Donovan still a mellow fellow
Ahead of a concert in Belfast in February, the legendary songwriter talks to our reporter about his musical inspiration and an early encounter with Van Morrison.
It's hard to believe that nearly half a century has gone by since Donovan was the archetypal child of the Sixties, a singer-songwriter who gave voice to a generation, but sitting beside him in a Belfast hotel it's just as difficult to resist the near child-like excitement which gushes from him as he enthuses about the new music he's making nowadays.
He's a man who patently loves to talk almost as much as he likes to sing but suddenly, without warning, he'll burst into song to illustrate a point he's making. Or he'll launch seamlessly into an impersonation of John Lennon or George Harrison to underline a story he's telling about The Beatles.
He'll follow that with an amusing anecdote about his experiences with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones or even Van Morrison.
But the Scotsman doesn't drop their names into the conversation to show off that he's the Big-I-Am.
No, you know from the outset that you're in the company of someone who's genuinely done it all and seen it all. And maybe even more remarkably for anyone from the seminal Sixties, he remembers it all as well.
Half an hour with Donovan flashes past in what seems like a third of the time. For he's a raconteur who could hold his listener spellbound for hours with his recollections even before he picks up his guitar to sing in a voice that still sounds as fresh as it did in 1965 when he burst on to the British musical scene with Catch the Wind, the first of more than a dozen hits.
That song, and the other classics like Mellow Yellow, Sunshine Superman, Jennifer Juniper and Hurdy Gurdy Man, still bring him healthy royalty cheques aplenty, but he seems just as pleased that his music had an impact on millions of people.
Even more delight registers on his still youthful-looking face as he recalls how his musical heroes were enthralled by his songs. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were just one example.
Donovan, who has lived on and off in Ireland since the Seventies, developed a close affinity with singer Liam Clancy. He recorded with him on his last album and played at Liam’s final gig in the National Concert Hall in Dublin just months before his death in December 2009.
“I went to see Liam in his home before the concert and he said he wanted me to sing Catch the Wind with him,” he recalls.
“He said he and the rest of the Clancys were travelling across the Australian desert in 1965 and couldn’t wait for the DJ on the radio to play my song. It was very touching to hear that.”
In Liam’s house, the host asked the visitor to sing him a song, any song. “I chose a traditional song called the Trees They do Grow High and Liam looked at me in amazement. He went over to his music collection and pulled out a crackly recording he’d just been sent of an American performing the very same folk song four decades earlier.
It was Bob Dylan who had been famously influenced by the Clancy Brothers in the early Sixties when they played in the same New York bar, the White Horse Tavern.
“The Clancys passed on a lot of Irish and Scottish songs to the young Dylan and Joan Baez,” Donovan says.
He also reveals that on one occasion, not long before his death, Liam Clancy showed him an Irish postage stamp commemorating the late Dubliner Luke Kelly.
“He said he’d been told he was the next for the stamp and added ‘You know what that means’. And soon he was gone.”
Like the Clancys in their later years, Donovan may have faded somewhat from the public’s minds in recent years but people in the know within the music business have never forgotten him or his genius for writing songs.
He’ll be one of the headline acts at this year’s Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, which kicks off on February 28, while a few weeks ago he was nominated for induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in America. “It was a great honour. They told me I was unanimously nominated which is always good,” says Donovan, who’s already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
“People told me that would increase my income by 60% if I got back out on the road but I said I didn’t need the money.”
Donovan, who has enjoyed his life in Ireland, says, though: “We travel a lot now in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. I regard myself as an international man, a citizen of the earth.
“I used to live here in Ireland permanently but unfortunately we only get to spend about four months of the year now. We have kept our house in Mallow in north Cork where, because of my song Mellow Yellow, the papers loved saying I was mellow in Mallow.
“But I have indeed been very mellow here. Ireland has been very good to us.”
Donovan isn’t just a blow-in, as he has Irish blood in his veins. He was born in Glasgow into Irish and Scottish parentage and grew up listening to an eclectic mix of Celtic music.
“I didn’t know it was folk music,” he says. “I just heard the songs and most of them were Irish. The women in the family were all singers and just like Ireland there were always parties in our house in St Vincent’s Street in Glasgow with music at them as people were called up to a chair in the middle of the front room.”
One of the few men he heard singing was his guitar-playing uncle Bill, whose nickname was Postie. Fellow Glaswegian Billy Connolly once told Donovan his uncle “was a figure of renown in the city”.
Donovan’s father couldn’t sing a note but he instilled a love of poetry in his young son.
