Aoife O’Donovan Finds Fertile Ground in ‘Nebraska’
Aoife O'Donovan (photo by Omar Cruz)
“I first heard Nebraska as a young child in the early 1990s when I was just old enough to start having my own opinions about music,” Aoife O’Donovan reminisces. “I remember that my first response was being freaked out because it was like nothing I had ever heard before.”
In the ensuing decades, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter has formed an ever-evolving relationship with Bruce Springsteen’s enigmatic demos-turned-album from 1982, frequently returning to its haunting, character-driven songscapes as both a listener and a performer. Her most recent encounter with it — a May 2020 pandemic-era livestream in which she performed the record in its entirety — continues to yield creative dividends, including an upcoming vinyl release (Aoife O’Donovan Plays Nebraska, out March 24 on Yep Roc Records) and accompanying US tour that starts this week and runs through April 16.
O’Donovan’s inaugural trip through Springsteen’s sparsely scored tour of the lower-lit corners of America’s heartland came at a time when she was getting a daily musical education in the passenger seat of her father’s car. “I got exposed to so much music when my dad was driving me to elementary school,” recalls O’Donovan. “I was really loving and internalizing a lot of it: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club album. But the morning he put on Nebraska, I specifically remember the song ‘State Trooper’ feeling so spooky and having such a bizarre vibe.”
Within Springsteen’s catalog, the almost exclusively acoustic starkness of Nebraska holds a uniquely mystical and mystifying space between the chart-topping, arena rock of 1980’s The River and the stadium-filling, global icon-creating smash of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. While Rolling Stone’s initial 4.5-star review of the album hailed it as “an acoustic triumph,” they also set listener expectations accordingly by framing it as “a violent, acid-etched portrait of a wounded America that fuels its machinery by consuming its people’s dreams” and positioned it as “an intensely personal project that could easily alienate radio.” In stark contrast to the massive promotional campaigns that accompanied Nebraska’s preceding and follow-up albums (both Billboard No. 1s), there were no singles from Nebraska released in the US (though “Atlantic City” and “Open All Night” got international releases), only one music video was released to MTV (a moody, black-and-white collage-style treatment for “Atlantic City” that featured no shots of Springsteen), and he famously did not tour behind the release.
The record has become one of Springsteen’s most celebrated and respected artistic statements, even as it fights against the continual threat of being outshined by the mythos surrounding its creation. Among some of its more famous threads of lore: Nebraska started out as hastily-captured 4-track solo home recordings only meant to be rough demos for the E Street band to later build on; the bulk of Nebraska’s songs (and even some of Born in the U.S.A.’s most bombastic anthems, including the title track) were recorded in a single herculean-yet-homespun recording session; and the full-band “Electric Nebraska” recording sessions failed to capture the raw power of those solo song sketches on the demo tape, resulting in the original unpolished demos being released as the final album. “I was carryin’ that cassette around with me in my pocket without a case for a couple of weeks,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone editor Kurt Loder in 1984. “Finally, we realized, ‘Uh-oh, that’s the album.’”
Growing Up with ‘Nebraska’
“By the time I first heard Nebraska in the early 1990s,” O’Donovan says, “I already had this big rock star image in my mind of who Springsteen was as an artist. My parents loved him, I knew people who went to his big stadium concerts, and I would see people wearing his T-shirts all the time. Even as a kid, I knew he was a pretty big deal. When I revisited Nebraska as a teenager, however, I was able to listen to it for what it truly was. I ended up really loving the beautifully mournful songs like ‘Used Cars’ and ‘My Father’s House.’ It really is a true masterpiece of songwriting.”
In 2011, amid O’Donovan’s days as an emerging solo artist, she decided to have a little fun with one of her Monday-night residency sets at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall. “At the time, I remember hearing that people would sometimes do full covers of albums during their show and I thought that Nebraska would be a fun and challenging record to learn for a performance like that. I also think I picked it because it seemed manageable to handle all by myself without needing a band.” O’Donovan decided to commit to the performance aesthetically as well, donning a mid-’80s Springsteenian white T-shirt/blue jeans combo and nursing a Budweiser between songs. “This was back in my 20s,” she laughs. “So I could drink beer during a show, which is something I just can’t do anymore.”
O’Donovan continues: “When I revisited Nebraska in 2011 to really learn the record for that Rockwood performance, I was struck by how the album feels like a novel or series of short stories with these richly detailed characters and overlapping themes.” In fact, the album’s deeply visceral characters, relationships, and settings have spawned a variety of other creative works, most notably the Sean Penn film The Indian Runner, Tennessee Jones’ collection of short stories Deliver Me From Nowhere, and several real versions of “Night of the Johnstown Flood,” a fictitious tune briefly mentioned in Nebraska’s “Highway Patrolman.”
