Aoife O’Donovan is constantly in create mode. The prolific Grammy-winning singer and songwriter had barely left her celebrated album, 2022’s Age of Apathy, in her rearview before working on her upcoming album, All My Friends, set for release this March.
Prior to that, however, O’Donovan was commissioned by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra to write songs inspired by the 19th Amendment. O’Donovan began with guitar, piano, and singing melodic lines which orchestrator Tanner Porter translated for orchestral instruments.
That commission evolved into songs, the first of which is the album’s title track, released on women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt’s birthday. Brass quartet The Westerlies, orchestral collective The Knights (conducted by O’Donovan’s husband, Eric Jacobsen), and the San Francisco Girls Chorus are among the collaborators on “All My Friends,” which is co-produced by O’Donovan.
The lyric video for “All My Friends” dropped on the same day as its January 9th release. Created by Steph Jenkins (O’Donovan’s friend since their teenage years) and Brian Lee, it features sepia-tinted archival footage of women marching for their right to vote. O’Donovan’s lyrics superimposed over the imagery sound like what the women might have been feeling—which was her intention. “This is a heavy topic,” she says. “I’ve never gone there before, trying to make people think about these things that are still happening to them now.”
The 19th Amendment
The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned me to write a piece with virtually no guidelines other than it had to be inspired by the night of the passage of the 19th Amendment at its Centennial. A lot of orchestras around America were commissioning female composers to write music with this theme in mind. Those pieces were very varied. Some of them were purely instrumental. Some of them had a vocal component. I wanted to write a series of folk songs as a song cycle [with the 19th Amendment as a theme]. I didn’t know exactly how they were going to go together. I ended up settling on five songs as part of the orchestral commission, then reworked them for a folk album and “All My Friends” is the opening track.
I’m such a huge fan of historical fiction. I want to embody these characters. I want to create this backstory that doesn’t exist, but in my mind, it does. Especially a woman like Carrie Chapman Catt, we have a lot of letters she wrote. You can really feel her personality come off the page from her speeches and her writings. I tried to get a little bit inside her mind and also inside my mind as if she’s speaking to me now. I tried to write a song that went back to what it must have felt like to be her mother and what it must have felt like to be her as a young woman. But it could be anybody. I picked her because we had all these great examples of her writing and her voice.
Setting the Tone
It’s almost like a meditation on womanhood, motherhood, the struggles of 100 years ago, and how they relate to the struggles of today. Any songwriter is always speaking whatever the truth is that we’re feeling at that time. The 19th amendment unlocked a lot of other thoughts for me. This record overlapped with my previous album, Age of Apathy, which was another meditation on the specific time period of 2001 to 2020. That was [the] transition from young adulthood to middle age for me, and this is the next step to that. What was it like to be a mother in the 1800s? What was it like to be fighting for the literal right to vote, to participate in democracy, marching in the 1910s? Now, in so many ways we’ve come so far. But in other ways, we haven’t.
San Francisco Girls Chorus
The artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Valérie Sainte-Agathe has this incredible musical energy. These young girls are such a force. With this music in particular, having young female voices sing with me, I can’t imagine having it any other way. I sing the opening verse, the Westerlies come in this choral moment with me and brass and then the strings come in, and then it gives way and the tempo comes in and you hear the girls humming. The sound of children’s voices, it’s this poignant moment for me.