Fringe Toast Music: Aoife O’Donovan


American-born Aoife O’Donovan spends summers in Ireland.

Breathe deeply and enjoy the music of Irish-American singer-songwriter Aoife (“Eee-fah”) O’Donovan on her 2016 CD, In the Magic Hour. Born in Newton, MA, in 1982, Aoife has earned great respect for her writing and singing among those who follow new-grass music. Perhaps you know her as the lead singer of the progressive folk bluegrass band Crooked Still, or as part of the folk trio Sometymes Why. She has performed and recorded with many contemporary music legends, including Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Sarah Jarosz, Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Darol Anger.

As a young girl, Aoife spent many summers in the small Irish village of Clonakilty, where her beloved grandfather died recently at age 93. During these summer adventures, Aoife dove into the history and singing of Irish folk music. Along the way, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan influenced her explorations into American folk. After studying improvisational music at the New England Conservatory of Music, she graduated in 2003 and formed Crooked Still with fellow students.

As someone who has followed Aoife’s development over the past 10 years, I am especially delighted with her new CD,  produced under the gifted creative eye of Tucker Martine. Martine and O’Donovan began with sparse arrangements of Aoife’s vocals and acoustic guitar, but later enriched them by enlisting a studio band and various artists, including Sara Watkins (violin), Rob Burger (keyboards and organ), Tony Furtado (banjo), and Sarah Jarosz and Laura Veirs (backing vocals). The final effect is outstanding.

I recommend these three tracks from In the Magic Hour, which the liner notes describe as “honeyed vocals mixed with gauzy, impressionistic sounds: splashing cymbals, airy harmonies, the leisurely baritone musings of an electric guitar.”

•       “Porch Light” is a lament of lost love and seeking to understand why. Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz join in with vocals and violin to enrich the beautiful downtempo bluegrass swoon.

•       “Donal Og” is based on an anonymous eighth-century Irish poem about love gone wrong that leads to “a blackened heart.” Thom Jurek on says, “Its undercurrent of Celtic melody is sad and wistful in a narrative that’s equally painful and affirmative. The voice of her grandfather wafts in from the margins in its closing moments.” The first half of this 4:43 track is purely instrumental, until Aoife brings in the story of her grandfather’s final fading salute.

•       “Magic Hour” is a Beatlesque trackthat delivers sweet, nostalgic rhythms and tones alongside mournful memories about Aoife’s grandfather, as if it’s an afterthought to “Donal Og.”

In that hour, if you listen hard

You might hear my granddaddy singing far away

Like an evening star

Songs in an old island

songs ’bout being young again

I wish I was young again.

Finally, I recommend two tracks from her earlier days with Crooked Still: “Sometimes in This Country” and “Lovesick Redstick Blues” from the CD Strange Country (2010).

If you have not yet discovered Aoife O’Donovan, take the time to listen and enjoy.

Join Andy Bargerstock’s Fringe Toast Music® every Wednesday at 8 p.m. on or 100.1 FM in Fairfield.