Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan comes into her own
When Crooked Still went on an extended hiatus in January, there was no doubt its members would land on their feet. For 10 years, the progressive string band was Boston’s most celebrated and visible exponent of a new wave of roots acts, an ensemble grounded in tradition while trying to stretch its boundaries.
Already last year there were signs that the group’s singer was ramping up for a colorful new phase of her career. You simply couldn’t escape Aoife (pronounced EEE-fah) O’Donovan, who has become something of a muse to her contemporaries working in modern Americana. Crooked Still released a farewell (for now) EP, but it was fascinating to hear the light yet transcendent touch O’Donovan brought to various other projects.
As a guest vocalist, she contributed to records by Noam Pikelny, the acclaimed banjo player who’s part of Punch Brothers, with whom she also toured for a bit. She turned up on “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” an album by the cross-genre supergroup featuring Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan.
The cherry on the sundae? Alison Krauss & Union Station recorded one of O’Donovan’s songs, “Lay My Burden Down,” for last year’s “Paper Airplane.”
“I love being a part of something. What I love most about music is being inspired by other people’s ideas. You learn so much from your peers,” O’Donovan says. “It’s very fulfilling to be a collaborator.”
Which brings us to 2012, the year O’Donovan plans to fully bloom with her debut solo album. (Backed by a full band, she will premiere new material at Brighton Music Hall on June 14.) It will be the first time O’Donovan steps into the spotlight after years of working in multiple folk bands, from Wayfaring Strangers to Sometymes Why.
“I love playing with musicians who are responsive in the way they hear what you’re doing and then do their own thing,” says Pikelny, who first worked with O’Donovan in 2006, when he briefly filled in for Crooked Still’s regular banjo player, Greg Liszt.
“She had this reputation as an incredible singer. She lived up to that, but I really was taken aback by how rhythmic she was. That may not be the first thing that people realize about her because of how great her voice is,” Pikelny says. “She could propel a song along like a great mandolin or banjo player.”
Where some might see her path as a series of detours, O’Donovan says the random avenues have put her in a prime position as a solo artist. She turns 30 later this year, and it’s a milestone she’s welcoming.
“I remember when I started out playing music at 18. All these people said I should do a solo career. Who knows where I would be if I hadn’t been a member of Crooked Still and all these bands,” says O’Donovan, who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009. “I don’t regret at all coming up as a band member. I feel more ready now, and my songs are way better now than when I was 18 or 19.”
Her solo album is still taking shape, with no producer attached to it yet and songs slowly coming together. She maintains that her old bandmates couldn’t be more supportive of her latest direction.
“The coolest thing about Crooked Still and this extended hiatus is that we’re all so best friends to the max,” she says. “That band is my family, and that will never change. I just miss them more than anything.”
O’Donovan traces her collaborative spirit to her upbringing in Newton as the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, the host of the WGBH radio program “A Celtic Sojourn” and its seasonal offshoot, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.”
“My mom is also musical, and so is my grandfather,” O’Donovan says. “I have pictures of my parents’ wedding party, and it’s a jam session with mandolins and banjos.”
Her tour with Punch Brothers marked her debut performing on her own. The first show was in Boston, her home turf, but it still had her on edge.
“I was nervous, but slowly I fell back into myself. By the end of that tour, I realized that I really do love playing solo,” O’Donovan says. “It really challenged me to work on my guitar playing, which I hadn’t really focused on. It’s fun to be able to be you, to go up on stage and sing your song.”
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.