Sunday, October 23, 2011

Aoife O' Donovan of Crooked Still Shares Memories While Looking Ahead

Aoife O'Donovan was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule (and as you will read, I mean BUSY) to share some of her most memorable experiences with her band, Crooked Still, as well as share some news of a few things she already has in the works.

With her band officially now on hiatus, and with a staggering number of projects in the works, it seems like the perfect time to discuss some of Ms. O' Donovan's past achievements with Crooked Still, as well as get the skinny on all of the exciting things she has in store for faithful listeners and loyal fans.

As all of the members of Crooked Still begin to officially embark on new projects, Ms. O' Donovan has keeping herself busy by performing with a number of close friends and stellar musicians at an impressively blistering pace. She will make appearances on two new albums out this week: Noam Pikelny's second solo album Beat The Devil And Carry A Rail (Compass Records) and The Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony) featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan.

As a songwriter, vocalist, and performer, Aoife needs little to no introduction. I was thrilled to recently have the opportunity to chat with Aoife and to attempt to catch up to speed with all that she has going on. And oh boy, is she a busy bee! So without further ado, let's get right to it:

Hi Aoife,

Thanks very much for taking the time to complete this Q and A. It seems like a very exciting time as Crooked Still celebrates its 10th anniversary, and as the band has just announced to go on hiatus to work on new projects. 

I’d like to start by discussing some of the history of Crooked Still and the new Friends of Fall EP, as well as your own experiences in the band, and what lies ahead for you in your own work.

First, let’s start with the Crooked Still’s history. Can you talk about how the band got together and who some of your earliest influences were?

Aoife O’ Donovan: We were a part of a larger music community in Boston, and were heavily influenced by our peers. Matt Glaser, Chair of the String Department at Berklee, invited me to join the Wayfaring Strangers, which let me to Ruth Ungar and directly to Jennifer Kimball, of whom I’d been a fan for many years. I feel like our early songs were such a product of the time. We wanted to play folk songs that felt good, but play them in our own funky way.

Corey was bringing his jazz background, Rushad and Greg had worked out a really cool way of rhythmic accompaniment, and I floated over the top. We love the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck, Laurie Lewis, and bands like Nirvana. I mean, some of the tunes on Shaken by a Low Sound are totally influenced by Rushad’s Metallica obsession. The influences are countless.

What were a few of the most exciting aspects to developing the band when you all began working together?

Aoife: I think when we started, we never really thought it would ever become our livelihood. I was 18, Greg was in graduate school, Rushad was still at Berklee, and Corey had just graduated from the New England Conservatory.

We came together because we enjoyed making music. We would hang out with all the other bluegrassers at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, go to/ and host music parties, and we would just jam all of the time.

The whole concept of being professional and getting gigs and making albums came two and a half years later, when we went to Folk Alliance in San Diego.  Then came the challenges, but I think we came out on top.

If you had to choose a personal favorite from the band’s discography that is was most memorable to make, which record stands out most to you from the others?

Aoife: It’s really too hard to look back and pick a favorite. I mean, at this point, I would say that the EP was the most fun to make, because it seemed to be the lowest pressure.

I’m probably the most proud of Some Strange Country. That experience was absolutely rad: we were snowed in, we were alone, we were working with Gary Paczosa, who’s touch took our music to a whole new level. The arrangements on SSC came together over many rehearsals, and continued to evolve in the studio.  I would consider that record to be the most all encompassing of what Crooked Still is.

With such a long history of performing live, the band has shared the stage with some of the most talented musicians around anywhere. Can you describe  one of your most memorable live experiences with a guest player?

Aoife: One of my favorite live experiences happened just recently, at the Saddleback Bluegrass Festival in Maine. Ricky Skaggs (who has been a fan of the band, and even sang on Some Strange Country) was watching us from the side of the stage. I had seen him out of the corner of my eye throughout the set, and during our last song, I had a whim to just grab him and bring him out with us!

