Aoife O'Donovan: Digging Up Musical 'Fossils' The singer, best known as the voice of the alt-bluegrass band Crooked Still, is releasing her solo debut. It's full of songs from and inspired by the Irish folk tradition she grew up with.

Aoife O'Donovan: Digging Up Musical 'Fossils'

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ALISON KRAUSE: (Singing) Gonna lay my burden down...


Alison Krause performed this song a couple of years ago on her number-one country album "Paper Airplane," but "Lay My Burden Down" was written by Aoife O'Donovan, who's now given her own voice to her own song. It's the first track on her debut solo record, "Fossils."


AOIFE O'DONOVAN: (Singing) If I was cast out on the sea, would you come and look for me? Would you just let me sink beneath the waves so blue?

SIMON: And Aoife O'Donovan joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

O'DONOVAN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Any concern about leading off your debut CD with your own song but already reasonably well known in another voice?

O'DONOVAN: Well, certainly concern was there. The person who really encouraged me to really go ahead and put that song first on the record was my producer, Tucker Martine. He felt that my version of the tune really set a nice tone for the record and I kind of went with him on that one. I left it in his hands and I'm happy that it leads off the record. It's a pretty different version than Alison's and I think there's room for both.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) If you can make it through the day it's not that far. No, it's not that far.

My years as a band member in Crooked Still, mostly, but also with other side projects, like Sometimes Why, et cetera, have definitely helped shaped me as a musician and as a collaborator. And those are things that I wouldn't, I kind of wouldn't trade for anything, the experience of going on the road with a band and not having the stress of kind of everything kind of falling on your shoulders. Those are things that are important.

SIMON: Let's listen to something from the new album and this is the song "Fire Engine."


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) (unintelligible) deeper and deeper, (unintelligible) that I found along the fossils (unintelligible). Three months down (unintelligible)...

SIMON: This song is where we hear fossils. So, should we know immediately why the whole album comes into shape with that, why it's called that?

O'DONOVAN: I think that in that song, it's a little bit of a love song. What I'm talking about in that chorus, getting down on the ground, putting my pebbles in a mound and sort of having to dig a little deeper to find the jewels, or to hide the jewels - it sort of changes from chorus to chorus. And that, to me, is a metaphor for kind of getting your ducks in a row, which I think does have a lot to do with putting this album out - waiting for your ducks in a row. And among the fossils and the fables, are both kind of, to me, both beautiful images of things old and sort of, but continue to be relevant. So, some of these tunes on the album are older than others and they're still relevant to me. They're still songs I love to sing. And the same goes for kind of the songs that I grew up singing, old folk songs, the songs that I sing in Crooked Still. They are fossils in certain ways as well.

SIMON: How did you come to grow up singing old folk songs?

O'DONOVAN: My father is from Ireland. He came to the U.S. in 1980 and met my mom and stayed. And he has a great love for folk music, as does my mother. So, I was kind of constantly surrounded by Irish folk music specifically. He's got an Irish folk radio show. And through him and through my mom, I was also exposed to a lot of American folk music and ended up just really embracing it and going on to kind of study it in college. And here I am now.

SIMON: Let's listen to a cut from this new CD that is not traditional Irish. This is a song called "Beekeeper."


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) Hey, (unintelligible) are you ready to fall, are you ready to jump? From the plain (unintelligible) stranger on your (unintelligible). High in the sky, in the back (unintelligible) the sky...

SIMON: A conscious effort to sort of mix things up, step it up here?

O'DONOVAN: Not really. I think, you know, when I went to college at the New England Conservatory of Music, I was studying in a program called contemporary improvisation. It started out as being called the third stream department. And somebody who was playing on my record called my music third stream country, which I really liked. It sort of has the jazzy influence but it also a very sort of rooted Americana influence as well.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) (unintelligible)...

SIMON: I have been, I confess, all week, off and on, rehearsing how to say your name. And an Aoife I can manage if I don't look at how it's spelled, which is A-O-I-F-E.

O'DONOVAN: Aoife is a super-common name in Ireland, and Aoife O'Donovan is also a very common name in Cork. So, there are tons of Aoife O'Donovans in the town where my dad grew up. I think there are like about five that I have run into at different times in this tiny town of Clonakilty.

