For singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, the road is home. She’s seen the best and worst of life as a touring musician, from ramshackle motel beds to luxury rooms in picturesque mountain locales. It comes with its fair share of compromises, but it’s the life she’s always wanted.
A Boston native and child of musical parents, O’Donovan’s soulful voice and revelatory songwriting recently won the attention of President Obama, who included her song “Red & White & Blue & Gold” on his summer Spotify playlist. The selection was well deserved; her moving blend of folk, bluegrass and country is practically a genre unto its own. Consider the unnerving charm of “Briar Rose,” based on a poem by Anne Sexton, or her cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which captures the sad hope of the original with perhaps even more sadness and hope than the original.
With her new album, In The Magic Hour, scheduled for a January release, O’Donovan is currently on tour with folk superstar Glen Hansard. In her own words, here’s how she survives the long days and longer nights of a globetrotting songstress.
In general I’m a pretty great sleeper. Don’t have a lot of trouble, honestly. On a good night, I’ll get between seven to eight hours — usually I go to bed around midnight and get up around eight a.m. Sometimes less, seldom more. Many days I’ll only get around six or seven hours, and usually the night after I come home from a tour I’m out for 11 or 12.
My life is on the road. Most mornings I get up around eight a.m. or 8:05 a.m. regardless of timezone. Last night we had to stay up because were crossing the border and I didn’t get to sleep until around three a.m. — so that ended up being one of the six-hour nights.
I think probably everyone’s most productive when they’re not exhausted. For me, I’m generally more productive in the hours between breakfast and lunch than between lunch and dinner. I get my best songwriting done in the morning; if I’m not playing a show, once evening rolls around I’m done.
My most tired gig ever was on a Thursday night a couple years ago. We’d just done a show in Cork, Ireland with some Irish musicians and had a great time. I went to bed around two a.m. and had to get up at four to catch a flight to Minneapolis via Chicago. Once we got to Chicago, we got off the plane, walked straight to the gig, did soundcheck and played the show. I barely got any sleep the whole time — but we still had a great show. That was definitely the most tired I’ve ever been.
The adrenaline gets you through nights like that. There are weekends when I’ll have a show every night and I’ll sleep two to three hours before I have to leave for the next city. You can do it, you just have to have a good attitude… some coffee in the afternoon helps, too.
My bedside table is pretty simple, since I have to take everything with me. Usually it has earplugs and whatever book I’m reading at the time. Right now I’m reading Light Years by James Salter and I just finished The Circle by Dave Eggers. I read a lot on the road and am constantly getting new books. I’m in Portland right now and, after I hang up, I’m gonna head over to Powell’s and see what I can find.
I’ve stayed in some amazing Airbnbs, but probably the greatest hotel we’ve stayed in was the St. Regis in Park City, Utah. It was during a tour where we had three days in a row of four a.m. pickups and I remember getting to the hotel after the gig and thinking, “This is the best hotel ever.” Then it was time to leave practically as soon as we got there and we didn’t get to enjoy it at all. That was pretty hard. Especially after all the nights in my life I’ve stayed at Super 8 motels.