From his early troubadour songs of 1965, Donovan quickly developed into key figure in the development of music of the period. Embracing music from other cultures, composing collections of songs for children, and working with The Beatles, he defined what we now refer to as both psychedelia and acid folk. Having scored over a dozen Top 40 hits – among them Hurdy Gurdy Man (with Jeff Beck), Catch The Wind, Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow – he’s been covered by over 300 acts, and penned more than 500 tunes. And he’s still at it. Coinciding with his induction into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in June 2014 (along with The Kinks’ Ray Davies and 10cc’s Graham Gouldman), his latest album, Shadows Of Blue, finds him exploring his love of country music.
Congratulations on being inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
Yes, a light is shinning on all my work, what more can I say?
What does this particular award mean to you?
It’s very personal as I am a poet song writer … so I am looking forward to June 12 in New York where Rosanne Cash will duet my Catch The Wind with me at the Award Ceremony. An extra pleasure is that Ray Davies of The Kinks is also being awarded with me. We two Brits share the unique songwriting abilities we are being awarded for, that is curious chord structures, with landscape and cityscape poetry, and always with a pathos, laced with a sense of humour.
You’ve been picking up awards throughout your career … what was the first?
I received The Ivor Novello award in 1965 for Catch The Wind. It’s like an Academy Award of Songwriting in Britain. I gave it to my Mum for her ‘mantleshelf’, but now it’s back with me.
Are there any particularly awards you’re most proud of?
I guess songwriting awards are my favourite, but I did appreciate the Doctor Of Letters from Hertfordshire University, which included a hail to my Ecological Songs – that seems I was first to write of my generation of writers .
Gibson have recently produced ‘The Donovan Model’, a replica of the 1965 J-45 cherry sunburst you wrote your early hits on (and shared with The Beatles). What is it about that particular model you liked so much? Warmth of sound? Solid construction?
I loved the simple sound with no pick-ups. We used to mic’ it up with the best studio mic’s even putting violin mic’s inside the guitar. I became one with this guitar and recorded all my tracks 1965 to 1969.
Your sound developed very quickly over ’65/’66 – there’s quite a transformation during that period. What led to those musical changes? Were there any key catalysts?
I was I guess wrongly described as a folk singer as I played acoustic guitar and sang folk and blues. I also listened to jazz (New Orleans, swing, be-bop), blues, jug band, bossa nova, Caribbean (claypso, blue beat, reggae), Baroque, Indian, Japanese, Moroccan Spanish, Celtic, early country, early rock ‘n’ roll and pop singles.
So many different people have covered your songs – Marianne Faithful, Terry Reid, Cher, Springsteen, Eartha Kitt, Joan Baez, King Crimson, Butthole Surfers, Kate Bush, My Morning Jacket … the list is huge. Are there any covers you’ve been particularly pleased with or surprised by?
I liked Kate’s Lord of The Reedy River, Sarah McLachlan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, The Charlatan’s Season of The Witch and more. It’s just so cool so many have found my songs to be their inspiration to perform.
You released The Sensual Donovan in 2012, a previously unreleased 1970 album recorded with John Phillips (of The Mamas And The Papas) and The Jazz Crusaders; why was the album never officially released?
I guess it was some lawsuit maybe, then I rediscovered it in my archive and finished it to honour John Phillips, who had produced it with me.
Are there any more unreleased Donovan albums (or recordings) in the archives? And if so, any plans to release them?
I have 250 un-released songs on master tapes which have just been transferred to digital to save them. They will appear slowly next year.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with the David Lynch Foundation?
My wife Linda and I travelled with David around the world presenting TM (Transcendental Meditation) to students. It was me and The Beatles that brought the TM back from the trip to India in 1968. Our teacher Maharish had re-introduced the pure technique now practiced by millions. Other forms of meditation do achieve something but TM is known through countless tests to be the one that takes you deeper where the real benefits are.
Your most recent album, Shadows Of Blue, saw you return to Nashville to record a collection of (quote) ‘Broken Hearted ballads and Outlaw songs’. Has US country music always been important to you?
I had seven of these songs I saved from the ‘70’s and one day I knew I would go back to Nashville. You see my first success in USA was 1965 on a Nashville Label, Hickory Records, although the songs were recorded in London. When I was inducted into The Rock Hall of Fame 2012 I went to Nashville to record the seven songs which trace the history of popular music, from Irish Scots roots that came to USA with the millions of Scots Irish who migrated into USA, to Southern USA and eventually into Nashville and early country music then blue grass, rockabilly and eventually rock ‘n’ roll. I am part of this story as I am Scots Irish. I wrote three more songs in Nashville, and that’s Shadows Of Blue.
You’re about to headline Lunar Festival, which takes place in Tanworth in Arden, Warwickshire, the home of Nick Drake. Much has been written about your influence on him … were you aware of his work at the time? Did you two ever meet?
Yes we met, seldom spoke, he listened to my work and learned how to make a ballad work with interesting lyrics. I think I have a Nick Drake song idea I sent to him once, I think he sent it back to me with an extra lyric. I will try to find it for Lunar Fest’.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of your debut single (Catch The Wind) and debut album (What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid). Any thoughts on marking the landmark?
Many celebrations, all the released and un-released material available, special concerts, books, watch my website and Facebook.
What are your plans for the coming months? Are you working on a new album? Writing? Exhibitions? Any other projects?
I am developing the events for next year’s 50th Summer in Music 2015 and beyond! Check in September on my site and Facebook for news.
I look forward to the Lunar Fest’ as I will be solo and tell a few of the tales behind the songs. I may get up with The Temples to do a number or two in their set!
Interview by: Dave Freak
Donovan will be appearing at Lunar Festival which takes place between Friday 6 – Sunday 8 June 2014 at Umberslade Estate, Tanworth In Arden, Solihull, Warwickshire. Key acts include (Friday) British Sea Power, Tim Burgess and Toy; (Saturday) Donovan, Temples, Linda Perhacs, John Renbourn and Wizz Jones; (Sunday) The Polyphonic Spree, The Magic Band, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, Scott Matthews. For tickets, full line-up, camping and more details, see: www.lunarfestival.co.uk
Photo: Michael Collopy: Donovan Discs 2014