In the middle of the pandemic, when the Orlando Philharmonic commissioned Aoife O’Donovan to write a piece about women’s suffrage, O’Donovan wasn’t sure she could swing it. The GRAMMY award-winning singer-songwriter was already grasping for creative energy cooped up in her Brooklyn, NY home.
But once O’Donovan (whose first name is pronounced “Ee-fah”) got to work, she was hooked. She dove into “The Woman’s Hour” by Elaine Weiss, a book that details how exactly one century ago, suffragists fought to finalize the 19th amendment during a worldwide pandemic. O’Donovan was particularly inspired by a woman named Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who led a march to Tennessee to push for the final vote to ratify the amendment.
“It all just felt so timely with all of the [social justice] stuff happening right now,” O’Donovan says. “There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.”
Dubbed “America, Come,” O’Donovan’s work is based on Catt’s and President Woodrow Wilson’s passionate letters and speeches urging for women’s suffrage. The work, a song cycle made up of five pieces, premiered in May 2021 with the Orlando Philharmonic, in honor of the 101st anniversary of the 19th amendment, which secured women’s right to vote.
This Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, O’Donovan will perform “America, Come” for the 3rd time (she also performed it in June 2021 in Central Park, NY). This time, she’ll play with the New York-based Knights Chamber Orchestra, led by husband Eric Jacobsen and brother-in-law Colin Jacobsen, a collaboration she says makes the performance at Wolf Trap “particularly special.”
O’Donovan will also play a slew of other new works, including her two just-released singles “More Than We Know” and “Captain’s Clock,” along with some different trio pieces. And potentially a few covers, including the Bob Dylan tune “Not Dark Yet.”
“I spent the whole pandemic writing and recording. So, we’re doing mostly brand new music, which is really exciting.
Dubbed “a vocalist of unerring instinct,” by The New York Times, O’Donovan has been surrounded by music as long as she can remember. Both of her parents are musicians, and her Irish-born father ran a music radio show, hosting touring artists from Ireland in their home, people O’Donovan admires to this day.
She also grew up spending summers with family in Ireland, which, as a musician with Irish American roots, she calls “hugely formative.” “In Ireland, music is so much more a part of the culture than it is [in the States]. Everybody sings, everybody plays,” she says. “People just have an innate respect for music, poetry, artistry and creativity. It’s such a beautiful culture.”
O’Donovan got her official start in the early 2000’s with the bluegrass band Crooked Still, which she co-founded while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in her hometown of Boston. Crooked Still released four albums between 2005 and 2010, after which O’Donovan launched her solo career and began collaborating with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist Chris Thile and fiddler Stuart Duncan on the GRAMMY winning “Goat Rodeo Sessions.”
Fast forward 10 years, and O’Donovan’s released three critically acclaimed solo albums, and co-founded the folk music band I’m With Her with friends Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Sarah Jarosz. The trio, hailed as “ethereal and purposeful” by The Guardian, received a GRAMMY award in 2020 for Best American Roots Song for “Call My Name.”
“I’m With Her is a project I hold very dear to my heart, a special ongoing chapter of my career. It’s been amazing to write music with two close friends that I respect so much.”
Next up, O’Donovan is headed to Nashville, joining Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan for a 2-week tour of 2020’s “Not Our First Goat Rodeo.” She’s also got a European tour slated for early 2022 and plans to continue writing new music while she’s on the road — and releasing a new solo album soon, as well.
“I’m really excited to get back out there and play music for people. It’s been a long time,” O’Donovan says. “I feel so lucky being part of this community of amazing musicians.”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.