The wide range of inspirations Springsteen pulled from to craft Nebraska’s cinematic cast of characters — murderers, criminals, mafiosos, working-class families, down-and-out everymen with unrealized dreams, real-world serial killers and their accomplices — underscores O’Donovan’s “masterpiece of songwriting” summation. As Springsteen wrote of Nebraska in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, “My family, Dylan, Woody, Hank, the American gothic short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the noir novels of James M. Cain, the quiet violence of the films of Terrence Malick and the decayed fable of director Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter all guided my imagination … I thought of the records of John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson, music that sounded so good with the lights out.”
From Livestream to Live Show
In March 2020, O’Donovan, like every other touring musician, found herself professionally sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. While some artists diverted their creative energies to regularly recurring “live from home” performances, O’Donovan focused her talents on two specifically curated livestreams: one show of her own songs in April (featuring her husband, Eric Jacobsen, on cello and her brother-in-law, Colin Jacobsen, on violin) and a solo acoustic performance of Nebraska in its entirety in May.
The outpouring of appreciation for O’Donovan’s Nebraska livestream led to the release of a digital version of the performance on Bandcamp in fall 2021. As the praise continued to roll in — The New York Times referred to the performance as “saluting Springsteen’s songcraft with clear, pitch-perfect articulation and affable delivery” — she decided to press a version of Aoife O’Donovan Plays Nebraska to vinyl and set up a series of solo live shows.
In looking at how she has connected and reconnected with Nebraska in different ways over the years, O’Donovan continues to find new ways that the album has aged along with her: “I think it would be impossible to not react to these songs differently from being a kid, into my 20s, and then again in my 30s,” she says. “Even now, at 40, these themes and characters just hit different the older you get. Previously, the hardest song for me to fully embody was ‘My Father’s House,’ because it’s about being estranged from your parents and I have such a close relationship with mine. In my recent couple of shows, though, I think I’ve finally unlocked how to interpret that song and it’s turned into a real joy.”
“For me, I think the key to a lot of these Nebraska songs is to envision myself within them,” she continues, “almost cast myself in a little movie version that’s playing in my head while I’m singing it.” O’Donovan says this is especially true for some of the album’s more gender-specific songs, like the title track, “Johnny 99,” and “Highway Patrolman.”
While some listeners may feel something new unlocked in her version of a song like “Highway Patrolman,” where it appears that Springsteen’s brother-brother relationship moves into a different emotional space if viewed as an interpretive shift to a sister-brother relationship, O’Donovan doesn’t particularly see it this way herself: “When I sing that song, I’m very in the moment and embodying the character of the song — my name is Joe Roberts, I’m a cop, I married Maria. Like John Prine writing ‘Angel from Montgomery,’ the song should always be bigger than the person delivering it. I think that’s the mark of a great song.”
Many other artists have found creative inspiration within Nebraska’s riveting combination of deeply immersive songwriting and deceptively uncluttered musicality as well. Within just a few years of the album’s release, Johnny Cash covered two of its songs (a mid-tempo barn dance of “Highway Patrolman” and a relaxed rockabilly run-through of “Johnny 99,” both on his 1984 Johnny 99 LP) and Cowboy Junkies managed to deliver an even ghostlier version of “State Trooper” on their 1986 debut album. The entire Nebraska record received its own tribute album, Badlands, in 2000, featuring transformative interpretations from Chrissie Hynde (“Nebraska”), Ani DiFranco (“Used Cars”), Aimee Mann (“Reason to Believe”), and Dar Williams (“Highway Patrolman”).
Springsteen himself has even revisited and reinvented many of his Nebraska songs over the years. Some of the standouts include his muscularly electrified takes on “Atlantic City” (from his 1992 MTV Unplugged episode) and “Johnny 99” (from 2010’s London Calling: Live in Hyde Park concert video), as well as the radically re-imagined versions of “Open All Night” and “Johnny 99” from his Seeger Sessions era. He turned “Open All Night” into a rowdy, horn-driven big-band number (complete with doo-wop vocal breakdown) and “Johnny 99” into a herky-jerky Mardi Gras-meets-Dave Matthews jam with drunkenly dynamic interplay among the acoustic guitar, drums, violin, and horn section.
In the lead-up to her US tour in March and April, O’Donovan performed a few Nebraska shows in the UK. In the same way that multiple spins have deepened her relationship to the album as a listener, interpreting these songs across multiple live shows has likewise substantially intensified her connection and understanding of them.
“So far with each show’s performance I just get deeper into the characters of these songs,” O’Donovan says. “It’s a really transcendent experience for me as an interpreter. I know it’s always the case with musicians to record something and then say, ‘But it’s so much better now’ — but I truly feel like these songs are gathering more nuance each time I do them. That’s always my goal with my music, to have everything be better the next day than it was the day before.”