I made the band keep vamping and soloing, and ran to Ricky, who ran downstairs to get his mandolin, then jumped on stage to booming applause.  It totally brought the crowd to their feet, and we had a blast. Gotta love festival season.

Let’s talk about the band’s new Friends of Fall EP. Each member of Crooked Still chose a song and directed the band through the arrangements and performances. Can you share this process with readers? 

Aoife: There are 7 songs on the EP, so this process only affected 5. The remaining 2 ("We Can Work it Out" and "Pretty Bird") had come into a repertoire earlier, and would have made it on the record regardless.

Back in May, I was reading a book of Wendell Berry poems, and one of them really jumped out at me.  I came up with a little melody all at once, and there was the song “The Peace of Wild Things.”  The fiddle tune came a little later. I wrote it by singing it over guitar chords, imagining Brittany sawing away at it. I named it "Dayblind", using a word from the Berry poem. When I brought the tune to the band, I pretty much told them how I wanted it to sound, then they each added magic and ideas. That was basically the process for all of the tunes: someone directed each arrangement, but the opinions and musical voices of each individual can be heard on every song.

How has the new EP brought closure to the band as it celebrates 10 years together, as well as setting the stage for each of the member’s next project beyond the band?

Aoife: The EP was really just meant to be a fun little thing to sell on our 10 year anniversary tour. We had a blast making it, and I love the songs, but for me, it doesn’t really get heavier than that. We’ve made a lot of music together since 2001, and having a fresh new batch of material for the fall tours certainly keeps us on our toes, and will enable us to go out with a bang.

Can you define the band’s hiatus? Are there any plans for Crooked Still to keep performing?  

Aoife: The hiatus is just a fancy way of saying that we need a break from touring with this band. Several of us have put other projects on the back burner to give Crooked Still the attention and priority it needed to succeed in this crazy touring market, and now feels like the right time to step back.

I’m excited for all of the new young bands that are coming up these days- Joy Kills Sorrow, Della Mae (to name a few from our home of Boston!), Sarah Jarosz is out on the road slaying souls, etc. I think there’s a great chance that people will be seeing us at a festival or two in 2013… We love each other and the road too much to REALLY hang it up. We just have to put it aside for a while.

Can you describe some of the projects the other members of the band will be embarking on?

Aoife: Greg Liszt is going to be touring with the Deadly Gentlemen (, Tristan Clarridge will be touring with the Bee Eaters (, Brittany Haas has a new duo with fiddler Lauren Rioux and a project also involving Corey DiMario with fiddler Dan Trueman, and I’ll be making my solo record and touring it, as well as collaborating as usual with plenty of ragamuffins worldwide.

You recently did a month-long residency at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC. I specifically wanted to ask you how you chose to cover Bruce Spingsteen's Nebraska. Can you discuss what drew to that album, it's lasting power for you, and what inspired you to take it on?

Aoife: That week was the ONE week I didn’t have my band (Jake Silver on bass, Ryan Scott on guitar, and Robin MacMillan on drums), and I wanted to do something different. I love Nebraska. All of the songs tell a different story, but there is a common theme of loneliness and desperation that is timeless.  Learning all of those tunes on the guitar, and memorizing the words was a challenge, but I’m SO glad I did it. "Up All Night" was my favorite one to perform… I think it will all be on Youtube soon.  

What was most rewarding to you about the residency? Do you plan to do more? 

Aoife: I’ve been playing my songs with the same guys for about 7 years, and we’ve been friends for about 10. Every year, we would play a few shows, maybe one in Boston, one in NYC, etc. But this summer, I felt like we were finally becoming a band. The residency definitely helped with that.

Rehearsing, playing the same songs over and over again, coming up with new parts, it all feels great. The crazy thing about the residency was that I literally flew in the DAY OF every week. I got a bunch of last minute sub gigs with Ollabelle, and Crooked Still went to Colorado, so my Mondays were tiring days, made better by the fabulous staff at Rockwood and incredible audiences.

How does living in Brooklyn inspire you and/ or influence you creatively?

