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Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins Discuss the Making and Meaning of ‘All My Friends’

Mar 26, 2024

Aoife O'Donovan and Sara Watkins Discuss the Making and Meaning of 'All My Friends'

Bearing witness to friends and collaborators Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins in conversation is reminiscent of listening to their frequent musical partnerships, like their trio I’m With Her (with Sarah Jarosz). In moments, they blend perfectly, finishing each other’s sentences. They dance around each other, giving space for thoughtful responses and further questions.

In an artful, deeply reverent, and candid conversation, they delved into the intricacies of creating O’Donovan’s new release, All My Friends. The project originated from a commission by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019 and blossomed into what O’Donovan refers to as a “song burst,” inspired by the life and work of American Suffragette, Carrie Chapman Catt, and the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

The project propelled O’Donovan into unfamiliar territory as a songwriter and what emerged is a beautiful elegy to the women of the past who fought for the right to vote. It’s an homage to women of today – and future generations.

BGS spoke via Zoom with Artist of the Month O’Donovan from her home in Orlando and with Watkins joining from her home in Los Angeles.

Aoife O’Donovan: Hey! How are you?

Sara Watkins: I’m good. How are you doing?

AO: I’m so good. I love that I’m having an official conversation with one of my best friends. It’s sort of weird.

SW: When they called me to ask if I would be interested in interviewing you, it was an hour after I had just sent you that raving text about how much I adore the album and the music. I’m so blown away by it.

AO: Oh, my gosh! You’re so sweet! I love you!

SW: I’m not sweet, and you know that.

AO: You are. You’re a nice person. You just sometimes don’t hug strangers. That’s like your only quirk.

SW: I’ve been listening to the record since you sent it to me. But this week, I’ve been getting to really dive in and have the fun of trying to get inside your head a little bit. From that opening line, from the opening gesture at the beginning of the album, it’s just this gorgeous way of encompassing the whole record so beautifully. But it’s also so open. It’s not a thesis statement, but it powerfully contains the whole album. And I just wonder, where did that particular thing come from? And when did you know that that was going to be the way to start?

AO: It’s funny, that opening phrase, just the idea of “All my friends, all my friends,” that idea came to me many years ago, like maybe in 2018. I just had the melody and the chords and I kind of sat with it. It never was anything except for that. When I started working on the idea of this record, when Orlando (Philharmonic Orchestra) asked me to write 5 songs to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, I didn’t even go back to that tiny phrase immediately. I started elsewhere.

I started to write this other music, and then I remember sitting at the piano, actually at Full Sail, in the studio that I worked at here and I remember those words, “All my friends,” that was all that it was. I started thinking about what that meant, as even just a very simple, very kind of trite, almost overused lyric. There are tons of songs called “All My Friends.” There are movies called All My Friends. There’s a book that I just read called All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. It’s not a very original 3-word statement. But there was something about those words together with those chords, that all of a sudden felt like they belonged in this project. This is about the women who were before and the women who are yet to be born. It felt like this big circle all of a sudden of humanity and womanhood.

SW: It’s powerful on its own and then also with the context of the movement. I don’t often think of movements like that with friends. We think about it for younger generations. Let’s change policies to help younger generations, or to help the American people, but to put the word “friends” on it just makes it so heartbreaking. I just get sisterhood through this whole record in the most powerful way.

In “Daughters,” I have these 2 different visions of what’s happening in that song. With the way the band and the orchestration wrap around your guitar playing – the band does such a great job. You’ve played with Griffin Goldsmith, and with Alan Hampton a ton. The trio entity is so complete and so complementary to the songs and then to add to it, the way that you have the orchestration coming into play and the choir in such supportive ways. I had two images. One was this vision of a battlefield. Like when we were in grade school, where we talked about Gettysburg, or these legendary Revolutionary War battle sites and you see that field where the people are, and then you see these flanks coming in from the sides. That’s how that song feels to me.

AO: That’s like exactly what I was imagining when I wrote it. I’m not joking; that exact image of just being on a battlefield. And then, like the other voices coming in, or like the other people coming in to sort of fill the ranks. That’s exactly what I was envisioning. That’s so funny.

