Rock Hall of Famer Donovan Records in Nashville

Folk rock icon and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Donovan has built a lengthy career out of being a stylistic nomad. His more than 40 years of musical output spans ‘60s folk, psychedelic pop, jazz, and calypso, and includes classic hits like “Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman,” and “Catch the Wind.” So as odd as it may sound, it almost makes perfect sense that the Scottish songwriter (born Donovan Leitch) would follow his ever-roaming muse to Nashville to record. MusicRow‘s David Ross and Jon Freeman recently sat down with the legend at Treasure Isle, where we discussed his breakout in the ‘60s, his friendship with the Beatles, and his new Nashville recordings.

MR: So is it true that you were in the studio for the recording of “A Day in the Life”?

Donovan: Yeah, I wandered in. We were all invited but I knew the Beatles and I heard they were up to something. But it was on one of the big numbers so I don’t know that I joined them. I don’t think I was part of the recording, but it was great fun. It was in Abbey Road 1. I made Sunshine Superman in Abbey Road 2 so I knew the studio quite well.

MR: And you showed John Lennon his finger picking style on “Dear Prudence”?

Donovan: Yeah, we found ourselves friends early on. Dylan introduced me to the Beatles in an interesting way in the Savoy Hotel in 1965. It was May. I know these dates because I wrote a little book and had to get my dates right. So in the Savoy Hotel Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Donovan had come together in May of 65 and it looked to me at that point like here is where folk music invades pop music. And we kind of invaded it in a special way because we wanted to popularize the meaningful lyrics (we all did). We three were hanging out at the Savoy and one night the Beatles came around to see Bobby, not me, and that’s how the Beatles and I met and became fast friends. We kind of come from the same background, a big harbor town— Liverpool and Glasgow in Scotland. Lennon and McCartney are Irish names and I’ve got Irish on my side too and we had an overly excited obsession with writing songs. So the Beatles and I got on very well and found ourselves sharing the same interests and the same humor. And we found ourselves in India in 1967.

This was extraordinary that we would come together in such an exotic and distant place. Actually it was February of 1968. So we were in India and the only instruments we had were acoustic guitars. There weren’t any amps or drums. When we arrived George ordered tablas for Ringo and Ringo didn’t quite like them that much. But three acoustic guitars and George ordered in a sitar and a tambura. And we meditated and all ate health food, we were healthier than we’d ever been for years and after long days of meditation we’d sit around in the evening and play guitar. It was almost like being back at college again. The fame was a million miles away and we were just sitting around playing. What they were fascinated with I realized was that I was playing all these country blues and flamenco styles and finger styles which they hadn’t done. I’d absorbed everything from the Carter family to Big Bill Broonzy to flamingo to Martin Carthy’s folk styles. I pretty much knew everything by the age of 20. I was playing constantly.

One day John leaned over and said, “How do you do that?” What? “That finger style stuff, what is it?” I said it’s moving so fast you don’t know what I’m doing right? “That’s right I want to learn.” I said, well it will take a few days. He looked around the jungle and said, “I’ve got time to learn anything here.” So I sat down and taught him the basic Carter Family claw hammer which I’d learned from somebody called Dirty Hugh who showed me the pattern. And he started writing a completely different kind of song, which happens. But it wasn’t just the picking, it was the descending pattern from Am to G to D to F which is the basis of many a blues and flamenco style. From “House of the Rising Sun” onward. This descending pattern was very much a part of the finger style and he started writing “Dear Prudence.” But the one that touched me the most was the one to his mother, “Julia.” Cause he never knew his mother and he knew that I wrote songs from my childhood and could write in that style and he said help me write a song about the childhood I never had. He said my mother’s name was Julia and he started picking what he liked was the descending patterns in the finger style which of course is everything.