“I thought every seven-year-old boy in Glasgow had a father who would read them poetry, bawdy and otherwise,” he said.
“I was filled up with a revolutionary zeal from early on because the reading list included poems about social revolutions from Robert Burns, and from America’s Depression, as well as poems by Robert Service, who went from Scotland to the Gold Rush in the Yukon.”
As a 10-year-old, Donovan moved in 1956 with his family to Hatfield in Hertfordshire and he was soon exposed to the fast emerging new music of the time, rock and roll.
“I remember my father taking me to see the Bill Haley film Rock Around The Clock and even though I was listening to Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers in my teens, the sense of what I’d heard in Glasgow never left me,” he said.
“The poems and the music all stirred my cauldron because I was a mixture of many things and many forms of music, including Frank Sinatra, whom my mother loved, and Billie Holliday who was one of my father’s favourites.
“But when I went on to further education college, at the age of 15, I was plugged into my generation’s Bohemia in 1962 and 1963. I was listening to the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez because I wanted to be a voice myself,” he said.
“They were mainly American folk singers but it didn’t take long for the penny to drop that they were singing Celtic songs from Ireland and Scotland — songs which had been brought across the Atlantic, and which were also the basis for American Country music.”
In his youth, Donovan was an aspiring artist too but music was an even bigger draw. “I discovered I had a natural bent for it and
that I was part of the folk tradition that was my heritage,” he said.
But after the top 20 hits started coming for Donovan, he found an endless stream of inspiration which made him a household name all over the UK and in the US.
At first he was branded a Dylan copyist. But Donovan’s popularity was such that he was soon rubbing shoulders with the biggest stars of the Sixties — and with Lennon and McCartney also coming from Irish working class stock in Liverpool they quickly bonded.
In 1968 Donovan and The Beatles went to India together to study Transcendental Meditation and during six weeks in the jungle Lennon asked his friend to teach him a new finger-picking style of guitar-playing which was later used extensively on the band’s White Album.
Donovan also hung out with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, appearing in the iconic Don’t Look Back documentary about Dylan’s first UK tour in the mid-Sixties.
Donovan’s star waned as musical styles and preferences changed in the Seventies but he still recorded and performed, including a memorable gig at the first Belfast Folk Festival in Botanic Gardens in 1980.
He’d been in Belfast 16 years earlier but the only memory that stands out is a chance encounter in a hotel bar with a group of five young men in suits. “It turned out it was Van Morrison and Them,” he says. “I know there was a bit of a ding-dong in the bar but I remember Van coming up to me and introducing himself.”
His return to Belfast in February/March to take part in a television special and a workshop and a concert in the Songwriters Festival comes as the event celebrates its tenth anniversary next year.
And it’s a date he’s very much looking forward to, he says. “I have a wonderful feeling about the festival, especially as I was in Nashville last year to record an album, Shadows of Blue, which featured seven songs I wrote in the Seventies. I’m really proud of the music.”
* Donovan will be in concert at the Holiday Inn, Belfast, on Friday, February 28.|For further details, visit www.belfastnashville.com
LIFE AND LOVES OF A FOLK ICON
* Born in 1946 in the Maryhill area of Glasgow, to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father
* The family moved to Hertfordshire. Influenced by his parents' love for folk music, Donovan began playing guitar at 14
* After honing his craft in the mid-Sixties, he became one of the key figures of the Flower Power movement, releasing
singles such as Catch the Wind, Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow
* In October 1970 he married Linda Lawrence, an ex-girlfriend of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, with whom he has two children, Astrella Celeste and Oriole Nebula.
* Following a relationship with model Enid Karl, he is also the father of actress Ione Skye, who became a teen idol after the 1989 movie Say Anything, and actor and singer Donovan Leitch, who appeared in the films And God Created Woman, Glory and I Shot Andy Warhol
A CELEBRATION OF SONG
Since starting a decade ago, the 10th United Airlines Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival has grown to become one of the key music dates in the city's calendar. Previous big names to play at the event include Country star Nanci Griffith, Eighties legend Nik Kershaw and former Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews.
This year's line-up promises to be one of the biggest yet, with 100 artists performing at 50 events over 10 days. Among the highlights are Donovan himself, Ultravox and Band AId icon Midge Ure, Chip Taylor -- writer of hit songs Angel of the Morning and Wild Thing -- as well as local stars Gareth Dunlop and Bap Kennedy, among others.
For details on the line-up, visit www.belfastnashville.com