Donovan Leitch is a Scottish born singer/songwriter. As a young child, he absorbed poetry along with folk songs that his family used to sing at get-togethers. Throughout his teen years, Donovan would listen to just about everything: jazz, folk, big band, country, gypsy, baroque, rock and roll and more. When he received his first guitar from a friend, one of the first things he attempted was a Hank Williams tune. Eventually, Donovan started writing poetry and creating songs. As the folk revival was in full swing, he started showcasing his work in various venues and coffee houses. He was discovered and offered a recording contract by Pye Records. His early songs, " Catch The Wind", "Colours" and "The Universal Soldier" made a big impression and he became a major part of the music scene. Things started really taking off for him and he began to associate and intermingle with other prominent musicians with the likes of: Brian Jones, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In the mid 1960's, Donovan became an international star when he penned the smash hit "Sunshine Superman". The single and resulting album ushered in the psychedelic and flower power era of pop music. This classic work of art preceded The Beatles "Sgt. Peppers" and The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" albums by at least a year. During this creative time period, Donovan continued to pump out hits like: "Mellow Yellow", "Hurdy Gurdy Man", "Season of the Witch", "There Is a Mountain" and many others. In the late 60's, Donovan went on the famous retreat with The Beatles in India. It was there that he showed Paul McCartney and John Lennon his fingerpicking technique. The influence can be heard throughout "The White Album" from the Beatles. Donovan continued his artistic output throughout his career and has performed at some of the world's best venues and concert halls. On April 14th 2012, Donovan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has also been inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014. Donovan has just released an impressive new album entitled "Shadows of Blue". It's a wonderful collection of fresh Donovan material and is a fine example of his songwriting skills. I recently caught up with him.
R.V.B. - What were some of the songs that you were exposed to at a young age that your parents may have played around the house? What sparked you to play the guitar?
D.L. - At first, Scottish and Irish lullabies and Glasgow street songs. Then my father reading poetry to me. At parties, my family would sing Scottish and Irish ballads... each one had their own song. Then my mother's Frank Sinatra and my father's Billie Holiday and of course the big bands like Glenn Miller. But it was the poets that my father read that enthused me with a search for the mystery of life. I knew early on I was a poet. No family member played an instrument with the exception on my father's brother "Bill". He played cowboy songs on guitar. Later when he died, I found myself crying - so Bill had touched me deeply.
R.V.B. - You gravitated to the traditional folk type songs at first. Were you writing songs as you were perfecting your guitar skills? Can you remember a few of the first songs that you wrote?
D.L. - As a teen, I loved Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers. At fifteen, I went to college and found Bohemian music, art and literature, jazz, blues and of course the folk revival was on. My first writing was without music at first, poetry in blank verse. I wanted to be a jazz drummer and played with my high school pals, Dippy on sax, Mick on guitar. I tried guitar... Hank Williams songs. Then Mick loaned me his girlfriends guitar and that was it. I tried putting few rhymes to traditional in the way it has been done forever. I remember a song about "The Brave Engineer".
R.V.B. - Was there influences from Europe and America that found your way into your first few albums?
D.L. - At sixteen, I absorbed the vinyl collection of an older Bohemian who encouraged my endeavor, and he said ,"If you really want to learn, sit down here and listen to it all". It was all there, Classic, Folk, Jazz, Blues, Blues, Baroque, Indian, Spanish, Gypsy, Poetry readings, Japanese and Chinese music, all the main important recordings, styles and masters. I soaked it all up like a sponge. I went to eclectic record stores and to folk/blues clubs to hear Jack Elliot, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch and John Renbourne play. Also the beat literature of Jack Kerouac, Ferlingetti, Ginsberg, Snyder and on to Zen: Christmas Humphreys, Loa Tzu, Alan Watts, The Diamond Sutra. I took in the Vedic Indian Yoga Classics, The Upanishads. The new wave films, Billy Liar, The L Shaped Room, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. All these are the influences and yet it began to dawn on me at the age of seventeen that I was from my Celtic Poetic Tradition.
R.V.B. - When "Sunshine Superman" was released and the sound went electric, was there a mixture of influences involved? Such as American west coast music, the evolving British rock, recreational activities of the time and so on?