SW: It’s incredible.

AO: I’m so glad that that came across.

SW: It does. And it’s a credit to the arrangement, where you have the choir come in and there’s this rumbling support, or this foundational support from the orchestration before. When that chorus comes in, it just feels like you’re surrounded by kinship or by the sisterhood of support. And then the next verse opens up, and you’re alone again, or like fairly alone and you have to carry this battle by yourself, for yourself. It’s an individual fight. But then, going back to that “all my friends” lyric, it just feels like all of those entities are your friends coming to support you in your time of need.

AO: Exactly. That’s it exactly it. I feel like for me, when I made this record, and even now getting ready to put it out, it’s so specific and it’s so deeply personal. And it’s so not a record of like, “Check out this jam!” It’s just not that kind of record at all. And it’s not meant to be. I’m so glad that you listened to it in this way. This is what my hope for this record is, that people will be able to have the time to sort of process what it is. And these images and that exact thing of going into a battlefield. But then, there are moments when everything is stripped back, and you are sort of alone. But you’re also singing for your friends and for your community and for your mothers and your grandmothers and their mothers and their grandmothers. But also for the daughters of the daughters of the daughters. It just feels like this circle keeps on going.

In that song, specifically having the girl’s chorus, and on the whole record it was such an important thing for me to have the voices of young women, and not necessarily harmony vocals by my peers. I just felt there was something about the innocence of this young voice. The experience of getting to do it live with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and in Massachusetts, and even getting to do it in Glasgow with the girls’ chorus, it’s really powerful. It’s hard not to cry, even as a performer. It’s something about seeing young girls up on a stage, ready to give something. It just feels deeply emotional.

SW: And they are giving to you and you are getting to experience that support literally. Being on stage can feel very alienating and very vulnerable. It is a little bit of a fight sometimes within yourself if nothing else.

I feel like this is just such a powerful statement: grappling with change and growth. And obviously, that’s something that needs to be continually grappled with. It’s not like, “Oh, the change happens, and now we’re done. Check it off the list.” It’s a continual engagement, and it’s hard.

With “America Come,” when you get to that point in the album, it feels like the industrial revolution to me.

AO: Yes. I love that.

SW: Especially because you’re singing the words, “manpower, womanpower.” I feel like the machine is running.

AO: Right. I feel like that song with the, “dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun,” it becomes very steady. It is like the machine is running. That’s one of the songs on the record that really is so much about Carrie Chapman Catt, the suffragist who I was inspired to write about and write from the perspective of. That song is really heavily lifted from an actual speech that she gave. Some of those phrases are verbatim from her speeches.

That idea of this question, “What is this democracy for which the world is battling?” I feel like that’s a question that we can still ask ourselves. What are we doing here? What does this mean? What is America? I feel like that’s just such a deep question, and to be asking that in 1919 or 1918, or whenever that speech was from, and then to still feel it in 2022 – when I was writing this, it felt so relevant I feel like it’s almost eerie. We can’t give up the fight. We can’t stop. You don’t just check something off the list. As you said, it just kind of keeps going.

SW: And in that way, the album encompasses all the humanity, the micro versions of this, where for instance, in the institution of marriage, or a long-term relationship, or friendships, family, or whatever, it is about checking in every so often: “Wait! Life is running away with us. What do we want? What do we want in choosing this city, this school, this town, this job, this house?”

And that happens on individual levels. Like in my own life, I think, “Have I gotten away from this thing that I cared about five years ago? Have I checked in about this?” I feel like with the content of this album, I found myself thinking about the country, and I found myself thinking about me. Especially, with the more introspective song “The Right Time.” That’s the one where she talks to herself a little bit?

AO: Yeah, exactly. She’s like, “Don’t give them anything to laugh about.”

SW: Like a pep talk.

AO: Yeah, exactly that. It is a pep talk. That’s kind of my idea, about what she or anybody in her position would be going through as a woman with so much to offer, such a big brain, and so much potential. But, what do you have to climb over when you’re living in a time where you’re not valued and the only jobs available are to be a teacher in a one-room school house, or to leave the town that you grew up in? And people are going to look at you. People are gonna make fun of you if you’re a smart woman. People still make fun of smart women. It’s so weird.

