Amid all the mayhem and misery visited upon the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, the complete shutdown of normal life did have the collateral effect of bringing about a host of unusual and innovative projects from musical artists. An upcoming tour by singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, which comes to the Sanders Theatre on March 17, has its roots in one such project.
“During the pandemic, when everybody was jumping on the livestream bandwagon, I was hesitant to do so,” O’Donovan, the Boston-area native who now lives in Florida, says via Zoom. But she got behind the idea by doing something she wouldn’t normally do. She tapped the spare, solo folksinger turn that Bruce Springsteen made with his 1982 album “Nebraska” and did a performance, alone with her guitar, of the entire album. “That made it an event, and something different and cool.”
The livestream performance took place in May 2020 (“We did it in black and white; we decided to go a little more artsy with it”), but it wasn’t the first time she had covered the album; she did a residency at a club in New York in 2011 and performed it for one of those dates. “I learned the whole thing and worked up the songs on guitar and did it, and I just did it the one time,” she says. “I never thought about it again” until the pandemic shutdown provided the spur to revisit it.
She offered the audio recording of the livestream for sale on her Bandcamp page several months after the event took place, and then decided to reprise the performance with a limited tour this spring (the shows will also feature a second set of her own material). “There are nine shows currently on the books for it,” she says, “and that feels like the right number.”
O’Donovan manifests a strong connection to “Nebraska”; she started her livestream show by calling it one of her favorite records, and suggested it was one of the best records ever made. But when she first heard it as a youngster, she had a rather different reaction.
“I remember hearing the record as a child, and actually being scared of it. I remember literally being scared by the loud yips Springsteen makes in the song ‘State Trooper.’ It’s a record that I grew up hearing; I can’t say I grew up listening to it because it’s not something that I would put on when I was 8 or 9 years old.”
Things changed when she became a teenager and, into her 20s, as she began writing songs. “I really kind of came back to that record as a collection of very finely crafted stories. It was this concept album in a way that was just so natural, it was so unforced. Springsteen found these characters and sort of placed them. It’s almost like the American Songbook or something. I just love the record; from the opening moments to the final cut, ‘Reason to Believe,’ it has this beautiful arc. It’s almost novelistic in that way.”
She also thinks that her relationship with the record has changed as she has gotten older, and she finds it interesting to come back to the songs and interpret them as a songwriter now, because she’s lived so much life in the years since she first performed them in 2011. As well, her musicianship, her guitar playing and singing, has evolved since then, and she has greater facility with the album’s songs.
“It sounds more natural, more like an extension of what I do,” says O’Donovan, whose “Age of Apathy” has been nominated for three Grammys this year, including best folk album.
O’Donovan’s renditions of the Springsteen songs don’t come across as radically different from the originals, but there are subtle differences. When asked about those differences, she points to “Used Cars,” one of her favorites on “Nebraska.”
“There’s so much pain in that song to me,” she says. “Springsteen just paints that picture so vividly of sitting in the car with his family, and what that felt like and how amazing it felt to drive back to their street in their brand-new used car.” The narrator of the song is reflecting on that experience as an adult, and it seems like a happy memory at first, but before long it becomes evident that it’s not. “There’s so much sadness, and so much left unsaid,” and when you hear Springsteen sing it, “from the first to the second verse, there’s this subtle change in the timbre of his voice.”
When O’Donovan started to work up the song, her intention was to access that shift and to bring it forth even more. The beauty of that song, and of all of the songs on “Nebraska,” is in what’s left unsaid, in her view. “Being an interpreter of them,” she says, “is trying to stir the pot of the song and let the stuff that’s unsaid swirl a little bit more to the surface while still being unsaid.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com
AOIFE O’DONOVAN PLAYS NEBRASKA
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St., Cambridge. March 17 at 8 p.m. $45-$70. 617-482-2595, www.celebrityseries.org