This evening Donovan will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Yesterday The New York Times published a terrific interview by Allan Kozinn with Donovan. Rumor has it that Roseanne Cash will be performing a duet with Donovan of his first hit song “Catch the Wind” at tonight’s ceremony. Donovan is from Scotland and Roseanne and her father’s family roots also trace back to Scotland. Donovan joins Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Woody Guthrie, Carole King, Little Richard, and many other legendary songwriters. Congratulations Donovan!
A Genre Dabbler Gets His Accolades
Donovan to Enter Songwriters Hall of Fame
By ALLAN KOZINN JUNE 10, 2014
Donovan Leitch, shown in 1972, is being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on Thursday. Credit Tony Evans/Getty Images
Donovan Leitch — or just Donovan, as he became known — might have become a painter instead of a musician. As he tells it, he was considering arts school when he decided, instead, to take his guitar and hitchhike to London, where he began performing as a folk singer. By 1965 he had won a following, as well as recording and publishing contracts, with ballads like “Catch the Wind” and “Colors,” guitar-accompanied folk songs similar to one Bob Dylan was writing — not surprisingly since they were both drawing from the large well of English, Irish, Scottish and American folk melodies.
Still, Donovan was stung early on by reviews in which he was called a Dylan clone, and quickly veered off to find a new path or, actually, paths. Without entirely leaving folk behind — he styled himself as a modern troubadour — he quickly produced “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow,” “Epistle to Dippy” and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” This stream of mid-1960s songs with trippy, elliptical lyrics evoked the nascent drug culture of the time, along with mini-epics like “The Legend of a Girl Child Linda,” in which he experimented with instrumental textures and extended structures. He continued to broaden his palette with his paean to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (he has retained his devotion to Transcendental Meditation); his collaboration with the guitarist Jeff Beck on the rhythmically vital “Barabajagal”; and recent productions that include the jazz-tinged “Beat Café” (2004), the stylistically omnivorous “Ritual Groove” (2010) and his latest, “Shadows of Blue” (2013), which begins as a country album and veers toward rock.
At 68, Donovan likes touring less than he did in the old days — he dislikes airport security, and tour buses even more. Still, he is planning a celebration of some sort (he won’t be specific) for the 50th anniversary of his first hits, in 2015. And having been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, he will join the Songwriters Hall of Fame at that institution’s annual awards ceremony in New York on Thursday. He recently discussed his approach to songwriting. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Q. You’ve touched on a number of styles over the years — the folksiness of “Catch the Wind,” the early psychedelia of “Sunshine Superman,” the bluesy sound of “Season of the Witch,” the almost Elizabethan quality of “Guinevere,” the jazz-tinged “Beat Cafe,” the country music on “Shades of Blue.” Were you consciously trying to embrace that variety, or is it just how things unfolded?
A. I think that must have come from my love of popular music and the idea of packing an extraordinary story into a three-minute disc. I found that I just liked to listen to, and to try my hand at, many different kinds of music. You know that we were all first powered by jazz when we were young, in the music scene in Britain, especially. Jazz, blues and folk are a great way of expression. But I also listened carefully to what Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley were doing. Songwriting has always been at the center of what I do, and the making of well-made songs, with poetry in mind, and on subjects that pop music doesn’t necessarily cover, has always been, for me, a fine thing to be fascinated with. But the fact that the genres I used kept changing may have made it hard to put a finger on what Donovan does. At first it was, “Oh, he’s a folk singer.” Then I used a little jazz, a little classical music. And it was hard in those days, because everybody was in a faction. You played rhythm and blues, or folk, or jazz, or classical. I felt that putting them all together seemed a lot of fun.
Q. Your approach to arrangements has been one of your hallmarks, but you began very simply, with just voice and guitar. How did you become interested in orchestration?
A. My producer, Mickie Most, introduced me to John Cameron, in mid-1965. John had just come down from Cambridge, and he knew everything about classical music, folk, jazz — he could do anything, and he knew how to draw on all the elements I wanted. I would tell him: “On this song, I want a harpsichord, a theremin, Caribbean congas and upright bass, but it would be nice to have an electric bass, too. And a sitar.” And because I hadn’t been trained as a musician, I would draw out sections, and change the beat, as the song’s drama required it, particularly with something like “The Legend of a Girl Child Linda,” the seven-minute song on the “Sunshine Superman” album. It wasn’t a problem for John, because he was a free spirit — he would just write down what I wanted. But I remember him saying, at one point, “Wait a minute — you actually mean the music to be like a soundtrack to the lyrics.” And that was exactly right. The lyric was the story, and I wanted the music to illustrate it — to be the soundtrack to the movie you would see when you close your eyes and listen to the song.
