“Her singing is peerlessly elegant, smoky without torch singer cliche’ and melodic without melting into watery soccer-mom pop. She flavors her songwriting with hints of jazz, loungey cabaret and indie rock, handling it all with total confidence. Ni Donovan is one of Portland music’s gems.” – Zach Dundas, Willamette Week , September 11, 2002
THE BIG TAKEOVER:
Kaitlyn ni Donovan – Songs for ‘Three Days’
K.N.Donovan is plagued (or blessed) by a doppelganger. The artist’s strength is her ability to drift, letting her songs meet the ethereal, while simultaneously revolving genres for inspiration. The effect is often arresting, but an unlikely tension cross-currents even the gentlest, least engaging moments of Three Days . Intentionally or not (and I’m betting it’s purposefully done), she asserts a darker persona, an element of unrest, that works against her softer side. Thus, lush string ensembles take on a haunted quality, carnivalesque moments of fear invade song structures otherwise somber or foreboding. Like me, some will find this complexity to be the music’s driving force, while others will simply revel in the beauty of Donovan’s songs. Either way, Three Days is a pretty sure bet.
Kaitlyn ni Donovan, Songs For ‘Three Days’
The makings of a perfect late autumn afternoon: a chilling crispness, threatening to snow outside; a warm, crackling fire inside; and the music of Kaitlyn ni Donovan on the stereo.
Kaitlyn ni Donovan is one of those rare artists who appear quietly out of nowhere and blow you away, sounding better and better until you realize you’ve stumbled onto something special. Shunning convention, she weaves her tranquil moods like thread into pastoral blankets of guitar, violin, viola, madolin, and ukulele, layering her hauntingly beautiful melodies over refreshingly unothodox chord changes. The result is sometimes Irish (“Ceiling Tiles”), occasionally Brazilian (“Yves Montand”) and often something else homey and familiar, as in “Awake in the Sand”, or my favorite track, “Miss Dorian Gray the Starling”. Ni Donovan’s breathy voice is the kind one can dive into, enveloping the listener in a cocoon of comfort and warmth. Always caressing. Always wonderful.
Those with a quiet, introspective side who perhaps grew up listening to Kate Bush of a lot of records on the 4AD label, will likely find solace in these songs, reminiscent of those occasional solitary moments of childhood. Melancholy, but not necessarily sad. Musically, Kaitlyn ni Donovan is in a world of her own, but a world somehow familiar to me. After letting my guard down and sharing it, how could possibly feel alone?
IN MUSIC WE TRUST:
Kaitlyn Ni Donovan
Songs for ‘Three Days’ ( Hush Records )
By: Alex Steininger
Songs for ‘Three Days’ is a quiet, sparse album that is centered around Kaitlyn Ni Donovan’s angelic voice. Like the music, her voice is sparse and spread out, using space, time, and air to elaborate and fill in what she is trying to accomplish. With an airy lo-fi quality to it, the blossoming pop music she creates is that much more significant, leaving you with feelings of possibilities and hope.
The light acoustic guitars float through the songs, giving her voice room to strut or ponder, while the rhythm section falls like little rain drops on the music, taking enough space to make an impact, but leaving enough room for her voice to take front stage. This is a lo-fi, singer-songwriter pop album that goes beyond the two categories, creating something new by blending the two. I’ll give it an A-.
Ni Donovan’s Delicate Downer
The Portlander’s first CD mines a thornier side of her music
Regardless of which side you may fall on the CD vs. vinyl LP debate, there’s something about those little silicon-and-plastic wafers that suggests permanence. Record albums will skip and collect fuzz after a few spins and cassette tapes fade a bit with every playing, but a laser light reading binary code is forever, an offering for the ages.
Portland singer Kaitlyn Ni Donovan is, after six years of playing music around town, just getting around to putting her first one out. “It was like ‘Everyone has a Tonka Truck but me,’ ” she says with a giggle. “So now it’s finally my turn. After two years of working in four different studios, I’m finished. Here it is!” The “it” in question is “Songs for ‘Three Days,’ ” Ni Donovan’s debut full-length release, out now on Portland’s Hush Records.
Ethereal and airy, the CD showcases Ni Donovan’s lilting songbird of a voice against varying musical moods, with elements of Celtic folk, tinges of classical music and jazz accents all churning together. The title is meant to suggest “the title of a play, or maybe a movie soundtrack, with a number of different feelings but a cohesive overall tone,” Ni Donovan says.
Strictly speaking, if “Three Days” was background music for a film, that particular movie would not have a happy ending. Heavy on cello, accordion, fluegelhorn and other nonpop-oriented instruments (Ni Donovan plays nearly anything with strings), the CD walks on the thornier side of the garden; while lush and sensual, it’s still a bit of a delicate downer in some sections.