Sara, we’ve talked about this a lot, being women in music, about how I feel like I’ve been so lucky and so respected throughout my career as a musician. You know I’ve always felt very valued and have very rarely been made to feel “less than” due to my gender. I feel so lucky that I’ve been in a community of musicians who have really supported me. But I know that that’s not the case for many musicians, and across other fields it is absolutely not the case.

SW: Yeah. I feel I have had a similar experience with that support. I can only imagine that in that era, when community really was the people around you – not people somewhere on the internet, in a town across the country that you can kind of connect with. She could physically rally the people in her region by convincing newspapers to publish things.

AO: By like getting up on stage and giving speeches or by writing a letter to the President and getting responses. Obviously, she’s not the only one. There were many women who were powerful and were doing amazing things. They just had to try so much harder, and that is what’s interesting. I think having a daughter in this time of life, in the 2020s, you want to give them the tools to always feel that they have the confidence and awareness to think of themselves as equal and powerful.

SW: Tell me about the research you did for this. So, the idea was presented to you and commissioned by The Orlando Philharmonic. Is that right?

AO: By the Orlando Phil, yep! So the OPO asked me in 2019. They said, “It’s the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment.” A lot of orchestras in the U.S. were asking female composers to write music for concerts they were doing. They were trying to diversify their programming. And when OPO asked me to do a piece, I was sort of like, “Why me?” That’s something I’ve never done before, writing an orchestral piece to be performed as a commission. It just felt like, that’s not how I operate. You know what I mean, I’m a songwriter. But I said, “Yes, that would be a good challenge.”

I didn’t think about it for a while, and then COVID happened, and everything kind of got crazy. I was like, “I’m never gonna write another song again, maybe this is it, maybe I’m done making music.” And then when I got down here to Florida, I started to regain some sense of artistic confidence and inspiration. I started to write a little bit of Age of Apathy that fall and then started to work on this 20- to 25-minute piece of music. So I went into the studio and really started to write it. But without text. I didn’t really even know what the text was going to be about yet. I wrote all the music first, because I had to get it to the orchestrator, Tanner Porter, who orchestrated all the charts for me. That was gonna take a lot of time.

That was November and the concert was supposed to be in May. I needed to get her the music. So I was working, working, working, and didn’t have any text. I wrote all the vocal parts and all the music sketched out to what I wanted it to be. We talked a ton about, “Hey, I want this to open with brass, and I want strings to come in here, and I want this line to be played on cello, and these are the brass lines that I want.” I would make these demos where I would play all that stuff for her, and then she orchestrated it. She also put together all the interludes that sort of stitch the songs together, which are so cool.

It was really fun to have this blank slate without any lyric goal or hesitancy to hold me back. I had simultaneously been doing research, reading, and figuring out what I wanted it to be. “All My Friends” is really just an imagining of the moment when these movements met up in Tennessee to get these votes ratified. And they did march. And they did plead their case and were ultimately successful. But those images are from my own head, like a reimagining of vague historical events.

SW: Let me just jump in really fast just to say that I love how much space you gave for yourself in imagining that imagery. I feel like my own temptation would be to report and do the research and make it rhyme. I feel like you’re the perfect artist for this kind of commission, because of the way that your melodies can float above or without the constraints of rigid time that a lot of us songwriters are tempted to do. The way you carry a line – I don’t think you always realize how extraordinarily unique it is. I think that because of the way that you do music like that, it lends itself to an orchestral project where we’re not dealing with 8-bar phrases and the occasional extra 2 bars and things.

I feel like you are the perfect singer-songwriter to receive this kind of commission. I am so happy that you indulged in that vision of the world, of the people descending into Tennessee, and what the fog was like and what the air was like. Because that is what the feeling was like and that’s the story. It’s not just, “on this date this happened.” I’m glad that you put yourself in the story, because that gave so much room for the arc and the heart of the thing and makes me wanna listen. If I had done this, it would sound like an eighth-grade book report.