Paul McCartney was interested, but of course he’s so smart he was just walking around us while I was teaching John and he was picking it up anyway. He was just listening, cause you know he was a genius, they’re all geniuses in that band. He started writing “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” George wasn’t not listening, he was listening too, but George preferred the Chet Atkins finger style where you hold the guitar pick between the thumb and first finger and play with the other fingers. But I was teaching John and Paul was listening the complete finger style which I understand Ma Carter transposed banjo picking to guitar in 1928. So I knew this stuff and learned it. George liked the chord structures so he started writing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the descending. So what I did naturally became for the Beatles in India a door to a whole new range of songwriting and I’m so pleased that happened. And George said later in the Beatles Anthology, “Donovan’s all over the White Album.” And it seems I am, but it’s not me. I didn’t invent these things, but I played them so much, I opened doors. And the Beatles at that point were at a big watershed in their life. They’d lost their manager, Brian Epstein and discovered mediation and they were looking for something different. Well they certainly got something different from Donovan. A guitar style and a set of chords that opened up an enormous amount of new ways of doing things. And that’s what we musicians do, we pass on styles.

MR: It seems like being different has served you well in the long run. 

Donovan: I didn’t get stuck in a genre. At the root of it all I come from the Irish-Scottish tradition where the ballad form is everything. As a kid was an Everly Brothers fan, but more so Buddy Holly. I didn’t have an electric band, I just loved the stuff. So I absorbed that and an enormous amount of jazz, blues, folk, and classical. It didn’t matter to me. It seemed like there was no rules.

Now I can say this: my new song that I’m recording at Treasure Isle in Nashville is called “The Harmonica Girl.” I was in Santa Monica in a 1940s bungalow and nothing had changed since 1946. I smelled that old smell and picked up the guitar and a Hoagy Carmichael-style jazz song came out. So this is kind of what happens with me. I can feel a style coming and I pick up a guitar and it’s 40s. What brings me to Nashville is a very interesting dream of mine for more than three decades of returning where my first single was launched on Hickory Records in 1965. It was part of Acuff-Rose. Why I didn’t see it for at least 10 years that in fact I’d started in Nashville. In a way it was natural to think, that’s how you should have arrived in America. I held back over 3 decades 11 songs which I promised myself I’d come back to Nashville one of these days. It’s unplanned. I put everyone in a spin at peermusic, my publishing company. I said, I’m coming. They said, “When?” I said, Now! “Well, we need some time to set some guys up.” I said, No time! Michael Knox was introduced to me by peermusic and he put a few guys together who possibly weren’t available.

Clockwise from left: bassist Tom Petersson (of Cheap Trick), Michael Knox, guitarist Adam Shoenfeld (sitting), drummer Chad Cromwell, Donovan, keyboard player Tony Harrell (writing his chart in the floor)

MR: Is Michael producing you?

Donovan: He’s executive producing right now but I think we’ll develop. He said why don’t you just go in and do what you came to do. Then I pulled a song from the ones I’ve had on the shelf. It has history, it’s not a new song. But I knew if I came back here I could get young players who would play in a traditional style but give it a modern shine. I don’t really want to go back to Hank Williams, I want to do a fusion like I always do. The songs themselves, the first is “Blue Jean Angel.” It sounds like a ‘50s pop song but it’s really a rockabilly story song like Cash would do. It’s turned out really well.

MR: Will this eventually be part of a larger Nashville album project?

Donovan: Yeah. Of course I want to work with Michael beyond this introduction. He’s been listening, and it’s more than a demo. We have tracks but they can now develop. I’d love to come back and complete what they used to call an album, because albums are still made in Nashville, aren’t they? Singles are made everywhere else.

(L-R): Jon Freeman, Donovan, David Ross

MR: I’ve always been fascinated by your song “Writer in the Sun.” Can you tell me about that?

It was the real thing, it was happening. I was in Greece. Sunshine Superman went into a lawsuit for six months [when] I was being moved from one label to another. While it was in the courts, Sunshine Superman was held up but when it was finally released it wasn’t seen for what it was. When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominated me, they cited this album as the initiation of a period in music before Sgt. Pepper and that was wonderful to have that recognition. I didn’t wait for it to be released. I said, well it’s been fun, “Catch the Wind” and the so-called folk world I came from… by 1965 I had 2 albums and top 10 hits. It’s been a good year and a half, so why don’t we go to Greece, Gypsy [Mills] and I say. So we went, saying it’s been fun, I guess it’s over. [I’m] getting sued for the album that I put all my heart into but not caring, saying we’ll just go away to Greece. And there I was, the retired writer in the sun. But not really. But what’s the song about? [It’s] about looking back and saying, I’ve had enough of the city, now we’re in the country on a beautiful island, Paros in Greece. We rented a little cottage on the hill. We ate tomatoes and cheese and drank big flagons of wine in baskets. There was no tourism. Everything was incredible. Gypsy and I did that when we were 16 before we made records. We were real vagabonds. When people saw me in the hat they thought somebody’s invented this kid but it was the real thing. So going back to the road was easy. I didn’t feel bitter about the album. That summer was so long I wrote all these songs for what was going to be the Mellow Yellow album. I’m 20 and I’m saying those days when I was 18, I’m looking back and saying I’m going to retire now to the beautiful island but of course I wasn’t. I was having a bit of fun. “Fishing for time with a wishing line and throwing it back in the sea.” I was having a bit of fun but then…

