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Singer-songwriter Aoife O'Donovan takes on Springsteen's 'Nebraska' on latest tour


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Amna Nawaz: It's not unusual for a singer-songwriter to perform songs written by others. But it is unusual for an artist to perform an entire album's albums worth of someone else's material, especially if that someone else is a giant of the music world.

But that is exactly what Grammy-winning musician Aoife O'Donovan is doing on her latest tour.

Special correspondent Tom Casciato has this story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tom Casciato: A performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, that may seem an unlikely place to come upon a singer-songwriter.


Tom Casciato: But 41-year-old Aoife O'Donovan's original compositions embrace many musical contexts. Her most recent album, 2022's "Age of Apathy," was described by PopMatters as lushly layered and sophisticated, with connections to contemporary jazz and even classical music.


Tom Casciato: Yet, for all that, it received a Grammy nod in the folk category.

When the "Age of Apathy" was nominated for best folk album for a Grammy Award, my first thought was, is that a very reductive way to think about what you do?

Aoife O'Donovan, Musician: I think, actually, it is the opposite. I feel like to call somebody a folk singer is just a -- I think it encompasses so much more than folk as a genre.

To me, it means somebody who sings for the people, a bard, a storyteller.

Tom Casciato: Like most folk singers, she is expert at singing not only her own songs, but other people's as well, which could bring us to her most recent project.

Aoife O'Donovan: Hello. You guys all know what is happening, right? You know why you are here.

Tom Casciato: But let's not go there quite yet.

Aoife O'Donovan: My first instrument was piano. I studied piano at the All Newton Music School with Susan Holmes (ph). She was my first piano teacher.

MAN: And who is your teacher?

Aoife O'Donovan: Susan Holmes.

And I loved playing piano. I wish that I had taken it more seriously at the time. It's always -- hindsight is 20/20. I was like, oh, I wish I had practiced piano more and have been a better pianist. But it was a great instrument to start on.

Tom Casciato: Here she is at 13, a little hard to see, but easy to hear her, singing Joni Mitchell's "Urge For Going."

And I know that record very well. And I noticed when you're singing it as a teenager at the age when a lot of young players are just trying to imitate, you have got your own phrasing. You're already, like, doing your cover of Joni Mitchell's "Urge For Going."

Aoife O'Donovan: I think style has always been really important to me, artistic style and trying to find a way to emulate without imitating.

And, of course, I'm sure I have imitated a ton in my life, and I still do, but trying to find those things that inspire you and then make them your own, I think, is deeply important.

Tom Casciato: Which does bring us to Aoife O'Donovan's latest project, a tour performing live the entirety of Bruce Springsteen's classic acoustic album "Nebraska."

The songs are famously stark, peopled with characters at war with their own souls.

Aoife O'Donovan: And performing this album in its entirety is very emotionally taxing in a way that is different than doing a set of my own music. You really do have to get into character.

Tom Casciato: There is the moral compromise of the cop in "Highway Patrolman" who won't arrest his own murderous brother.


Tom Casciato: There is the sad determination of the young man in "Used Cars" humiliated by his father's position in life.


Tom Casciato: Even the upbeat "Open All Night" hides the desperation beneath its exuberance.


Tom Casciato: So how does she make these tales by one of music's acknowledged greatest storytellers her own?

Aoife O'Donovan: One of the things I like the most about being a musician is just that you can communicate in this way, and you can kind of set aside whatever fears you may have and insecurities and say, OK, well, now I'm going to go into this other part of myself and create these new huge emotions and have these experiences, and then other people are getting to hear that and respond to it.

It's really powerful.


Aoife O'Donovan: I love this record so much because these songs, to me, feel very timeless. They feel -- the characters, those people still exist.


Aoife O'Donovan: People are still living hard lives and coming up on hard times and finding reasons to keep on living. And I think that that's what, I don't know, speaks to me so deeply.

Tom Casciato: Speaking perhaps most deeply on this night at New York's Bowery Ballroom is "My Father's House." It is a song in which a man dreams of the comfort his father can provide.

Aoife O'Donovan: Last night, I was -- there was a guy in the front row who, when I started "My Father's House," took off his glasses and just proceeded to weep the entire song, like, I mean, really weeping.


Aoife O'Donovan: And it was just so heavy to me.


Aoife O'Donovan: And that sort of makes me almost cry.


Tom Casciato: Soon, the man awakens to a world where neither comfort nor his father can be found.


Tom Casciato: Telling his story is the work of a folk singer, creating emotion, making someone else's songs her own.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Tom Casciato in New York City.


Aoife O'Donovan: Thank you so much. Thank you, guys.

Geoff Bennett: She has got a beautiful voice.

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