Orlando's Aoife O'Donovan gives out flowers and collects some of her own on 'All My Friends'

The now-local folkie is joined by dozens of collaborators on her new album

Aoife O'Donovan
Aoife O'Donovan Photo by Sasha Israel

March is one of the busiest and most important months of Aoife O'Donovan's career, and her recent chat with Orlando Weekly came during a rare, brief pause in her hectic schedule. On deck is a new album and a national tour, as well as family life and the ceaseless pressure of being an engaged citizen in these times of tumult and truculence.

Our interview started at noon, but she'd already been going for hours. "I was just doing other interviews, I went for a run, was at Eola General for a friend's birthday, just making the rounds," she says with a smirk. "About to go get my car washed at Octopus!"

This new album, All My Friends, is a meditation on women's rights and the fluid nature of female empowerment, at a time when those rights are under siege across much of the country — very definitely including Florida, where O'Donovan lives not far from Lake Eola with her husband, cellist/conductor Eric Jacobsen, who she married in 2016, and their daughter Jo, who was born a year later.

You could call it the family business, as Jacobsen (who himself comes from a highly accomplished musical family) currently serves as Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (with whom O'Donovan has performed several times), as well as the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in Norfolk.

"There's something about the vibe here in Orlando, and Central Florida in general, that I found when we moved here full-time, even though we'd been coming here part-time for many years before, that I find very conducive to a creative lifestyle," she says. "Even though I live in downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Heights, this area gives me a lot of creative energy."

Born in Boston in November 1982, O'Donovan matriculated through a Massachusetts scene that boasts some of the most prestigious music education programs in the country. She graduated from the Massachusetts Conservatory of Music in 2003, by which point she'd already founded the band Crooked Still with fellow alum Corey DiMario on bass, MIT's Greg Liszt on banjo and Rushad Eggleston (aka Cello Goblin), then a student at Berklee. Seven albums and 23 years later, that group persists, but the members have all gone on to pursue solo careers.

O'Donovan's first solo album, Blue Light, was released by Media Blitz Record Co. in 2010. By that point, she'd already made five albums with Crooked Still, and three more with Sometimes Why, a group she founded in 2005 with Kristin Andreassen and Ruth Ungar Merenda, plus another two with I'm With Her, the group she formed with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins in 2014. (Their single "Call My Name" earned O'Donovan a Grammy in 2019.)

She's also made dozens of guest appearances on recordings by artists as varied as the Wayfaring Strangers, Caitlin Canty, Kronos Quartet, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile and Yo-Yo Ma. With the latter four, O'Donovan features as vocalist in their Goat Rodeo Sessions project. O'Donovan has performed with symphony orchestras in Boston, Louisville, Kansas City, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C.

After years of living and working remotely, bouncing back and forth between Orlando and New York, her family finally put down roots in 2020, which was a time of great transition for many people. "My husband's been working here since 2015, and we've had our house here since 2016," O'Donovan says. "We would come here periodically, especially him, and rent it out the rest of the time. The reason we came down was because the OPO, like many orchestras in Florida, was able to have a full orchestral season. In 2020-2021, they had outdoor concerts all around town. It was an incredible feat — I don't even know how they did it! The reason we came down was because we didn't want to commute. Now we're here, and we're not moving back."

O'Donovan's newest album, All My Friends, comes out Friday on Yep Roc Records, an indie label based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, that has released all her albums since 2013. Its predecessor, Age of Apathy (which featured Alison Russell and Madison Cunningham), was nominated for three Grammys last year.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes almost as many people to make an album of this scale. "There's so many musicians on this album, probably 40," O'Donovan says. "Maybe 50 or 60. There's the children's chorus, the rhythm section, guest instrumentalists, guest vocalists. And then there's all the people working behind the scenes to get the music out to people." All My Friends also features the Knights, the Westerlies and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, who appear on the title track.

All My Friends arrives just as this year's election cycle is picking up steam — a terrifying thought to many Floridians, but not so much to O'Donovan. "Where I am, there's a lot of movement here," she says. "I'm excited to be here, I'm excited to be a Florida voter. Coming from the Northeast, I definitely grew up in more of a liberal bubble, but I think there's a lot to be gained from living in a purple state where your neighbors might have totally different views than you. I've found that there's a very warm atmosphere, and people are willing to have the uncomfortable conversations."

Much of the animating spirit of the album emanates from the ghost of Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), from whose writings and speeches O'Donovan drew for some of the lyrics. In 1920, Catt founded the League of Women Voters, today maybe best known for its role in running the U.S. presidential debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984, which fans of the genre consider some of the best years for that stuff.

The organization's influence actually goes much deeper, of course, and that is another subject worth pondering as one listens to the music. The League of Women Voters has been active on national and international levels, particularly in the immediate postwar era, and its roster over the years has included many iconic American feminists, starting with Catt herself.

With the release of All My Friends comes a whole slate of supporting shows, which allows O'Donovan to take her new material to some familiar (and not so familiar) settings. She has at least 27 gigs booked so far in 15 states and three countries through late September, including June dates abroad in London, Cambridge, Bristol and the 470-year-old Egeskov Castle in Funen, Denmark. The tour includes everything from an American Legion post in Nashville to Carnegie Hall. She also tours this summer with Hawktail, described as "a progressive bluegrass supergroup," where the two acts will team for the first time on March 30. Another notable gig sees O'Donovan returning to the Grand Ole Opry, also this month.

But O'Donovan's busy season starts locally at Park Ave CDs, where her official album release party takes place this Friday. (The store will have copious copies of the album on hand, and that's the best way to buy it — which you should.) O'Donovan will be signing copies of the record as well as performing a live set.

"It's an album for people who've enjoyed folk music in the past, orchestral music in the past," says O'Donovan, who'll also be playing the album in its entirety with the OPO in October. "I think I'd like anyone who just likes a good song and a good story to check it out, give it a spin."

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