Aoife: There are so many musicians in Brooklyn. I live in the Gowanus neighborhood, right where Park Slope ends, before Carroll Gardens and Red Hook begins. Picture auto-body repair shops and NYC sanitation vehicles, dotted with the odd hipster bar or coffee shop.

I live with a fiddle player, Stephanie Coleman, and around the corner from 2 members of the Brooklyn band, The Calamity Janes. I’m also around the corner from crooner Alex Battles, and down the hill from a few Punch Brothers, etc. Betsy Plum (a Jane) and Kristin Andreassen (Park Sloper, and my bandmate in Sometymes Why) run a sweet little Old Time Jam at our local watering hole, which feels like Cheers, I mean, actually. It’s called Lowlands, and everyone knows my name.

What are your thoughts of the roots-bluegrass-country community in NYC and Brooklyn?

Aoife: I love it- don’t feel like I’m around enough to give an educated answer, but there’s a strong sense of community here, especially around places like Jalopy, and even at Rockwood. The venue mangers really seem to care about their artists and the music they present. That’s hard to come by. 

Can you discuss what lies ahead for you?

Aoife: My main goal in 2012 is getting my solo stuff out there. I love playing with my band, and am dying to go into the studio, and then hit the road.  We had an awesome tour of California in August, and we are going to make a few new demos this week. Charlie Rose (Boston musician-extraordinaire) is coming down to join us on pedal steel, and we’re stoked.

This fall has been crazy. In addition to working with Crooked Still, I’ve had the great pleasure of filling in for Amy Helm in Ollabelle. There may be more of that down the line, who knows.

On October 25th, I’m involved with two exciting releases. The first is The Goat Rodeo Sessions. YoYo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan have formed this crazy band, and I was lucky enough to be the guest vocalist on two songs. We’re heading to LA for the press tour, so tune in to Leno on Tuesday night to watch us play “Here and Heaven,” an original song.

Also coming out on Tuesday is Noam Pikelny’s sophomore solo album. I sing a Tom Waits song on this record, and Noam’s playing John Hartford’s banjo on that track. It’s glorious. We’re hitting the road in support of the album in December, with a fun band consisting of Chris Eldrige, Gabe Witcher, Jesse Cobb (former Stringduster), Mark Schatz, as well as Noam and me.

I’m also hoping to finish my duo album with Karan Casey, who is one of the most inspiring women I know.  We’ve been slowly working on it for several years, and now the time is ripe for completion!

Wow. That IS a lot! With all that you have going on, can you share some of the sources of your inspiration?

Aoife: I read Lonesome Dove this year, which is by far the most inspiring novel I’ve read in a long time.

In terms of music: I’ve been loving the new Joy Kills Sorrow record, as well as the new Ryan Adams that came out last week. Killer songs.

Have you heard Cuddle Magic? They’re a Philly/Brooklyn band, and they’re all people that went to New England Conservatory (where I went to college), but AFTER me. I heard them at Sycamore this week and was blown away.  Their singer, Kristin Slipp, is other worldly. Check it out here:

Before we go, I would like to ask you about working with Alison Krauss? Can you describe your experience working with her, and having her record one of your songs? How did that all come together?

Aoife: My friend and mentor, Gary Paczosa (who’s worked closely with Alison in the past), invited me to Nashville to make some demos back in 2007. One thing led to another, and he happened to get a copy of the demo to Alison. I first learned of their interest via FACEBOOK! Barry Bales (the bassist in Union Station) sent me a message saying they were interested in the tune, and then later that year Jerry Douglas called me to say that they recorded it for the film Get Low.

It was a crazy journey, and it’s such a massive honor to hear a singer like Alison Krauss singing that song, which is very personal to me. She is an incredibly kind and generous person, and I hope to get to actually sing WITH her at some point in the future.

Good luck with everything Aoife! I can’t wait to hear all of the exciting work you’ve got cooking and to see you perform next time.

Aoife: Thanks!

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