Q. It’s interesting that you think of your songs in visual terms.
A. For me, it was experimental. But the actual trying out of different things, I think most of it came from art. Although I didn’t go to art school, I’m a painter, and by the time I almost entered art school, I decided that I wanted to do the music. But in modern art you have collage, and in film you have montage, and I think these elements must have entered the way I was putting all these bits together.
Q. You tended to choose unusual subjects. In “Atlantis,” for example, you use the story of that mythical submerged island to lament that we no longer pay attention to mythology and the ancient wisdom it embodies.
A. Yes, it’s changed. There has been a loss of understanding, and awe and beauty that was in the ancient cultures. Joseph Campbell knew it. Carl Jung knew it. We can’t rely on the old mythic structures anymore, but there will be a new one built. The old gods and goddesses are here, still, and they express themselves in all the things they do. And we would be well to study mythology more. So when “Atlantis” came along, I did go through the roles — the musician, the poet, the scientist, the farmer, all the people who produced knowledge for the society. But I also realized that the chorus — “way down below the ocean” — wasn’t about the physical ocean at all. It’s the ocean of consciousness. It’s about the 20th-century discoveries in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, that this inner world that people no longer had access to was very important.
Q. You’ve devoted several albums, most notably “A Gift From a Flower to a Garden,” to what are supposed to be children’s songs, but which have always appealed equally to adults.
A. In my reading, I came across the Victorian obsession with children’s books. It was in Victorian times that childhood was given all these myths and legends and fairy tales, as if it was a child’s world, not an adult’s world. And I suppose that was all to do with the Industrial Revolution and the incredible dislocation of people out of the farming areas and out of the countryside into the new industrial and highly polluted, mechanical cities that were growing up all around, from the 1700s through the 1900s. And these stories were given to childhood, as if they were something that you only do when you’re a kid. When you grow up, grow up! I come from the tradition of Irish and Scottish storytelling and songwriting, which holds that these stories are not just the property of children, and I became fascinated with the idea of the song as a way to give knowledge to children. It was something I thought I had to do. These are stories in which there is a way to be a hero and a heroine, and where awe and wonder can be encouraged. It’s not just dance music. It’s a way for me to be a teacher.
Q. You have been organizing your archives lately. What kinds of things have you rediscovered?
A. I didn’t know I’d be carrying around the world so much material. We’ve moved so many times. But one day, it arrived from storage and there it was, everything. Extraordinary — the costumes, the guitars, the writings, my library, which moved around with me, 25 to 35 diaries, of songwriting and drawings, posters, memorabilia, backstage passes. I seem to have written a song about every social and spiritual and musical movement from 1964 to now. The whole thing is redolent, resonating with history. It’s fascinating because it’s all still here, but I need to say goodbye to it. We’ve been talking with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about taking it over.
Q. In 2012 you released “The Sensual Donovan,” an album you started in 1971, with John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) producing, and the Crusaders as your band. Was that something you found in the archives?
A. Yes, there’s also an enormous audio archive, with, I believe, 400 multitrack tapes and 200 or 300 mixed stereo tapes. That’s a lot of tape and it’s all analog, and we’re just finishing five years of transferring it to digital. I had forgotten albums that I’d done. “The Sensual Donovan” was something I started with John Phillips in Hollywood, and we used the Crusaders because I wanted to do a Latin, sort of jazzy thing. But it was at a time when there were lawsuits going on, about the change from one label to another, so it was never released, and I’d forgotten about it. When I found it, I said, “My goodness, look at this!” There were parts left unfinished, so I completed those. But what is more amazing is the number of songs — we’re still going through them, but we’re up to about 200 now — that are in superdemo stage, most of them just acoustic guitar, although there’s a big orchestral section as well. So we’re plowing through those. That’s what I’ve been doing.