Other than that a tardy shuttle driver has left her stranded, things are going well for Aoife O’Donovan. Yes, she’d rather be conducting this interview from the air-conditioned comfort of her hotel room, but she’s happy enough to be in Manitoba, where she’s just led a Winnipeg Folk Festival workshop with a gaggle of talented young musicians. And things, she contends, are only going to get better—even if she’s not quite ready to spill all the beans.
“I have some really exciting news that’s coming later this week,” O’Donovan says coyly, “so you’ll just have to stay tuned to social media.”
The 34-year-old musician lets slip that the big announcement has to do with roots supergroup I’m With Her, in which she plays guitar and sings alongside fiddler Sara Watkins and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz. It’s not that the three will be hitting the road later this month—that’s public knowledge—although she’s excited that on the American Acoustic tour they’ll be joined by the extraordinary jazz guitarist Julian Lage, along with the neo-bluegrass virtuosos in Punch Brothers. And it’s not that she’s going to be Garrison Keillor’s musical guest on the Prairie Home Companion host’s fall speaking tour. So we’ll just have to wait and see; perhaps she’ll announce it from the Vancouver Folk Music Festival main stage this weekend.
Which is exciting enough in itself, as it’s the public debut of her duo with Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny. The two have a long history of collaboration, thanks in part to an inadvertent push from the Boss. “We first played together in 2006, when he filled in for Greg Liszt, who was the banjo player for [her band] Crooked Still. Greg was on tour with Bruce Springsteen, so Noam came to Ireland and subbed for him, and then he came to California. In the end we became very close friends and musical collaborators, and that relationship has continued over the years. I got to sing on Noam’s second solo album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, and most recently I got to go to Nashville and Knoxville and sing with Punch Brothers, filling in for Gabe Witcher, who had a new baby being born.”
O’Donovan and Pikelny have also toured with their own quartet, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to make their duo debut in front of 15,000 folk-music fans. Especially, as the singer notes, when they already have a sizable shared repertoire of tunes both traditional and modern.
“We’ll do a song called ‘Fish and Bird’, probably, which we recorded on Noam’s album; it’s a Tom Waits song,” O’Donovan says. “And of course we’ll do a couple of traditional songs, because that’s definitely where we both come from, first and foremost—the American tradition of bluegrass and old-time music.”
Aoife O’Donovan and Noam Pikelny play the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Main Stage on Saturday (July 15).