SIMON: Now, your younger sister sings harmony vocals on this CD.

O'DONOVAN: Are you going to try to say her name now?


SIMON: You could tell I was avoiding it, couldn't you? It is spelled F-I-O-N-N-U-L-A.


SIMON: All right. I beg your pardon. Oh, now I know how to pronounce it.

O'DONOVAN: I know, that extra A really gives it away.

SIMON: Fiona...

O'DONOVAN: Fionnuala.

SIMON: Did you grow up singing together?

O'DONOVAN: We did. She's 11 years younger than me. She's a college student up in McGill in Canada. And all four of us - I have two brothers in between who also sing - and we all grew up singing together. And Nuala's singing is so beautiful, so pristine and so exact. So, flying her in to sing on the record was, you know, first and foremost, a matter of sibling harmony always sounding the best, but I knew it would cost me the least amount of money. She would nail it one take.

SIMON: Oh, I thought you meant just because you could always make a deal with your sister.

O'DONOVAN: Well, that, too.

SIMON: Yeah.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) Wishing another wish for (unintelligible), suck another (unintelligible) tugging on the kite strings too soon.

SIMON: Are there connections between your music and the Irish musical tradition?

O'DONOVAN: I think there's a deep-seeded way in which I approach music that's very rooted in the Irish tradition. I think I've got a great love for melody. A lot of the old Irish ballads are, you know, some of the most beautiful melodies, the most haunting airs that you can imagine. And I think I tried to incorporate that in my own music. I always start with melodies, kind of first and foremost when I'm working on a song. And lyrically as well, there are some images from the Irish folk tradition but also from the American folk tradition, which, you know, kind of if you look back it, they are very connected as well. And those images - laying your burden down or in "Briar Rose," a song on the album, I kind of use a lot of folk images in that song as well. And those are things that I definitely draw from.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) Blue sky (unintelligible), why you look so sad and blue? Did you prick your thumb, did you scrape your knee running down the stairs looking for me? But (unintelligible) outside along the (unintelligible)...

SIMON: What do you, having grown up in a musical family and making this life and livelihood now, what do you think music can do for people?

O'DONOVAN: I think music has the power to heal, of course. Music really has the power to make people feel things that I don't really think you can feel from anything else. I mean, of course, all art has that power in a certain way but, for me, specifically, music is just such a physical experience. When I hear something that really moves me, you can feel your body sort of tremble at that. And that's no small thing.

SIMON: Let's describe this to our listeners. You're sitting here in our studio and you have a guitar in your lap...


SIMON: ...and a microphone set up and a headset on, which - all of which suggests to me that you might do a song for us.

O'DONOVAN: I'm thinking about it.

SIMON: Can we persuade you? Tell us a little bit about it first, 'cause you're going to play us out with a song.

O'DONOVAN: So, the summer of 2011, I think it was, was a very hot summer in New York. And I spent the Fourth of July with some great friends of mine and they were doing a pig roast in the backyard of our favorite bar, so we decided to skip the fireworks, which really upset my friend Betsy. And a couple of days later, I was sitting in my apartment and sweating, and I picked up the guitar and this song just kind of came out. It's sort of a wistful love song and kind of about being lonely on the Fourth of July basically.

SIMON: Oh boy. This is...

O'DONOVAN: "Red and White and Blue and Gold."

SIMON: All right. We'll hear it right now. First, let me say this: thank you for coming in.

O'DONOVAN: Thank you for having me, Scott.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) Red and white and blue and gold, I want to wait for the water to touch my toes. On this Fourth of July, I want to wait for the fire to burn my eyes. Come on, sit next to me, bury my feet, bury my feet in the sand. It's cold and (unintelligible) with my hands. Come on, lie next to me, sing to me sleep, sing me to sleep. There's a band on the boardwalk. You're tapping your feet. I'm too drunk to dance. Black and blue all along my face, I want to fall in the...

SIMON: Aoife O'Donovan singing "Red and White and Blue and Gold" in our studio. Her debut solo album is called "Fossils." And you can hear two more music performances recorded here in our studios at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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