“Some of these songs date back as far as ’94, and parts of the CD are pretty dark,” she says. “Most of these songs were written as a way for me to escape the world, to retreat into dreamland. It’s not the kind of record you’re going to put on at a party and just crank it up. Its more of a ‘stay in bed, be quiet and read a book’ kind of album.” As producer and drummer Tony Lash put it: “This isn’t the sort of record that leaps out at you. It’s supposed to lead you down a winding road.
When you’re working on something this intimate sounding for so long, it can be hard to know if you’ve really achieved that feel. That’s the challenge. And after two years and the guest contributions of notable Portland players such as bass player Eric Furlong (44 Long, Sunset Valley), and Gresham’s own Herb Alpert/Burt Bacharach hybrid, Eric Matthews, “Three Days” sounds like a project that took its own sweet time coming into fruition. It’s seamless without slickness. Languid and smoky, the opening cut “Aegis” sets the stage for the rest of the disc — swirling textures and melodies, with Ni Donovan’s pipes seeming to mouth phrases instead of singing specific, concrete lyrics. “I’m proud of my lyrics,” she says, “but the music always shapes the feeling. People can take those words to places of their own.”
The winding road of the album takes us to forbidding, sterile places (“Fear of a White Bed”), moody chamber arrangement chambers (“Fathoms”) and even a snappy sidetrip to Rio on the samba-inspired number, “Yves Montand.” For Ni Donovan, Friday’s CD release marks letting go of not just the CD but also of some of the complicated emotional states thatinspired the material. “There’s not a lot of hope on this album,” she says. “I feel a little sad for anyone who can relate to it the way I did when I wrote the songs. I’m glad I’m not in that place anymore.”
Friday, August 20, 1999
By John Foyston, of The Oregonian staff
THE ROCKET MAGAZINE:
NW Interview: Kaitlyn ni Donovan Girl, Interrupted
By John Chandler
While it is certainly true that the expression “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me” is so old that it has sprouted gray whiskers and receives a monthly Social Security check, time has not succeeded in rendering this phrase entirely obsolete. Take, for example, the case of Portland singer/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Kaitlyn ni Donovan. Over the last half-dozen years, she has appeared in public as a solo performer, leader and singer of at least two large, esoteric rock groups, as a member of a psychedelic band and as part of a small string ensemble dedicated to Slavic folk music. Naturally, I assumed that Ms. ni Donovan was of a restless nature, easily bored and always eager to seek new musical challenges. At the very least she had to have a short attention span. “Actually I just went along with what everyone else [in my bands] wanted to do,” she admits somewhat sheepishly. “I always worry about the other musicians playing with me, if they’re really happy or not…. I’m one of those people who wants to make everybody happy all the time and I don’t want to make waves. At the very core is me. When I bring in a lot of other musicians, it becomes more about them.
“All the times I’ve played out under my name, I didn’t associate it with me,” she continues. “It was like a no ego sense. Now, after all these years, I’ve finally stopped worrying about other people and I’m starting to write for me. I’ve figured out that writing music is the one solely selfish thing I can do for myself.”
Right at the tail end of ’99, Kaitlyn ni Donovan’s very first CD showed up at my office, and in the interim months, it hasn’t strayed very far from the Discman. Songs for Three Days (Hush Records), masterfully and meticulously produced by Tony Lash, is easily one of the best local releases to come out in the last several years. The painstaking in-strumental and vocal arrangements, ex-pressive playing from a number of area notables (Lash, Eric Matthews and Sunset Valley’s Jonathan Drews and Eric Furlong, among others) and finally ni Donovan’s effortless stylistic grace with everything from exquisitely yearning, orchestral pop (“Ceiling Tiles,” “Awake in the Sand”) to playful samba (“Yves Montand”) make her debut essential listening as well as a stunning sonic achievement, miles above the tentative efforts that characterize most rookie creations. “It took a lot of time and Tony really poured himself into it,” ni Donovan says of her record. “It was never meant to be like a typical ‘pop’ album. More like a film soundtrack or a piece of classical music.”
Songs for Three Days is so thick with seductive sounds and curious imagery that it deserves deep, detailed analysis, though as ni Donovan laments, there is no lyric sheet included, requiring the listener to be a little more diligent. “[The album is] long and I think you have to be patient with it,” she explains. “We thought it might be difficult listening, even though there’s lots of pretty stuff on it.
“I really wished I could have had lyric sheets. I’m really proud of the lyrics, even though some people have told me that they don’t really want to know what the lyrics are…. They’re perfectly happy to just make up their own. They put their own personal ideas into the song, which I think is pretty cool. Still, I see so many singers who have lyric sheets and I really wonder why, since it’s just cliche after cliche.”
After a few serious listens to Songs for Three Days, no one will be able to accuse Kaitlyn ni Donovan of attempting to foist anything resembling cliche on them. Her somewhat intense vocabulary will have people scrambling for their dictionaries searching for the definitions of words like “Sheol” (“A place in the depths of the earth conceived of as the home of the dead”) and “Acajou” (“Mahogany, especially as used in French cabinet making”), while songs like “Yves Montand,” “Miss Dorian Grey the Starling” and “Ma Satie & Me” are liberally peppered with references to actors, literary characters, composers, painters and other historical and cultural figures. “Those people are very real to me,” ni Donovan says. “During various low points in my life, things like movies, books, art, dance, classical music, whatever, really saved me and took me to another place, and that place was better than where I was.”
