INTERVIEW: Aoife O’Donovan Unpacks the Past in ‘Age of Apathy’

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For those who came of age in the early 2000s, anxiety and sensory overload have become a way of life. From 9/11 to the war in Ukraine, there seems to be a new international incident every week. The economy has been unreliable, climate change has made our summers unlivable and the American populace has grown more divided. Underneath all of this simmering discord is the incessant hum of the ongoing news cycle, stoking our anxiety and sensory overload. 

Singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan understands the overwhelming emotions and experiences her generational cohort have had. Her latest album, Age of Apathy, was inspired by “looking back on the last 20 years, and drawing parallels between the events of their early part of this century, the Bush years, 9/11 and how that has led us into this era, ushered in this weird era of tech and the onslaught of information and the demise of the climate and collapse of democracy, bringing us to our current state still in the grips of this pandemic.” In contrast with the cacophony of our era, Age of Apathy has an appealingly hushed sound, inviting listeners to slow down and bear witness to the good and the bad of our time. 

You may not know O’Donovan by name, but you’ve definitely heard her music. Over the past two decades, she’s become an in-demand collaborator and session musician. Americana fans first heard her through her work with Crooked Still, where she honed her musical skills alongside mandolin player and songwriter Chris Thile. In between work with bands like I’m With Her and Goat Rodeo, she’s released a pair of fine solo albums and done a residency at Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla. 

Age of Apathy came out of the lull of the early pandemic. 

“I’ve really been a road dog for my whole career and have spent the majority of my time on the road,” O’Donovan tells The Boot. “(In) the fall of 2020, when all shows were canceled, I started to work on the music that would eventually become Age of Apathy, and started recording it in January and finished it in April, and here it is.”

Recording remotely at Full Sail University’s production studio, O’Donovan collaborated with producer Joe Henry on the album. She describes Henry, who has worked with left-of-center Americana artists like Allen Toussaint, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Susan Tedeschi, as “a wise member of the community.”

“We talked at the beginning of the pandemic about maybe writing together at a certain point, and then that didn’t end up happening and then months past, and when I got to Florida and I was like, oh gosh, I’m going to make a record, and who could I have produce this record? Who would be a good person to produce it virtually over the internet? I called Joe and he had just finished working on his own record in the same style, and he… agreed to do it,” O’Donovan says. “And it was just a great turn of events that really brought the record into focus and helped me to really get going with finishing the songs, and once Joe signed on, finishing the songs, and having the reason to go forward.”

The remote recording and production setup was a new experience for O’Donovan. 

“I have always made records in a room with the band and especially with a rhythm section. And I think that not doing it that way threw me off at first,” she notes.” But ultimately, I’m really thrilled with the result, because I think it made people play very differently than they would have, had we all been in the room together. The songs just sound completely different than they would have, had I been directing people to put a drum fill here, or sing this note, or don’t play that part, or whatever. It’s just, you just kind of have to let go a little bit more.”

While O’Donovan’s previous albums had a fuller sound, the production and arrangements on Age of Apathy worked with a sparer sonic palette. 

“A lot of the other songs are really just bare bones, guitar, bass, and drums, sometimes with electric guitar, sometimes with woodwind lines,” she says. But I think that that’s just what ended up serving the songs. I think that’s a real testament to the other musicians and to Joe, and not letting them get over the top, especially when you’re doing everything virtually, I think there would be, I don’t know, the danger that you could say, oh, let’s keep going, let’s keep going. But I think that we didn’t do that.”

O’Donovan’s skill at writing rangy melodies and evocative lyrics stayed consistent on Age of Apathy, and the unfussy production puts the focus on her reedy vocal timbre and percussive guitar playing. The album’s title track evokes the anxiety of Sept. 11, 2001, which she describes as “the first moment that I really felt like I had to be an adult,” roots listeners in a small, yet pivotal moment in her life. Her mention of the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston made for an interesting contrast between “this gorgeous place, and it was such a blue sky” and the fear and foreboding of what would come.

“My boyfriend at the time [and I] sat at the Christian Science Center pool and cried,” O’Donovan recalls of her own experience on 9/11. “But also, it was almost like we were crying because it was the thing that you had to do, even though it felt so distant.” 

While O’Donovan depicts some of the saddest and scariest moments of her generation, she also makes room for joy. The buoyant song “Passengers” ends with a catchy descending guitar riff and a shouted vocal hook that gestures towards optimism. 

“Something I think about often is why it’s so hard to access the feelings that you have in your youth, like the first time you feel an emotion and what that feels like, the first time you experience heartbreak, the first time you experience witnessing a world event, a trauma, and how the older you get and the more you go further inward and your own personal problems become all you can take stock of, how do we get back to those big feelings? How do we get that feeling back?” she reflects.

“Ultimately what I find is that, and I sing this in the last song of, take it in, open your hearts, they’re smiling,” O’Donovan notes. “You just have to get there. You have to muck your way through the crowd and push through. And it might be a long road to get there, but eventually you will, and you will look over that valley, and it’s people who are happy.”

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