It has become fairly standard practice these days for a musical artist to exhibit – or at least, promote – a stylistically diverse artistic agenda. It could be a country artist embracing pop, a classical soloist moonlighting in jazz or a folk singer advocating the blues.
If you were to simply glance at her dossier, you might suppose Aoife O’Donovan was a champion at such genre-hopping. In recent years, while maintaining strong visibility with the Boston-based Americana troupe Crooked Still, she has collaborated with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, members of the multi-directional string group Punch Brothers, and the all-star chamber crossover quartet Goat Rodeo Sessions (which counts world class players Yo-Yo Ma and Punch Brother Chris Thile among its personnel).
But here is what sets O’Donovan apart from her contemporaries: instead of catering to collaborators: Her singing – a hushed, folk-fortified vocal sound full of powerfully emotive yet unassuming color – remains a refreshing constant.
“My role in all of these projects has been very consistent,” said O’Donovan, who performs at Monday night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre. “I think that’s why I’ve stepped into a lot of different genres while retaining my own sound.
“I’m not the kind of collaborator who is going to step into a Dave Douglas record and all of a sudden start sounding like a jazz singer. I’m going to do what I do within the context of the Dave Douglas Quintet. Or I’m going to do what I do within the context of Goat Rodeo. I’m going to try and lay my sonic palette over the top of what they’re doing and then blend it all together.”
That speaks volumes for artists’ esteem for her singing. But after a decade with Crooked Still and a fistful of critically lauded collaborations, O’Donovan is finally ready to place priority on her name, her voice and her songs. On June 11, she will issue her debut solo album – a 10-song set of all-original music titled Fossils that is being regarded as one of the year’s most anticipated Americana releases.
“Definitely one of the things I’ve really enjoyed throughout my career is having a lot of different focuses. Now I’m very excited to be focusing on my solo album, the one thing that’s really been on the back burner for the last decade.”
Much of O’Donovan’s music seems shaped by her distinctive singing, but her writing has hardly gone unnoticed. Fossils’ opening tune, Lay My Burden Down, was first cut by Alison Krauss on her 2011 recording Paper Airplane. One can detect similarities in the understated vocal approach of both artists. But the songs define the difference throughout Fossils.
Shades of Joni Mitchell surface on Pearls, hints of ’70s-era Laurel Canyon folk-rock are draped over Glowing Heart, and the album finale of Oh, Mama is ripe with rustic waltz accents that bring to mind The Band.
“I am by no means prolific,” O’Donovan said. “But the songs on this record all came out with a mind of their own. And I think they have a common thread. Some of them might go in a slightly more folky style, and some of them might go with more of a Celtic influence or a jazz style or a singer-songwriter style. It really depends on the song. But I definitely don’t plan it out in advance. I don’t say, ‘I need to write this kind of song.’ It just kind of happens.”
Still, you can’t help but think – especially in the way her singing sweeps over electric shores in what might stand as Fossils’ finest song, Beekeeper – that writing and O’Donovan’s extraordinary vocal phrasing go hand in hand. That was certainly the case with the artists she grew up listening to.
“I remember learning Kate and Anna McGarrigle songs and Joni Mitchell songs. I mean, does anybody phrase anything like Joni Mitchell? And Paul Simon, who I always thought was one of the most underrated singers. Of course, he’s this highly rated songwriter. But the way he phrases on a song like Hearts and Bones is just beautiful. That, in a nutshell, is how I want to sing.”
“But I’ve also been a songwriter ever since I can remember, although it’s been hard to admit that to myself. Still, to this day, instead of describing myself as a singer-songwriter, I think of myself as a singer who writes songs. It’s a different thing.”
Aoife O’Donovan and Joe Louis Walker perform Monday night at 7 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Hour. Admission is $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.