D.L. - For the Genesis of my master work "Sunshine Superman", a fusion of world music, Celtic and Bardic poetry, Latin rock, Baroque and Indian, jazz and classical lyrics that reflected the search for the inner world inside us all. Experiences with magic plants to journey within. And Linda... my first real love and Muse. We are still together. When I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, the public relations release was "Donovan, singlehandedly initiated the Psychedelic Revolution with his album Sunshine Superman". I made the album in late 1965 to early 1966. That was a year before Sgt. Pepper of Jefferson Airplanes, Surrealistic Pillow album. There was maybe a little electric guitar and bass on my Sunshine Superman album, but it is mostly acoustic instruments.
R.V.B. - The mid to late sixties were a very creative time for you. What inspired songs such as Mellow Yellow and Season of the witch, Catch the Wind? Was it a lot of fun creating the chart busting songs by adding multiple instruments like the flute, the sitar, Congas and things like that?
D.L. - Mellow was New Orleans jazz and the call to "Chill out and slow down". The Witch was a cry in the night against the attack on me. First, by the London Drug Squad, and their leader Sgt. Pilcher... I being the first victim. Pilcher went on to The Beatles, The Stones and others. In 1972, Sgt Pilcher was charged with planting drugs on his victims. Catch the wind is a love song to my muse Linda Lawrence, which I wrote before I met her. That happens sometimes... future events in songs before they happen. I received an Ivor Novello award for this song in the first months of my arrival in 1965. It was breaking all the rules by making sound montages of unusual combinations of style and instrumentation. I also loved uneven time patterns and edits. I am now being recognized for my unique and innovative production ideas... it seems that Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds get all the credit for opening new ways to produce sound recordings.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy playing in front of Pete Seeger?
D.L. - I was honored to be on Pete's TV Show Rainbow Quest and meet Blind Gary Davis, who was a guitar hero of mine at the time. It was Pete through Joan Baez, who invited me to be on stage at Newport Folk Festival 1965.
R.V.B. - Are there any cool stories of your time spent with Brian Jones and the Beatles?
R.V.B. - Are there any memorable shows or venues that you have played in your career that really stick out in your mind?
D.L. - Carnegie Hall 1965. Royal Albert Hall 1967, The Hollywood Ball 1968, Madison Square Garden 1970. Sydney Opera House (in the 1970's). The very next one will be right here, tonight at The Vaerket Theatre in Randers, Denmark. I can tell it will be rather special before it happens.
R.V.B. - What do you like to do in your off time when you are not playing music?
D.L. - I like to read, study with Linda, swim in my pool in Majorca, and go to art galleries when I can.
R.V.B. - You recorded a some new material in 1996 with Rick Rubin on your Sutras album. Was that a collection of songs over a little layover from music? Was it fun getting back to your fans after a period of off time?
D.L. - The pauses in my releases and live performances are not because I stopped composing. Rick asked me how I wrote songs like The Hurdy Gurdy Man, and I said "The Dhammapada", the Buddhist classic. He was intrigued and asked "If I could still do this?", and I said sure. He said to go down each day to "Book Soup" (a bookshop cafe on Sunset Boulevard) and choose a few books. Then each day we would meet and I would play him the new songs as scores of songs arrived. Rick wanted to know how we made records in the 60's and I said "Three songs in three hours and an album in one week.". He wanted us to do it just like that, but Sutras took three years to record because he was fascinated by how I created new songs from spiritual books that he and I had both studied. I was very pleased to work with Rick. We worked in the early way in an old studio. Sutras is a positive spiritual album which seekers have found to be encouraging on their path.
R.V.B. - Your 2004 album Beat Café contained newly written songs. How do you go about writing songs these days? do you have the words first and then write the melody or visa versa? Is the Beat Café a real place?
D.L. - What came first? The chicken or the egg? That's the only answer. With no hint or modesty, today I am highly skilled and able to compose extempore on any subject that comes before me. Beat Cafe is a level of consciousness, and also any place where artists and seekers meet.
R.V.B. - How do you feel about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame? I'm sure you're very happy about it.
R.V.B. - What's going on these days? Are you touring or writing new material?
D.L. - The 50th summer in music approaches in 2015 and I will tour to thank you all for the unending support of my music and all the love you send my way. I made the new album Shadows Of Blue, following the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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