AO: No, come on, give yourself more credit, Sara! I don’t have any idea what Carrie Chapman Catt was like personally, because I didn’t know her, but I felt like I could give her dialogue. You can make her personality be whatever it is that you want her to be.

I just read this amazing book called Wolf Hall. I was so fascinated by how the writer, [Hilary Mantel], makes Thomas Cromwell, this character, from the 1500s, feel like this modern, empathetic, shrewd, conniving, and complicated character. That also could have felt like an eighth-grade book report about Thomas Cromwell, but the author injected life into him. That’s the cool thing when you are an artist and when you are a writer, that’s what we do for people who were real or people who we’re making up. You’re taking these embellishments, and you’re telling a story with them.

With the song “Crisis,” [Carrie Chapman Catt] gave a speech called “Crisis” in 1916, and I read that speech and thought, “Oh, my God! This!” Yes, she’s using archaic language, and nobody speaks like this, but how can I imagine her as almost like a bluegrass singer getting up there and saying, “Alright, gather around girls. I’m gonna tell you about what’s going on and what we’re gonna do about it.”

Once I realized I could make it my own because this is my piece, it sort of like set me free into this new creative territory.

SW: And the way that you’re talking about “Crisis,” just the word itself makes you think of ominous minor chords and tension. And with those beautiful horns and flutes, it is just this wonderful, hopeful dawn of a movement. The dawn of a new time is here while you’re singing about the crisis. I love the optimism that’s contained in that and how you acknowledge that everything is all together.

AO: Exactly. One of my favorite things about “Crisis” is I really wanted there to be mandolin on it. It just has that folky feel to it. I had connected with Sierra Hull, who obviously, I’ve known for years and years, but we hadn’t really played that much music together, and I remember being on Cayamo in 2022, and really jamming with her for the first time. And then, you know, fast forward to eight months later I was like, “Oh, I think Sierra would totally kill this song.” I love her playing on it. It just has the right amount of weight to it.

SW: On “War Measure,” I’ve never heard you sing like you do on that chorus. The way you pull down those notes!

AO: It’s hard. It’s actually really hard for me to sing like that. It hurts my voice. But that’s actually my favorite one to do live, because there’s something about singing those lines, “If they pass this amendment to our constitution, we are gonna be talking about revolution.” That’s funny, because I had written that song without the lyrics. And then when I put the lyrics in, I was like, “Oh, this is actually, really rad.” It made it fun.

SW: I bet that was really fun. It makes sense that you wrote the lyrics after a lot of the music, because you get so much in there. It feels like you have room to expand the lines in ways that you might not if you’re writing it down on paper, right? And you get to really chew on certain lines for longer. I feel like there are some lines that get the time that they want to have rather than the time that might have been allotted to them.

AO: Exactly. It was odd, but I’m really glad that it worked out like that.

SW: I love “Over the Finish Line.”

AO: With Anaïs [Mitchell], who is a genius.

SW: And such a wonderful voice to have on here, both in terms of tonality – because you sound amazing together – but also because her songwriting voice has been a voice of movement, a voice of awareness. I love that choice.

AO: The idea kind of came after the fact. I recorded the song and I wanted there to be another voice. I didn’t want it to be me singing harmony with myself. I wanted something starkly different, tonally, from my voice. I’ve known Anaïs for almost 20 years. We’ve been in this same scene and the same world, but we’ve never really done anything together. It worked out so well. I love what she did and how she moves around through the melody and the unison part at the end of the song. I felt connected to her.

SW: I love how it is not the kind of harmony part where you are trying to blend them together. It is very much two individuals choosing to sing together. There are places where your phrasing is different and you’re shortening different lines. It is a perfect example of what you have throughout this record with the children’s choir and the orchestration. To have this lovely duet moment is another version of the sisterhood of letting everyone be themselves rather than needing to have it all looking so pretty and clean and tidy. It is like, “We are existing together, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

AO: Exactly.

SW: It is so well done.

AO: Thank you so much, Sara.

Photo Credit: Sasha Israel

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Aoife O'Donovan and Sara Watkins Discuss the Making and Meaning of 'All My Friends'
Aoife O'Donovan and Sara Watkins Discuss the Making and Meaning of 'All My Friends'