As one of 2012's inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, legendary singer-songwriter Donovan reflects on his half-century of making music.
In 2005, when asked by Goldmine magazine to comment on being snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Donovan replied, "My music should be in there, but me I don't care." Now, seven years later, Donovan is more than pleased to be an inductee into the hallowed Hall both for himself and his music. A legendary singer-songwriter, whose music has long stood the test of time, Donovan has yet to become jaded about the ever changing music industry. He continues to tour and record and recently took the time to speak with me about his career, The Rock Hall induction, the recently released career spanning Essential Donovan CD set, and his continued love and enthusiasm for what he has made his life's work.
Congratulations on being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I was thinking on that. It’s the largest spotlight a singer-songwriter or musician/performer can have, a brighter light than all the other awards you can have around the world. It’s kind of like an Academy Award. It’s very exciting for me. My first reaction when after two years of nominations was a great overwhelming feeling from everybody that they were so pleased, finally, that I was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was more pleased for them at first because they had been so frustrated waiting for me to get in.
My first personal reaction was I realized the light was so bright on my work now. It would be so good for all the new audiences and the young students around the world who don’t know me to now know me because I’ve always felt my work was positive and self affirming.
When you first began writing songs what was the first one to make you think, yes, this is special?
It began very early at 16, or something like that, a song came through me. It was extraordinary that I could make this sound with the guitar and make this song move into the air. That one I think was “Why Do You Treat Me Like You Do”. I actually wrote it for a friend whose girlfriend was treating him pretty bad. So it wasn’t my experience but it was interesting writing a song for a friend’s experience. The feeling that I could actually make this sound with my guitar and make this sound with my voice and move a poem into the air was extraordinary. It was the idea that now I would have to learn more how to do this.
Your music is generally optimistic uplifting and self-affirming, as you say. But there is also a dark edge: Season of the Witch comes to mind as an example. Where does that sinister edge come from?
The light and the dark is very much a part of the philosophy of life. There are light sides; there are dark sides. And all the stories and tales and myths and legends all over the world and especially in the Celtic tradition I come from there’s the dark witch and there’s the white witch. These symbols represent the inside of us or the yin-yang, the dark and the light.[They’re] not totally positive, all my songs. They’re not negative but they’re not all positive. On the Sunshine Superman album, which we just performed in its entirety at the the Royal Albert Hall last year (it’s on video and it will be broadcast, I hope, this year in America), there is one song, “Season of the Witch”, as you know, but there’s another song which has a very deep, dark side and it’s called "Celeste". It’s the last song on the album. Celeste is not so much a girl’s name as just a name for the universe. Celeste, Celestial. I remember writing it in a very dark hotel in New York overlooking Central Park. I’m trying to think of what [hotel it was]. It was black and gold, and the rooms were dark and maybe some dark things had happened there. It was very early and I remember writing this song called “Celeste”. Wow, it must have been ’66 when I wrote that or late ’65. It speaks of a girl coming into the room and singing her songs. I’m trying to remember who it was but I just can’t. She was in a very deep, deep mood. Her psyche was broken. In the song it speaks of this. So there is the darkness, a dark side of everything and most people find the dark side when they’re on their own. [As a] poet and the songwriter, I bring it out and put it into a song. There are dark sides to me, of course.
Is there one of your songs that you would say defines you?
A song that defines me (he pauses). I’m looking at a photo of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught the Beatles and I to meditate. He selected a song of mine once which he said was transcendental. Transcendental means you go inside with a mantra and meditate. Certain pieces of music put you inside very briefly. So if you ask for a song that defines me, Maharishi said it was “Isle of Ilay”. It’s not a pop hit of mine. It has no tempo. It’s very, very quiet and peaceful and when you listen to it it can place you into a state of introspection. It makes your breathing slow down. So if any song defines me, those kinds of songs [do], and there’s only a half dozen of them where it happens. I seem to be maybe the only one alive today who can slow down the heartbeat with one of my songs.
One of your most unique songs is “Atlantis”. Could you talk about its origin? Were you surprised it was a hit?
