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US singer Aoife O'Donovan brings her new tunes to Belfast

American folk singer Aoife O’Donovan’s superb second solo album sees her harking back to childhood summer holidays in west Cork. Ahead of two Belfast gigs today, she talks to Brian Campbell

Aoife O'Donovan is in Belfast for two Out to Lunch festival gigs
Aoife O'Donovan is in Belfast for two Out to Lunch festival gigs Aoife O'Donovan is in Belfast for two Out to Lunch festival gigs

US folk singer Aoife O’Donovan has previously called Ireland “one of the most magical places in the world” and her new album In The Magic Hour has a strong connection to the country she grew up visiting each summer.

O’Donovan’s father comes from a big family in Co Cork – he only moved to the US in 1980, a couple of years before O’Donovan was born in Massachusetts.

The cover of the new record is a photo of her with a cousin on the beach at Inchydoney, close to Clonakilty, and the title track features lyrics about “Virgin Mary’s bank” (on Inchydoney) and “songs of an old Ireland – songs about being young again”.

She sings, “You might hear my grandaddy singing far away / Like an evening star” and the record is in a way a tribute to her Co Cork grandfather, who died before O’Donovan recorded it.

The singer-songwriter explains how she ended up using a recording of his voice on the album track Donal Og.

“That was a last minute on-a-whim decision. Donal Og is an old ballad that my dad used to sing to me. I remembered that my dad had sent me a voice recording of my grandad singing The West’s Awake, so I sent it to Tucker [Martine, producer] and he slid it into the song. It’s a powerful thing.”

O’Donovan and her band are in Belfast to play two gigs today (at 1pm and 8pm), having played Dublin last night.

“I’m thrilled to be back in Belfast,” she says. “I’ve been able to get there at least once a year in the last bunch of years and I really love it – it’s such a great town and a great music town and I’ve had some really fun gigs there. I’m looking forward to it.”

Before going solo with her debut album Fossils in 2013, O’Donovan toured the world as a member of Crooked Still. Her last visit to Belfast was as part of the group I’m With Her (alongside Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins).

“That tour was the best ever. It’s amazing how people have responded to the music, so there’s definitely a future there. The three of us are kind of taking this year to promote our solo stuff and then we’ll reconvene again.”

O’Donovan is known for her folk/roots/bluegrass style, but the title track (Magic Hour) on her new album is perhaps the poppiest tune she has written.

“That was a really fun song to write. I wrote it at the piano and I was really trying to capture this mood of that daylight time at night after dinner when as a kid you still have three hours of playing left to do, so I was thinking back to those summers in Inchydoney.”

The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter explains how she ended up using a photo of her and her cousin Siobhan taken at Inchydoney in 1991 for her album cover.

“I was going through old photos after I’d decided to call it In the Magic Hour and I saw that and I thought, 'That’s it’. I think it’s a really evocative photo because of the seriousness in my face combined with my cousin next to me who’s flying a kite that’s made from a toilet paper box.

“It’s very clearly night-time but there’s still light in the sky and you have these two kids flying a kite on the beach. I do love that photo.”

She says the album title itself was a suggestion of another well-known American singer.

“It was actually a suggestion of my friend Mary Chapin Carpenter. I had been on the road with her and was going over titles and I threw out `In the Magic Hour’ and I wasn’t sure about it, but she wrote me this long and thoughtful text about why she thought it was the perfect title. And I thought, 'She’s so right’ and I went with it.”

O’Donovan has been compared to English folk star Laura Marling, who she describes as “amazing”.

“We’ve got a pretty different approach but I’m a huge fan, so I take that as a compliment. I’ve seen her live a couple of times and she’s a real bad-ass, such a fierce performer.”

:: Aoife O’Donovan plays The Black Box in Belfast at 1pm and 8pm today as part of Out to Lunch (www.cqaf.com). In The Magic Hour is out now.