There was one telephone on the island. It was a wind-up in the tavern. We used to come down on donkeys. [There was] no transport, no roads. So we went down because the owner said, “You have a call coming in. Three days it takes for a call to come in.” We sat at the table with the tavern owner and have gave us two ouzos. Opposite was the monk from the monastery, he’d come down for his ouzo. Suddenly the phone started ringing. It was my manager and he was shouting down the phone, from London through Paris, to Rome, to Athens to this little island. “Hey Don, it’s Ashley [Kozak].” I said, what’s going on? He said “Sunshine Superman’s finally been released.” Yeah? “And it’s number one all over the bloody world. There’s a ticket waiting for you in Athens, first class all the way back.” Gypsy had been listening and he goes “How much money have you got?” We put our hands in our pockets and put the money on the table. We didn’t have enough money to get back on the boat and we got number one all over the world. So the tavern owner comes up and wipes the table and says “What was all that about, boys?” We told him and he laughed. By the way, it wasn’t a regular ferry–if the weather was bad it wouldn’t arrive for two weeks. So we had brought a briefcase which when you opened it had a record player and a cassette. We had three albums, Leonard Cohen’s first, the Beatles’ Revolver, and the white stamp of Sunshine Superman. So the tavern owner said, “You bring down the briefcase, I give you a ticket for the boat.” So we made the deal. “Writer in the Sun” wasn’t meant that I’d be retiring soon, but when we were waving to the tavern owner and old man who lived up the hill next to our cottage–as we were waving goodbye at the island to get the first class ticket to fame and fortune, big stuff, I realized I was waving goodbye to a way of life I wouldn’t live again. That song is full of all of that. It’s something we’re losing, but it’s something we’re gaining. And I went back and took accolades and acclaim. Gypsy and I went back and started having fun with the Beatles and all that. We met everyone on the way. But the music continues and here I am in a great music town, doing what I love. And one of the great pluses was to meet Peter Coleman, an English engineer who’s been working in many an English studio. It’s a historic return, but it’s also the beginning of a completion of songs I purposely kept aside.

MR: Tell me about your upcoming live dates.

Donovan: These three performances are really to just have a little party, to celebrate the induction. There’s a week or a bit more in each of DC, LA and New York to do a bit of media and announce that I’ll finally go on the road. Celebrating something like the induction, everybody wants to hear the classic hits. And I am one of those artist who will play the popular songs. But by spring of next year or early summer there will be a new set of songs. I don’t know where the Nashville project is headed. There’s different kinds of Donovan. There are those that love me with acoustic guitar. But this one is fully on with band. But whatever this one is going to develop into I’m not sure.

MR: What does joining Rock & Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?

Donovan: It’s such a singular honor. It was only two years of nomination and suddenly I’m in. Timing is everything. And I’m an odd fish. You can’t put your finger on what exactly I do. Essentially I’m a songwriter who can turn his sounds into different things. I think now I’m recognized for the work that has consistently been influencing and encouraging other songwriters. I always wanted that. Experiment, break the rules and mix the genres. Keep it simple, three chords, and if it has to be a fourth chord, make it a minor. That’s my advice to songwriters. But the Rock Hall, I took it very seriously, because it reflects back to all the young artists that are coming up. If someone didn’t know me, maybe they heard a song in a commercial or a movie. Someone types in Donovan and Mellow Yellow in the search engine and 17 albums appear. That’s a whole new audience. And I’ve always felt music is a positive influence, so I’m very pleased.

It’s hard for a young artist to be creative in that sense. But there are small towns with universities, cafes, music rooms. So you can’t say it’s over yet. If they study Donovan, the Beatles, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen and the form of songwriting. Study those styles and one day you might come up with your own.

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