We were reading books. We were always reading books. Not only meditation books but the ancient books of Greece and Egypt. Then there was the book of Atlantis. An island that we also have in Atlantis [is called] Tir Nan Og, “The Land Over the Sea”. A magical people came from Tir Nan Og called Tuatha de Danaan. Ancient books of Ireland speak of people coming from over the sea, over the western ocean from a magical land where it’s always spring. So I grew up with these stories and then I read Atlantis, a book by Dunleavy, an Irishman, that was fascinating and I thought a song would come from it. I decided to tell the story as it’s told as a poem and then kick in to a chorus. I didn’t think of it as a single like “Sunshine Superman” or “Mellow Yellow”. I didn’t think of it like that. I just thought of it as telling the story. It surprised me and everyone around the world. Especially in Germany, of all places. It [found] huge success there. Ancient stories of Atlantis were very popular in Germany. Stephen King, it was a big song to him. He told me! He said Hearts of Atlantis, the book he wrote that became a film, was influenced by “Atlantis”. He was very influenced by that song. Yes, it’s a very unusual one. A storytelling song.
The Essential Donovan is a comprehensive collection of your music on two CDs. It contains all your songs that charted between 1967 and 1973 plus carefully chosen album tracks. What do you think of the collection?
The Essential Donovan is a new project for me and Sony for the Rock Hall. Of course there are many songs people know. If you’re a fan, you already have those. But there are some bonuses and new stuff that’s available for the first time in America. I’m quite happy about that. It’s 34 tracks [and] it’s a good introduction, I think, for new fans who don’t know me. If you want to go deeper, then I guess you would have to find the purple box set (TryFor the Sun: The Journey of Donovan). Get your parents to buy it for you for Christmas (laughs). The purple box set has a very wide range but this 34 track set has quite a wide range [too]. People are a bit surprised how wide-ranging this selection is. It’s a good introduction, I think.
Did you have much say in putting the collection together?
No. Bob Irwin, who did the purple box set in 2005, [put this collection together]. He has a company called Sundazed and he’s a vinyl guy. He did such a good job on the purple box set they asked him to do The Essential Donovan. I was very happy with that. Poor Bob! I feel sorry for poor Bob Irwin. He said, “It’s impossible. I can’t put a whole Donovan thing on 34 tracks. I need more tracks.” I think he’s done a great job. He said to keep it analog, keep it mono. Keep the old sound, the original sound. Stereo is nice for people who like stereo but I didn’t make a lot of that stuff in stereo. I made it for mono ears. There are some stereo [tracks], of course but this is the history of Donovan. [I wanted to] keep it natural, keep it original and keep it real and so he did.
In 1966, you hooked up with producer Mickie Most. How did that impact your career?
That was a classic meeting. We met in late ’65, actually, and started Sunshine Superman in Abbey Road studios. It was extraordinary. It was just what I wanted. I was looking for a producer and I wanted to make the leap into experimentation. It’s not just from folk I came. I’d studied Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers, jazz, blues, folk (a lot of folk), and a lot of classical and baroque, and big band and small band. I’d heard it all. I’d had this dream of [using] harpsichords and sitars and congas and flutes and string quartets, baroque and Indian music, Caribbean. Just a whole world of music became my palette. I found that Mickie Most was the guy who turned me on to making these recordings. He introduced me to John Cameron, a fantastic arranger, who listened to my dreams and made all the songs on Sunshine Superman like they were movies. “You see these as movies,” he said to me. I said, “Yeah, every song is like a little movie.A blind man’s movie. You close your eyes, you put the headphones on. Now we’ll take you into magical worlds.” He said, “Right. I’ll make the soundtrack. Just tell me what you want.” I said, “Alright. There’s a harpsichord here. There’s a sitar there. There’s string quartets and a jazz ensemble here.” And, yeah, we did it. It was Sunshine Superman, the album!
Do you enjoy touring?
Traveling has become difficult with all the security in airports. It’s a very stressful thing. Although many of the security people are trying their best to make everybody feel comfortable, it’s still stressful for everybody. I will be doing some performances. I can’t announce them yet but they will be coming. Probably in the fall. I may be doing some performances alone with just the guitar and telling stories for smaller audiences. Then I’d like to do some bigger concerts across the United States where people can fly in and stay in a hotel and experience the full story. I’m working on that. So look out for [information] on that on www.donovan.ie.