The US singer tells Don O’Mahony how her grandfather’s passing has evoked memories of blissful childhood days visiting West Cork, and how it’s all echoed in her new album
IT WAS something of a relief for Aoife O’Donovan to spend so many of her summers in Clonakilty, Co Cork. Born and bred in Massachusetts, her regular visits to the birthplace of her father at least put her in an environment where her name didn’t become distorted by the most well-meaning acts of mispronunciation.
“Definitely,” she smiles. “But you know, I feel like more and more people know somebody named Aoife or somebody whose kid’s name is Aoife or somebody’s dog is named Aoife. It’s becoming so easier.
“Especially now with Saoirse Ronan up for an Academy Award. I feel like the ‘a-o-i’ isn’t as strange as it once was.”
Perhaps it won’t be too long before her name is as recognisable in her homeland as that of the Brooklyn star. Having spent the noughties leading contemporary folk outfit Crooked Still, O’Donovan’s foray into solo territory received an immediate boost when Alison Krauss recorded her song ‘Lay my Burden Down’ for her 2011 album Paper Airplane. With Tucker Martine, a producer who has worked with The Decemberists, Neko Case and Laura Veirs, at the controls, O’Donovan released her folk- and country-tinged debut album in 2013.
Fossils was well acclaimed, but while she was thinking of her next record, her paternal grandfather Jim passed away.
Up to that point, her experience of being out on the road on her own touring Fossils and entering her 30s were informing her songwriting, but this sad news jolted her back to Clonakilty and endless summer days spent running around Inchydoney beach with her cousins under the watchful eye of her grandparents.
It’s a time immortalised by the photograph on the album’s sleeve of an eight-year-old O’Donovan and her cousin Siobhan playing with a makeshift kite on Inchydoney.
“It was lovely,” she recalls. “It was just pure old-fashioned fun, running around on the beach and singing and eating 99s. I mean, nothing really out of the ordinary. I’d say just your typical summers in the late 1980s, early 1990s in Ireland. And Ireland was obviously a different place than Boston was.
“Back when I was a kid it just seemed very far away and very magical.”
Bringing the far away and magical into closer reach became a preoccupation of her brand new album In the Magic Hour. Songs meditating on the cycle of life and the beauty of nature are blended with nostalgic memories.
Hidden in the track ‘Magic Hour’ is a reference to The Turfcutter’s Donkey, the children’s tale by Cork author Patricia Smith. “It’s just a gorgeous book,” says O’Donovan. “It was my favourite book as a kid. My dad used to read it to us. And that, to me, sort-of encapsulates the whole thing that I’m trying to say — that there’s magic and mystery in everything.
“I’ve always been really fascinated with magic and the sort of magic that exists in the world and however you want to look at that. And just feeling when you’re a kid anything is possible. You just have access to this whole magical world. And I think when you’re an adult it’s harder to stay in touch with that side of yourself but I think it’s important for us all to do that.”
At about the halfway mark, In the Magic Hour hits a devastating emotional point when towards the end of O’Donovan’s eerie cover of the Irish ballad ‘Dónal Óg’ we hear the voice of an older man singing ‘The West’s Awake’. It’s her grandfather, and the piece was recorded on an iPhone by his son.
“It was a very last-minute decision to slide that in at the end of ‘Dónal Óg’ and I’m so happy that I did because I think it’s just an important moment on the record,” says O’Donovan.
In the Magic Hour is out now on Yep Roc Records. www.aoifeodonovan.com.
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