This time last fall, Aoife O’Donovan already had an pretty good idea of how 2016 would play out. She would release her second solo album, “In the Magic Hour,” in January. The rest of the year would be spent touring, promoting and, eventually, reinventing the record.
First up was the winter release of “In the Magic Hour,” a record that retraced the childhood remembrances of the Massachusetts-born and New England Conservatory of Music-schooled songstress. Much of the inspiration came from the summers she spent in Ireland, often with her grandfather, who had recently died at the age of 93.
While O’Donovan’s initial music with the Boston band Crooked Still borrowed heavily from American folk and bluegrass, “In the Magic Hour” also incorporated the inherent influences of her family’s Irish heritage.
“My father is from Ireland and is a great lover of Irish art and of literature. There are even references on my record to a children’s book that was one of my dad’s favorites, an old Irish children’s book called ‘The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.’
“I think the culture in Ireland, the culture of family, of music, of people getting together and singing — that was such a huge part of how I grew up, of my musical personality. It’s the community and camaraderie you get from playing music. I think putting that into original songs, into a singer-songwriter mold, kind of becomes its own thing. It can feel really trite if you’re not careful, so I really try to access some deeper emotions that other people can relate to in that way.”
With “In the Magic Hour” done, O’Donovan began plotting out a subsequent tour that would reposition the performance spotlight on her own music. Throughout her young career, O’Donovan has been a high-profile collaborator with such disparate artists and acts as The Goat Rodeo Sessions (the genre-busting string group with Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile), I’m With Her (an all-star trio featuring Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins), Garrison Keillor and, in what she called “my most favorite project,” jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas.
But for her 2016 tour, O’Donovan wanted a sound altogether different yet still her own, so she enlisted guitarist/bassist/vocalist Anthony da Costa and drummer Steve Nistor and hit the road as a trio.
“I really wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and just play with some new people, if for no other reason than to just change things up. So I called Steve and asked if he wanted to do this tour with me. But I also wanted to really strip the music down and just have a trio. Then I ended up running into Anthony at a festival in Arkansas. I asked if he wanted learn some stuff from my record to see if it worked for the stage. He showed up at my house a couple of weeks later having learned every single thing in my entire catalog — all the harmony parts, all the guitar parts.’ So that happened.
“We got together in December, made our TV debut on “The CBS Morning News” after, like, one day of rehearsal and then went on tour. There was kind of an immediate musical history, and it’s only improved. These guys have become such close friends of mine.”
The chemistry clicked so rapidly that O’Donovan has already released a concert album of the tour titled “Man In A Neon Coat: Live From Cambridge.” Placing her in front of what was essentially a hometown audience, O’Donovan retooled the atmospheric Americana and folk from “In the Magic Hour” and her 2013 solo debut album “Fossils” along with covers of Emmylou Harris’ famed Gram Parsons eulogy “Boulder to Birmingham” and Joni Mitchell’s 1972 hit “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” to fit the lean but spacious sound of her trio.
“I was so impressed with how this trio was working to recreate the songs from the albums in a very different, new way, especially with Anthony’s singing and guitar playing, that I decided I wanted to make a live album. We recorded at the Sinclair in Cambridge, because I grew up in the Boston area.
“I knew it would be a packed show with really great energy in a really great room. Then I called up Dave Sinko, who is an incredible engineer. For anybody who has seen a Punch Brothers show, he’s the guy who makes it sound great. He’s the best sound engineer ever. He flew up to meet us at the show, brought his recording rig and that was that. It could not have worked out better.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com