Donovan spoke to Stendhal’s John Cartwright ahead of his 50th anniversary show at Stendhal, new anthology album, his Irish roots and multi-generational appeal.
The British invasion of the US music scene in the sixties is rightly seen as one of the most exciting and inspirational periods in the history of popular music. From the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, American audiences in the so-called flower power era couldn’t get enough of artists from the UK and one of the most celebrated of these musical pioneers, Donovan Leitch, is spending 2015 celebrating his own outstanding 50 years in the music industry.
June 8th saw the release of a special Donovan 2 disc retrospective album which will include his brand new single ‘One English Summer’ alongside the many highlights from a career that has so far resulted in 26 albums, numerous hit singles and some of the most memorable songs ever recorded.
“I have always been a storyteller,” recounts Donovan, “ I come from an Irish-Scots background where storytelling is obviously an important aspect of the culture, so I have always tried to tell stories in my songs that appeal to everyone’s sense of adventure and wonder.
“Over the course of my career I have been inspired by many different artistic pursuits and cultural takes on music and art. I have been inspired by poetry and storytelling right the way through to West Indian and African music and Irish ballads.
“The album is broken into two sections, the first will feature all the hits while the second is a bit more of an eclectic selection from throughout the years.”
As a part of the anniversary celebrations, which will prompt a major renaissance for the man whose fingerprints can be seen throughout the last half-century of popular music, Donovan will be taking to the festival circuit throughout the summer. Along with playing at Glastonbury, he will also headlining the award-winning Stendhal Festival of Art on August 7.
Donovan is no stranger to Northern Ireland and he says he is very much looking forward to his visit to The Roe Valley which will be his only Northern Irish performance during his anniversary celebrations.
“I’ve heard some lovely things about Stendhal,” he said, “I believe it is a very family orientated event and that it has been winning awards as it has grown over the past several years, so I’m very happy to come along and be a part of it.
“I have always enjoyed visiting Northern Ireland, I have spent some very enjoyable times in the lake lands of Fermanagh so I’m looking forward to seeing a bit more of the place when I’m there in August. I have Irish heritage, so I’ve always felt a kinship with the Irish. Both my grannies were Irish, my first name is an Irish surname and Irish music has played a part in influencing how I write my music, so you could say that Ireland has always been somewhat of a special place for me.”
In many ways, his career has been a series of firsts. In addition to creating the first psychedelic album (Sunshine Superman in 1966), he was the first ‘Rolling Stone Interview’ in the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967.
He was the first solo artist to sell out Madison Square Garden, and coined the phrase ‘Celtic Rock,’ and he is surely the first, and arguably the only, artist to have influenced both Led Zeppelin and Belle and Sebastian, among so many others.
His unique work continues to influence new bands and singers. That’s quite a breadth of accomplishment.
But then breadth was what he always did best. His album Sunshine Superman introduced Flower Power to the world and influenced his friends The Beatles to develop their 1967 album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Donovan also contributed to a few Beatles song compositions.
He taught John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison to finger pick the guitar on their famous trip to India to study Transcendental Meditation. George Harrison later said of their friend, “Donovan is all over The White Album”.
A member of both the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Donovan’s accomplishments in music have been much heralded and he says that he is honoured to be included in the institutions among such acclaimed company.
“It was a great honour to accept my place in both the halls of fame,” he said. “The places are granted by those in the industry, the people that know the ins and outs of what it takes to get to the top of the business, so to have their respect and be selected for a hall of fame is akin to a songwriter or musician receiving an academy award.
“For me it means that my music will always be there for people to find. In a hundred years time if someone is looking through the artists in the halls of fame, they might just stop to listen to something of mine and in doing so give my music a new lease of live to another generation.
“It’s a thrill for me how some of my songs can be picked up by new generations and mean as much to them as it did to the generation in which it was written. A songwriters role, in my opinion, is to present to the masses, the various stages of life, so in being selected to be in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters hall of fame, my music can do that to multiple generations, which is just wonderful.”
The production and distribution of music has changed dramatically since Donovan burst onto the scene in 1965 with the timeless ‘Catch the Wind’ but he says that while how his music reaches people is always evolving, his song writing and performance style, still reflects the ideals he has always held close to him from when his career was just starting out.
“Everything starts with an acoustic guitar,” said Donavan. “An acoustic guitar and using it to tell stories is what my career has been all about. Of course as you go along you can add production and some larger sounds, but at its core my songwriting and performance style has been quite a stripped back process.
“With that in mind, my set for Stendhal in August will be based on this. I’ll be sitting cross-legged on the stage with an acoustic guitar, telling stories. You can of course expect to hear all the hits along with a few surprises as well.”