Aoife O’Donovan Reckons With the Progression—and Regression—of Women’s Lib on All My Friends

"It's sad, and it's frankly embarrassing, that in 2024 women are–no matter how you cut it–basically, second-class citizens," the singer-songwriter told Jezebel of what inspired her latest record. 

Aoife O’Donovan Reckons With the Progression—and Regression—of Women’s Lib on All My Friends

Aoife O’Donovan isn’t one to sit still. Literally. In the throes of album promotion and getting her daughter to school, O’Donovan had just returned home from a run when we spoke earlier this month. It’s been two years since the prolific singer-songwriter from Massachusetts released Age of Apathy, her seventh record. Now, the Grammy-winner has returned with her first self-produced LP, All My Friends (out March 22). Timed to Women’s History Month, the nine-song collection was inspired by the passage of the 19th amendment and the progression–and in some cases, regression–of the American women’s liberation movement over the past century.

O’Donovan got her start as a founding member of Boston-bred string band Crooked Still who–almost immediately–became a fixture on the festival circuit (namely—the Newport Folk Festival and Falcon Ridge Folk Festival). She’d go on to lend a hand to the Boston Pops as well as Yo-Yo Ma’s The Goat Rodeo Sessions, among dozens of other projects, including co-founding the trio I’m With Her with singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. As a Bluegrass Americana band, the trio was heralded for making “feminist” music, particularly their 2018 debut record, See You Around.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to make a feminist record,” O’Donovan told The Boot that year. “My hope is that people will see I’m With Her not as a band of women, but as a band—as musicians. We hope this reaches you regardless of your gender identity or experience.”


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A post shared by Aoife O’Donovan (@aoifemaria)

On All My Friends, O’Donovan’s intent—or target audience—is impossible to mistake. The record was conceived in the midst of the pandemic after O’Donovan was prompted to write a piece for the centennial of women’s right to vote. So moved was she in the process, that she then examined speeches and letters from famous suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt and soon, more than a solitary song was created. On every track of All My Friends, O’Donovan measures her own perspective as a woman and mother in the present, against those of the past.

Over Zoom, O’Donovan discussed who influenced her during the making of All My Friends, what “friends” she collaborated with, and how she’s keeping hope alive despite the country’s converging crises in another presidential election year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: There are a lot of voices on All My Friends–from the San Francisco Girls Choir to those from history like suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt. Tell me about how it all came together.

Aoife O’Donvan: It’s funny, the beginning stages really can be traced back to the darkest days of covid. My husband, Eric Jacobson, who is the music director at the Orlando Philharmonic, asked me if I was interested in being commissioned to write a piece commemorating the passage of the 19th Amendment because the centennial was coming up. I was like, “Yeah, that sounds cool,” but I had no idea what I was going to do. I was feeling this insane writer’s block and a total lack of motivation and I remember saying to him “I don’t think I can do this” but he said, “You can do it.’”

We moved to Florida and I ended up having a little bit more time and space and I just started writing. I decided I needed a theme. I first thought I was going to write five different songs from five different perspectives. It then kind of coalesced into something more consistent like, let’s focus on Carrie Chapman Catt a little bit but let’s also focus on my own perspective and the then and now. Then, let’s throw a little Woodrow Wilson in there and really try to tap into these old speeches and letters while figuring out how to modernize them so they’re coming through in my voice.

You’ve said previously that this record is, for all intents and purposes, a meditation on womanhood. On several tracks, this internal struggle with what has—and hasn’t—changed for American women in the 100 years since gaining the right to vote comes through loud and clear. 

It’s sad, and it’s frankly embarrassing, that in 2024 women are–no matter how you cut it–basically, second-class citizens. I think that it would be easy to say we’ve made so many advances and of course, there are women in positions of power. But one of the things that isn’t really talked about is that when you’re a woman, you just have a different set of expectations for yourself. Certainly in the world, people sometimes expect less of you, too. Women in the music industry see this all the time–even if it’s just tiny little things like assuming that women can’t plug in their own gear. But when you put them all together, you’re just sort of left with, “This is still a struggle and why is that the case?” It’s ridiculous and absurd. And I am not at all the type of person who’s going to sit at home and be mad or complain about that on the internet. That’s not my style at all. So, I think for me, writing this piece, and raising a child and being a woman in the world, my mission is to just sort of go out and get shit done and be the best that I can be and try to sort of break down these barriers as I go.

For a lot of women, I think what you’re writing about can feel–at times–overwhelmingly bleak. Did you, at any point in the process, worry that the notion that society hasn’t progressed all that much in one hundred years or so isn’t actually what listeners would want to hear considering there’s reminders of such everywhere? Did you feel any element of pressure to reflect some sort of optimism or hope? 

I think there are a lot of elements of hope on this record, and I don’t think I would want to put myself forward as like, a victim of oppression or marginalization in any way. I mean, of course, I am a woman, but I do think that it’s important to acknowledge that I, as a white woman in the 21st century–but also the women who were able to fight for the right to vote–were extremely privileged. They were educated, they were white. 

In terms of the record and the music, for me, I think that when you set out to create art or to write music, you’re obviously inspired by something, right? You have to find inspiration, which in and of itself is a form of hope. Even in the darkest moments on this record, the song “Over The Finish Line” may seem resigned to saying, “We’re living in hard times.” But I think it’s more of an acknowledgment like “Yes, we are living in hard times,” but what’s unsaid is that we still have to do it. You can write any sad song about whatever, but you’re still doing something. There’s action there. You’re singing. You’re writing. You’re moving. You’re communing with somebody else.

There’s a lyric on “Daughters” that asks: “Looking back, from the next century. What will they see?” I’m curious what your own answer is.

What do we see now, looking back on 100 years ago? I mean, we see these strong women but of course, we also see like, shit…they had to go through so much to achieve something absolutely monumental. Still, it was baby steps. It’s all baby steps. We still don’t have universal childcare in this country. There’s still all these things that you’re like, “Well, the man is still kind of keeping women down.”


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A post shared by Aoife O’Donovan (@aoifemaria)

To that end, how do you find hope as an artist asking these questions and seeking an answer–sometimes, in vain? 

I think that in terms of the political spectrum, we, as a society, are really going to have to shift away from the national stage and look toward local politics. And I’m very excited and inspired by local politicians, local races, local legislation, and I think that, especially if the matchup is what it was in 2020, people have to really get involved on a local level. If people want change, it’s not showing up once a year to vote, or once every four years to vote in the general election.

I live in Florida and I get a lot of shit from my friends in the Northeast for living here, but the local politics scene in Florida–especially where I live in Central Florida–is really exciting and there are people who are on the ground doing the work and fighting back.

Given you have a young daughter, I have to ask if she’s heard this record. If so, have there been any teachable moments? 

She actually has several books about suffragists that my mom has sent her and she’s fascinated. She gets very mad when I tell her things like women couldn’t vote or people with darker skin couldn’t drink from the same water fountain. She has a very strong sense of justice, so it’s definitely been a teachable moment. We actually went to vote in a local election a couple of months ago and she asked me, with her eyes shining in the backseat, “Do you think women will be there?’ And I was like, “Yes, I do. It’s 2023. We’re good.’”

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