do outdoor, masked, socially-distanced concerts,” she says. So, they sublet their New York apartment to a friend, packed their bags, and, like the birds she references so often in her work, went south for winter. “It was actually a really great quality of life for the pandemic, because everything is outside. Our daughter can go to school. What was surprising about it was how much I love living here. Central Florida is a totally special place.”
O’Donovan found that proximity to nature made songwriting more productive. “New York is—and anyone who lives in a city will know—more dense, there are more people, rooms are smaller. Everything is bigger and smaller at the same time,” she laughs. “When I had more physical space to spread out, and when I had set up my work space, I don’t know, there’s something about the change in the light and the mood, and the way the stresses here are just different. I think anyone who lives in the south and has spent time in the south will understand that it just has a different vibe. Once all the stress melted away, all that was left were songs.”
O’Donovan has been known to moonlight as a band member—her early days were spent with alternative bluegrass band Crooked Still, she is one of the voices on The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, and performs in I’m With Her alongside Sarah Watkins and Sara Jarosz. She also often works with material written by others, whether it be lending her silvery voice to traditional folk tunes or putting her own music to someone else’s words, as she did on her last EP, Bull Frogs Croon. As a result, her last full-length album of original songs was 2016’s In The Magic Hour.
That album was influenced heavily by transience and travel, but also solitude. Six years on, Age Of Apathy is—perhaps in part—written around the concept of roots, though they often come from different places for O’Donovan. With one foot in New York and one in Florida, one in the past and one looking to the future, the songs on Age Of Apathy have a nostalgia factor to them, and a transience of a different kind.“I think songwriting and nostalgia go hand-in-hand to a certain extent,” she says. “There is a lot of nostalgia on the record, but it feels less like longing for what was and more trying to look back on it with clear eyes.”
Age Of Apathy is out now.
Interview by Tanis Smither