Fortunately for us, Kaitlyn ni Donovan is here right now and busier than ever. She’s working with a newer, smaller group as well as playing guitar and singing with the Portland psych-rock band High Violets, who recently released an excellent six-song EP. (“I love playing with the High Violets,” she says. “It gives me a chance to just melt into the background and jam.”) But as for the present, more practical matters dominate her agenda. “Tonight, I have to do a solo show,” ni Donovan says in mock panic. “I haven’t done a solo show in so long. I need to rehearse with myself.”
KAITLYN NI DONOVAN plays the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle 2/23 and Berbati’s Pan in Portland 2/24. No. 319 February 9-23, 2000 Â© Rocket Magazine, 2000
“It is believed that the soft, whispering vocals of this winsome singer accelerate the sexual activities among her more “sexually gifted” audience members…Kaitlyn ni Donovan is the best of the anti-rock movement.” – Caryn B. Brooks, Willamette Week, September 20, 2000 (NXNW preview)
Songs for ‘Three Days’ is so thick with seductive sounds and curious imagery that it deserves deep, detailed analysis…easily one of the the best local releases to come out in the last several years.” -John Chandler, The Rocket, Februrary 2000
“It is rare these days that an album contains the musical and cerebral interest to bear up to a complete listening in its entirety, especially on a repeated basis…one of the best albums ever made in Portland.” -S.P. Clarke, Two Louies, September 1999
“With her delicate pipes augemented by electric instruments, she’s a bistro-noir star waiting to go supernova. Slow burn buildup to eruption rarely sounds this sensuous.” -John Graham, Willamette Week, September 22, 1999
“Ethereal and airy, the CD showcases Ni Donovan’s lilting songbird of a voice against varying musical moods, with elements of Celtic folk, tinges of classical music and jazz accents all churning together.” -John Foyston, The Oregonian, August 20, 1999
Kaitlyn Ni Donovan
By Scott D. Lewis (First appeared in The Rocket, 4/24/96)
You’re sitting in a cocktail lounge from which Tom Waits would be happy to be bounced from. There’s the requisite Sinatra, smoke, and dim red light. You savor the martini flawlessly executed by the sprite, beret-clad woman behind the bar as the tensions begin to soften. A few belts later, you peer over your shoulder towards the intriguing song coming from the back of the club and discover your savvy server hoisting a violin and singing as from a feverish reverie. Relax. Everything is fine. You’ve stumbled into the world of Portland zoneteuse and first-class cocktail engineer Kaitlyn Ni Donovan.
The 25-year-old Ni Donovan left the picture-postcard beauty and “womb-like” atmosphere of Juneau, Alaska (where she grew up “with those Pond boys”) for Portland in 1989. Though classically trained on violin, the move left her without her long-time conduit. Testifying to her adaptability, she got a guitar from her father and started making some noise. “I was used to the violin. I picked up the guitar having no clue about it at all,” she confesses.
Ni Donovan bounced between jobs (she slung desserts at the Metro where she met her idol, Suzanne Vega) and musical projects including the unfortunately short, bright career of Monde la Bella and an industrial band she had with frequent musical collaborator, Charlie Vasquez. Unashamed, Ni Donovan admits, “I was a granola lady. I wrote lots of random poetry. They laughed at me for my flowery, nature lyrics.” Eventually, Ni Donovan looked inside her head and found what needed to come out. What begged release is best described as actual experience fused with the subconscious: a truly altered reality. “I think that my imagination is me; it is my personal experience,” she explains with a hint of awe. “Sometimes, I have such extreme dream-hangovers…. I dream disturbingly and violently, and sometimes it carries over and I feel it all day long.” While that would deeply trouble most, she swears, “No matter how horrible the dreams are, I would hate to lose them.”
Through the years, Ni Donovan’s sound has evolved from busker folk to guitar-powered mood music (Vasquez admits that the band is “flirting with rock”). Her oddly charming stories are the product of a fruitful mind that isn’t afraid to wander. “Some of it is creepy,” she says, “but a lot of it is just funny to me. Like diseases. I think about diseases a lot.”
That unique mental pursuit was partially responsible for “Diseases of Infatuation,” from her second cassette release, Dinner With Bosch. “It’s a happy song, it starts off all poetic about a stalker, maybe a person who might be normal. It starts out really upbeat and happy, but then the lyrics get kind of creepy and I don’t think that people really get that.” Much like the perfect martini, Ni Donovan’s strange dreams are cunningly blended. The approach is tender and smooth, but the effect leaves one shaken and stirred.
(c) 1996 Scott D. Lewis