After a decade-long run as lead singer in Crooked Still, Aoife O’Donovan is taking full advantage of her unattached status. Since the popular Boston string band announced an amicable disbanding in 2012, O’Donovan seems to be popping up everywhere, lending her cool, silvery vocals to a fascinating array of settings.
From Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy Award-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions, and jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas’s album of hymns and folk songs Be Still, to the recent PBS broadcast Transatlantic Sessions featuring top artists from Nashville, Scotland and Ireland, O’Donovan stands out no matter what company she keeps. But she’s at her most unfettered leading her own band, which performs Friday at Freight & Salvage (award-winning Nashville singer/songwriter Liz Longley opens the show).
Still touring widely in conjunction with the 2013 release of her first album under her own name, Fossils (Yep Roc Records), she’s focusing on her quietly introspective original tunes. After years of singing incisive arrangements of old-time tunes, she reintroduced herself as an emotionally probing singer/songwriter with sharply etched stories of loss and longing.
“When Crooked Still slowed down, I finally had time and space to write a bunch of new material,” says O’Donovan, 31, whose first name is pronounced EE-fah). “I’m trying to access human emotion and capture it in song, but I’m not a particularly autobiographical writer. I want people to be able to put themselves in these situations and take what you will from them.”
A fine guitarist as well as an incandescent singer, O’Donovan grew up in a household suffused with Celtic music (her father hosts “A Celtic Sojourn” on the powerhouse Boston public radio station WBGH). She studied jazz and improvisation at New England Conservatory, where she became a central part of Boston’s burgeoning acoustic music scene (a scene that’s drawn numerous musicians from the Bay Area).
Informal bluegrass jam sessions brought O’Donovan together with bassist Corey DiMario, a fellow NEC student, banjo expert Greg Liszt (who was completing a Ph.D. in biology at MIT), and renegade Monterey-area cellist
Rushad Eggleston, who was studying at Berklee though he had already earned a Grammy nomination for his work on the eponymous debut album by Darol Anger’s Fiddlers 4 (Compass Records).
With its mix of murder ballads, Delta blues, hymns, folk songs and the odd original tune, the string band reinvented classic Americana material with intricate arrangements, hard driving rhythms and beautiful, hauntingly dispassionate vocals. Before long, Crooked Still started gaining a cult following. Performing regularly at the folkie headquarters like Cambridge’s Club Passim, the quartet attracted a conspicuously young audience with their bandstand charisma and instrumental bravado.
When Eggleston decided to launch his own band in 2007 (he’s now leading the Oakland power trio Tornado Rider), Crooked Still reinvented itself as a quintet by recruiting two rising Northern California stars, Menlo Park-raised fiddler Brittany Haas and Humboldt County-reared cellist and fiddler Tristan Clarridge (he’ll be hosting the Shasta String Summit at the Freight on July 12 with his older sister Tashina Clarridge, a fellow Grand National Fiddle Champion).
With all the members of Crooked Still following their own paths, O’Donovan has thrived as a solo artist. She’s reached her widest audience as a regular guest on Garrison Keillor’s venerable public radio show Prairie Home Companion. Ushered into the Prairie Home family by Wailin’ Jennys vocalist Heather Masse, O’Donovan joined her old friend from NEC for an on-air duet.
Always on the lookout for new talent, Keillor was duly impressed, writing in an email that the performance “was stunning for how the two voices wrapped around each other, which requires a keen ear and an intuitive voice. Two singers with jazz vocal training who can take that training into traditional music. That’s astonishing.”
The admiration is mutual. While Keillor describes himself as a “rank amateur” vocalist who doesn’t always “stay in the path or lean into the traces,” O’Donovan describes him as a master at “improvising on the sly.”
“He is one of the most brilliant men performing,” she says. “You hear him do ‘News from Lake Wobegon’ and he’s just unsurpassed in this day and age.”
With her career heating up and so many different overlapping commitments, O’Donovan greatest challenge may be finding time to write songs and develop her own music. As much as she wants to continue leading her own band, she’s not about to pass up a situation like Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions.
“I’ll continue to collaborate with my heroes,” she says. “I’m always hungry for projects that pull me out of my comfort zone.”
Recommended gig: Electreo at the Hillside Club
Bassist extraordinaire Jeff Denson joins forces with bassoon master Paul Hanson and versatile drummer Alan Hall in the freewheeling trio Electreo at the Hillside Club on Friday. Hanson, a Berkeley High grad, has honed an expansive palette of sounds on the electric bassoon in a variety of contexts, including several years with Cirque du Soleil. A professor at the California Jazz Conservatory, Denson has collaborated extensively with many veteran jazz masters, most importantly alto sax legend Lee Konitz. Together they create expansive soundscapes full of drama and carefully calibrated dynamics.
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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