Keyboardist and composer Roger O’Donnell has spent over 40 years on stage with bands like Psychedelic Furs, The Thompson Twins and for the last 33 years (on and off) the world’s biggest cult band – The Cure. Since 2005, he has also had an active and interesting solo career. He composed and recorded an entire album, The Truth In Me on a Minimoog Voyager in 2006 for his first solo project and in 2015 collaborated with cellist Julia Kent on Love And Other Tragedies, (a recommended listen if you haven’t explored O’Donnell’s classical work before) an enthralling collection of piano and cello compositions inspired by classical love stories.
The past few years have been full on for O’Donnell – there’s been a gruelling world tour in 2016 with The Cure and a set at Hyde Park to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary in 2018. 2019 was another top year for the band with one of the best ever headlining performances at Glastonbury as well as a worthy induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So, after the tour, during some downtime, he returned to his home in Devon, South-West England and spent time producing 2 Ravens which became another collaboration project – this time with vocalist and lyricist Jennifer Pague of American Indie pop band, Vita And The Woolf.
2 Ravens began as an instrumental record, side one featuring two cellos and side two a string quartet when O’Donnell was introduced to Pague and sent the material off to her for input. She then sent back 90 seconds of vocals on one track and he was blown away by her interpretation. Pague wrote and demoed her four songs in her home studio in LA and the pair met up in London to record the album. It was recorded over just five days with some of O’Donnell’s favourite musicians: Alisa Liubarskaya, Miriam Wakeling, Aled Jones, Nadine Nagen and Daniel Gea.
From the opening gentle piano keys and sombre cello strokes of the first track “December”, there is something introspective and pastoral in the overall sound of the album which is clearly influenced by the landscape in front of O’Donnell’s eye. It’s a really visual body of work and every song is almost like a painting. The cello takes centre stage for two songs, in particular, firstly on the title track “2 Ravens” – its rich sound dripping in melancholy, beautifully mellow. Then wistful for “On The Wing”- its deep notes sweeter, ushered along with delicate plucks of strings and keys. Both songs evoke visions of wildflower meadows in the summer or clouds passing over rugged, bleak moors.
Lead Single “An Old Train” sees Pague contribute for the first of four songs. Her voice is almost like another instrument and the lyrics, although eccentric, kind of “work”: “I’m in an Alaska sun/fighting for what I can/ I wake in the morning/ sleep in the night, afternoon ” – her talent here is how she sings and not what she is singing – the rhythm and pace of her lyrics together with the warm tone of her vocal are in harmony with the musical arrangements.
“The Haunt” is the current single and perfectly demonstrates the exceptional power and tone of Pague’s voice with her mysterious yet angelic vocals working in synergy with a myriad of string instruments and O’Donnell’s dancing keys. The lyrics “I’ll get you real good” entice the listener as the song progresses. It’s beautifully constructed and one of the album highlights.
Roger says of the new track, “The Haunt is a song about being left and how you if you could, would haunt the person who left you… and who wouldn’t want to do that? The song was influenced by a French folk story, The Peasant and the Wolf and when Jen wrote the lyrics it took a kind of dark turn which I was very happy about. So, the happy rural folk story is twisted in a tale of revenge…”
Another highlight is “The Hearts Fall”. At just over nine and half minutes long, it’s clear that this piece was destined for other things – it was originally written by O’Donnell for a Phillip Glass project to be performed at one of Glass’ benefit gigs. There have also been discussions about a possible ballet piece. Repeated piano keys start the track with some urgency whilst the strings shrill and become more feverish until just before the four-minute mark the track undergoes a transformation – the repeated keynotes cease and then – everything goes quiet and tranquil. The strings have become calm, the cello has become soothing and the keys more considered. There is more space between the notes – it’s evocative of the experience of surfacing outside after a heavy thunderstorm. The second half of this song is so beautiful – cathartic, hopeful and healing.
The last two songs are Pague’s – “Don’t Tell Me” starts with soft keys and cello before two husky “mmmmmmmmm” vocal notes give the song a sweet sass almost, especially in the chorus: “Well, Gee Whizz, don’t tell me you’re real/ my bones are made out of metal that came from the campground outside” – her voice and lyrics are really appealing and interesting and give the song a different edge. On the album closer “I’ll Say Goodnight” her voice is airy and ethereal, her vocal inflexions she is known for with Vita and The Woolf coming into play. Again, the song is given a unique little twist with the juxtaposition of the dark lyrics and the light instrumentation.
This is an album very personal to O’Donnell and its sound is heavily influenced by his life in rural England- his piano plays a supporting role rather than taking the lead, the cello and string arrangements make frames for the paintings that are Pague’s vocals and the instrumentals are handed over to the listener to imagine the stories in the absence of words.
2 Ravens is an album that seems relevant right now and perfect for these lockdown days – It feels rural and bleak but it’s also hopeful, calm and tentatively optimistic.