Fresh off an international tour for his hit fifth album The River, Bruce Springsteen was a veritable rock star in 1982. But he had hit a personal wall, grappling with the curse of incredible success. Directionless and starved for inspiration, he rented a farmhouse is Colts Neck, N.J. There, in a bedroom with an orange shag carpet, he used an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a four-track tape deck to record a set of demos that would become one of his most enduring works: Nebraska.
Nearly 40 years later, in May 2020, Grammy-winning folk singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan produced her own rendition of Springsteen’s album in a strikingly similar manner. At the height of the pandemic, live performance — such an integral part of the folk and bluegrass traditions from which O’Donovan came — was not an option. Unmoved by other Covid-era music livestreams, she decided to do one of her own, something that would feel “really unique.” She set up an acoustic guitar and microphone in front of a brick wall in her Brooklyn kitchen, began broadcasting in black-and-white video, and sang through Nebraska front to back.
Now, the 40-year-old Newton native, known for her virtuosic work with the Americana groups Crooked Still and I’m With Her, has released the Brooklyn recording on vinyl and is performing her version of Nebraska at shows across the country and abroad. She will perform the album solo at Payomet in North Truro at 7 p.m. on July 29, with opener Alisa Amador.
O’Donovan jokes that Truro is full of people who live most of the year in Newton. She has played Payomet several times before. “It just feels like I’m playing in my hometown,” she says.
If the setting is familiar, so is the album. O’Donovan first discovered Nebraska as a child in the car with her father, Brian O’Donovan, a legend of Boston’s Celtic music scene. She didn’t yet grasp the bleak atmosphere Springsteen created in his portrait of run-down America — except that she was “terrified” by the hypnotic, menacing track “State Trooper.” Only when she rediscovered the album in her 20s did she grasp the haunting nature of the music.
“I got really deep into the songwriting aspect of it,” O’Donovan says. “I was just floored at how he was able to paint such a vivid, stark picture.”
Nebraska is arresting in its simplicity and sadness. Drawing both from his own life and from characters real and imagined, Springsteen speaks volumes using only his harmonica, a gently throbbing guitar, and his deep, evocative voice. In the titular track, the narrator, serial killer Charles Starkweather, sings from death row; in another song, Springsteen begs a judge for the same fate. These are quiet stories, full of dejection, hopelessness, moral uncertainty. Nebraska demands your attention.
So does O’Donovan’s voice, at once familiar and deeply enigmatic. She has an uncanny ability to transition in an instant from a clear, resonant sound to a near-whisper, dripping with wistfulness and melancholy. Her effortless power to carry a whole world of meaning in a single lyric is well matched with Nebraska, which packs simple lines with devastatingly complex emotions.
Many know O’Donovan for her work with I’m With Her, where she is one of three vocalists. But with Nebraska, she is on full display — just her and an acoustic guitar. “One of the things that’s so cool about doing a Nebraska set is how intimate it is,” she says. “It’s almost like doing a one-woman play, because it’s so theatrical.”
The theatrical nature of the album also requires her to ask difficult questions of her own performance. “Am I telling this story?” she asks. “Am I acting in this story? Am I an onlooker? Am I a vessel for this particular tale?” Each track demands a different approach and elicits a different reaction. “Used Cars” holds a particular resonance for O’Donovan with its portrait of hard times in America. With the vivid, bittersweet confessional “Highway Patrolman,” she finds herself “watching the whole thing” as if a “slow-motion movie in my brain.” By the end, during the heartbreaking finale “Reason to Believe,” O’Donovan and her audience experience the emotional wave of the album crest and fall. One night, her voice broke while singing it.
With each performance, O’Donovan says, she is able to make new discoveries in the music and further internalize it. “The characters are so richly drawn, but there’s also so much left unsaid,” she says. “You can spend a lot of time in your imagination thinking about these people and thinking about these cities, these towns, these landscapes.”
Unlike in the original Brooklyn livestream, O’Donovan says she finds joy in welcoming the audience on the journey despite the profound lonesomeness of the songs themselves. The music is so “in the canon,” she says, that people always resonate with it.
“You’re getting so much back from the crowd,” O’Donovan says, “especially with a record like Nebraska, where people recognize it. You’re sort of holding the torch.”
Familiar and Enigmatic
The event: Aoife O’Donovan solo performance
The time: Saturday, July 29, 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, North Truro
The cost: $30 to $45 at tickets.payomet.org