Aoife O’Donovan (pronounced ee-fah) has girl-next-door good looks, which makes it all the more shocking when she breaks into the opening lines of “Too Repressed,” a song she wrote for her folk trio Sometymes Why.
“I wanna fuck you/But I’m too repressed/ I wanna suck you/but I can’t take off my dress,” she breathes on the 2006 track.
Shocking as it may be, even the reasoning O’Donovan gives for writing the song has one foot in the wholesome camp. “I was encouraged by my parents to do the song. They were like, ‘this is the feminist anthem,’” she said in a September 25 phone interview. “There are so few songs like that from the female perspective. There are all these old songs about sex or drinking or beating up a woman, and it’s like, ‘oh, it’s no big deal.’”
Several months ago, O’Donovan stepped from behind the cover of Sometymes Why and her successful alternative bluegrass project Crooked Still to deliver her first solo record, Fossils. When she plays The Festy Experience in Nelson County on October 12, she’ll be primarily promoting that effort, which she said has been a long time in the making.
“I think [Crooked Still] will reconvene in the next couple of years and do some festivals, but in the meantime, I’m really going to tour behind Fossils and get these songs out there,” O’Donovan said. “I’m just hitting the road—that’s what you have to do.”
Fossils is a bit of a break from the more strictly folk and alt-bluegrass projects O’Donovan’s done in the past. She said growing up in the Northeast, her parents exposed her to the folk musicians of the ’60s—Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell—the usual suspects. And while she fell in love with the tradition established by the singer-songwriters of that era, she doesn’t want her music to be pigeonholed.
“I don’t feel tied down to any one style,” she said. “For Crooked Still, I think it is cool for the band to just sound like the band. But Fossils is just music—it is whatever you call it. It is Americana. It is folk. But there is a problem with people putting it in one box.”
According to O’Donovan, that means “throwing the pedal steel curveball” in places and bringing a decidedly rock ‘n’ roll sound to tracks like “Beekeeper.” She thinks that’s just the kind of music that will work particularly well at a multi-genre festival like The Festy Experience. “If you are a real music fan, you aren’t a genre fan,” O’Donovan said. “You love music and you’re open.”
O’Donovan’s love of music in all its forms blossomed while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, the oldest independent music school in the U.S. and alma mater to John Medeski and Coretta Scott King, among other famous alumni. O’Donovan said she figured out early on that she eventually wanted to pursue a solo singing-songwriting career, but her first gig out of school was with Crooked Still, where she was the principal songwriter and lead singer. From 2001-2008, the band toured tirelessly and produced five well-received albums.
One of Crooked Still’s recording sessions brought O’Donovan into intimate contact with Charlottesville, the childhood home of bandmate Greg Liszt (now in The Deadly Gentlemen).
“We made our album Some Strange Country in Dave Matthews’ studio,” she said. “We were there during the crazy snowstorm of 2009. We were literally snowed in at Haunted Hollow. It was a blast.”
O’Donovan’s side projects and collaborations over the years have gone beyond her stints playing occasional shows with Sometymes Why. In 2010, Alison Krauss caught wind of a song O’Donovan had written, “Lay My Burden Down,” and recorded it for her 2011 album Paper Airplane. More recently, O’Donovan was a vocalist for the Grammy-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions, which includes Yo-Yo Ma on cello, as well as Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan. The group produced a studio album in late 2011 and went on a two-week, eight-city tour in support of the record after it won a Grammy for Best Folk Album in February. O’Donovan pointed to the band’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl as the most memorable experience on the tour. “It was amazing to be in that band, and it was an absolute joy to collaborate with Yo-Yo,” she said. “Hopefully we will continue that project and do something again in the future.”
With the Goat Rodeo Sessions tour recently behind her, now could be the perfect time for O’Donovan to promote her new record, which itself pulls out some big guns to ensure success. The LP starts off with—what else—O’Donovan’s own take on “Lay My Burden Down,” a nice canvas for her breathy, Norah Jones-esque voice. Producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists) is along for the ride throughout the LP and the result is a well-produced, refined record. And while some have questioned Fossils for its lack of edge, O’Donovan says the tracks are on the whole true to herself. “When people have seen my live show, they know I am very much how I am,” she said. “I don’t have a difference in personality between my stage persona and offstage.”
Hopefully her parents approve.