“I still, to this day, don’t even really think of myself as a songwriter,” Aoife O’Donovan said in a video interview from her home in Orlando. In conversation, as in her songs, her voice often carried a tune, with bursts of syncopation as she explored an idea or a feeling. “I think of myself as a band person, someone you can call to be in your band or play a show. It’s an identity crisis,” she added with a laugh.
Her prolific catalog suggests otherwise. This week, O’Donovan (her first name is pronounced EEE-fa) will release her third solo studio album, “Age of Apathy,” a set of quietly startling songs that are at once intimate and ambitious, autobiographical and metaphysical. In “B61,” named after a Brooklyn bus route, she recalls the beginnings of a romance but then muses, “How will I know if I’m the last one alive?”
O’Donovan’s songs are rooted in folk tradition but full of musical surprises: daring melodic leaps, unexpected chord progressions, subtle rhythmic shifts. “I’ve always just been drawn to melodies and chordal structures that were unexpected,” she said. “They’re just more fun. When you have the whole arsenal of the tone row in your head, you can just have a lot more freedom to mess around with it.”
Her voice is at once open and mysterious, compelling in its understatement. Where another singer might head for a showy, dramatic peak, O’Donovan often eases back, letting her phrases evaporate like mist. “Sometimes I feel like, ‘In order to to be heard, do I have to be the loudest person in the room?’ But I think I’ve come to the realization that I don’t, and I don’t want to be,” she said. “The goal is to create a listening environment for people with your words or with your sounds, or with the song itself, where they want to be right there with you, and they’re willing to go along with everything you’re saying.”
The mandolinist Chris Thile, who welcomed O’Donovan as a regular performer on his public radio show “Live From Here,” said, “She’s not selling us anything. She’s telling us secrets — kind of a secret about the magic in the world that she’s finding.”
O’Donovan’s three studio albums represent only a fraction of her songwriting. She has also written for and with her groups Crooked Still, Sometymes Why and I’m With Her (whose “Call My Name” won a Grammy in 2020 as best American roots song) and as a collaborator with the chamber-Americana project Goat Rodeo, which includes Yo-Yo Ma and Thile.
During the pandemic, along with her album, O’Donovan completed two song cycles: “Bull Frog’s Croon,” based on poems by Peter Sears and recorded with a string quartet in 2020, and “America, Come,” a group of orchestral songs drawing on century-old letters and speeches by the women’s suffrage crusader Carrie Chapman Catt. O’Donovan performed it in October 2021 with the Cincinnati Pops. And one day in May 2020, sequestered at home when she was living in Brooklyn, O’Donovan recorded her own versions of the songs from Bruce Springsteen’s album “Nebraska”; she released “Aoife Plays Nebraska” online last year.
When quarantine restrictions eased enough to allow concerts in summer 2020, O’Donovan recorded a live album, “Live from Black Birch,” with her husband, the cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen, and his brother, the violinist Colin Jacobsen. At that show, she recalled, “I remember having a moment of panic when I said, ‘Sing along!’ And then I spent the rest of the song being, like, ‘No, don’t sing, don’t open your mouth!’”
Until the pandemic, O’Donovan, 39, had been a working, touring musician for nearly two decades. She grew up in an Irish family — her father came to the United States in 1980 — that regularly sang old songs together, and she soaked up Celtic traditions and their American offshoots along with adventurous songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega and Joanna Newsom. She also studied music more formally at the New England Conservatory.
In Boston in 2001, O’Donovan and some fellow music students started Crooked Still, a string band that offered radical rearrangements of Appalachian-rooted songs and, over the next decade of playing clubs and folk festivals, added some of O’Donovan’s new songs to its repertory. In 2005, O’Donovan also found time to form another group, the folky trio Sometymes Why, which released albums in 2005 and 2009. And along the folk circuit, she found plenty of chances to collaborate onstage and in the studio.
“Aoife finds a way to make the people around her sound better,” Thile said. “She can find family anywhere via music.”
But O’Donovan has brought her boldest material by far to her solo albums: “Fossils” in 2013, “In the Magic Hour” in 2016, both made with the producer Tucker Martine, and the new “Age of Apathy.” All three open with songs contemplating death, and her other solo songs explore desire, myth, memory and transfiguration: as narrative, as images, as parable. They also stretch accepted structures of verse, chorus and bridge and push against genre.
For “Age of Apathy,” O’Donovan enlisted the producer and songwriter Joe Henry, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Bettye LaVette, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. They recorded the album under pandemic conditions. Instead of working alongside her musicians in one room for a limited time, as she had with Martine, O’Donovan recorded her voice, guitars and piano in a studio in Florida and sent the results to Henry, in Maine, who in turn sent them to his core studio musicians. They sketched ideas, consulted with O’Donovan and Henry, and then layered on their parts, one by one.
The process took most of a year. “It allowed me and Aoife the opportunity to really listen to each element as it came in,” Henry said from his home in Maine. “And to decide, you know, do we need more? How much farther do we take this?”
Amazingly enough, the resulting album sounds cohesive and intuitive. “It does feel very collaborative, but it also feels just bizarre and futuristic,” O’Donovan said.
For O’Donovan, “Age of Apathy” is her most personal album. Unlike her other solo albums, it’s full of specifics: a bus route, a highway, the sense of a historical moment. “I’ve never really written so literally before,” she added. “In the past, I would shade it in a way that would try to make it a little bit more universal. But all these things really did happen.”
In the title song, O’Donovan mentions the Taconic Parkway, which runs into upstate New York, and continues, “Go east on 23, past the farms and the festival memories.” She’s citing the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y., along Route 23 at the foot of the Berkshires, where Crooked Still found its first eager audience of folk listeners and the band sold a miraculous 1,000 independent CDs, kick-starting its career. The song also recalls her going to a vigil at the Christian Science Center in Boston a few days after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and wondering, “Was it the end or the beginning?/All I remember is the singing and the music, trying to drive away the fear.”
The album’s centerpiece, O’Donovan said, is “Elevators,” a brisk waltz that sometimes skips a beat, as if it can’t wait to leap ahead. O’Donovan sings about “this big experience of being a touring musician, the kind of amnesia that you get when you’re on tour, the comfort of having no idea where you are, and yet knowing exactly where you are,” she said. “Is it going to go back to this? Am I going to be back there saying like, where am I? Who is that person running out the door? Is that me? Is that just my ghost of tours past?”
O’Donovan’s personal touchstones are swept into the mood of the album: pensive, determined, ambivalently and then determinedly hopeful. “Age of Apathy” ends with “Passengers,” a quick-strummed, major-key song that glances back toward Joni Mitchell. It imagines a journey through interplanetary space: a way forward, post-pandemic, post-uncertainty, happily in motion again.
“Music is everything to me — it’s literally the most important thing,” she said. “When I think about where do I want my life to go, where do I want to be when I’m older, what’s going to happen after we die — the music is the thing that will get us through to the end. And music is what will be there after we’re gone.”