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Aoife O’Donovan savoring her magical, musical journey

Aoife O’Donovan is touring behind her debut solo album “Fossils.”  | Shawn Brackbill photo

Aoife O’Donovan is touring behind her debut solo album, “Fossils.” | Shawn Brackbill photo

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The Goat Rodeo Sessions, 7 p.m. Aug. 18, Ravinia, 418 Sheridan, Highland Park. $30-$80. (847) 266-5100; ravinia.org

Updated: August 14, 2013 3:47PM



Aoife O’Donovan is used to nonstop touring, but even she admits this summer has been a little crazy. There have been stops with her band at Mountain Stage, Bonnaroo, the Ottawa Jazz Festival and the Grand Ole Opry while also touring solo with Garrison Keeler’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio show. Now add to that list the Goat Rodeo Sessions, a tour that makes a stop at Ravinia, where she is the vocalist in an impressive ensemble that includes Chris Thile (mandolin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Edgar Meyer (bass).

“Everyday I wake up and the first thing I think is ‘Where am I’,” O’Donovan says laughing. “My schedule is my bible this summer.”

Goat Rodeo uniquely blends bluegrass with classical; the groups self-titled debut won two Grammys in February, including best folk album.

Sometimes O’Donovan can’t believe where the music has taken her. “It’s been a magical experience jumping into this quartet of masters,” she said. “I’m always hungry for projects that pull me out of my comfort zone.”

O’Donovan’s friend Thile contacted her about joining; he knew she would be a great addition to the unique super group.

“I wonder if any sailors kept it together long enough to actually appreciate the composition of the siren’s song,” Thile mused. “Such is the potential danger of Aoife O’Donovan: being lulled into such a state of bliss by her voice that the ideal balance of surprise and satisfaction she strikes as a songwriter goes unmarked, ‘cause that’s how she’ll get you.”

Now add to all this a little more icing on the cake: O’Donovan recently released her first solo album, “Fossils,” produced by Tucker Martine. Until now, O’Donovan was best known as the voice of the alt-bluegrass band Crooked Still and the songwriter behind “Lay My Burden Down,” recorded by Alison Krauss on her hit 2011 album “Paper Airplane.”

O’Donovan had been thinking about a solo album for some time but was focused on Crooked Still, the band she co-founded as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and didn’t want to tackle both at the same time. After ten years and six albums, the band went on hiatus in early 2012 and she began “to put the pieces of the puzzle together” for a solo turn.

What O’Donovan has created here is a well-thought out collection of sparkling originals that weave together threads of folk, bluegrass and country rock. She gives part of the credit to Martine (Bill Frisell, Laura Veirs, My Morning Jacket).

“I was always impressed with the way he captures the vocalist and the ideas of the songs while layering all these cool sounds inside of them,” O’Donovan, 30, says.

All of this exposure has won O’Donovan some high profile fans, including Steve Earle who told the CBC: “It’s like hearing Joni Mitchell when she was 20. Aoife is really, really good. Good songs, great singer.”

The songs on “Fossils” are a varied lot: “Briar Rose” is based on an Anne Sexton poem about Sleeping Beauty; “Pearl” was inspired by an inherited pearl necklace and family stories (her mother is descended from Rebecca Nurse of Salem with fame); and “Lay My Burden Down” is about a person facing the end of life.

Did O’Donovan have any qualms about recording a song already done to perfection by Krauss? She admits she did but Martine convinced her to try it.

“I think it’s a very different than Allison’s beautiful version,” O’Donovan says. “We went in a different direction with more electric instruments, pedal steel and guitars. And I love how it turned out, and I’m so glad it leads off the record.”

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times free-lance writer.



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