Only a handful of individuals in music are known by a single name, and a few are legends. The artist simply known as “Donovan” certainly is one of those.
His career took off like a folk-psychedelic skyrocket in the mid-1960s as he generated hit after hit after hit including Sunshine Superman, Catch the Wind, Hurdy Gurdy Man, Atlantis, Jennifer Juniper, Mellow Yellow, and Season of the Witch. 11 Top-40 hits in a row, in just 3 years.
His personal and professional life walked hand-in-hand with The Beatles and his career was like a musical Zelig (o.k., or Forrest Gump): wherever there was anything happening, there was Donovan – with the Stones, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Jeff Beck Group, the Maharishi, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Alice Cooper.
From 1970 forward, Donovan drifted out of the limelight – partly by choice, and perhaps partly due to a change in culture that saw Donovan’s folk-hippie aesthetic as nothing but a throwback of naïve idealism. The ‘60s generation moved on – suiting up, selling out, and getting complacent, and Donovan’s music no longer carried the relevance that it once had.
But now he’s back. With a vengeance. In a self-described, fully-realized cycle (prophesized by his astrologer), Donovan Leitch is suddenly The Godfather of a resurgent international folk-rock movement. This movement not only echoes the melodies and harmonies of Donovan’s music, but lyrically embraces same the socio-political ideals of those that inspired that music – Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Miles Davis, Pete Seeger, and Martin Carthy.
And in a perfect but shouldn’t-be-surprising capper to his comeback, Donovan Leitch is now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rock Cellar Magazine got to sit down with the legendary singer-songwriter to talk about his songs, his career, the Beatles, Transcendental Meditation, and other harmonic convergences…
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, let’s start with the juiciest question: Looking back at your autobiography Hurdy Gurdy Man, is there anything else that you would’ve included, but didn’t?
Donovan: How about everything after 1970! I did write about the 70′s 80′s and a bit of the 90′s, but it was so much material that my editor Mark Booth at Random House said “Do you mind if we don’t do War and Peace?” Well I said actually I would like to just go up to about ’69 because it’s a circle for me – Linda & me getting together again. So it ties a ribbon at the end of the ‘60s. A nice little bow at the end of the ‘60s.
RCM: Are there any secrets you’d like to let us know about? Maybe something exclusively for Rock Cellar Magazine readers?
D: You’re quite right, it would be wonderful just to say my quotes on being inducted in the Rock Hall and of course, The Essential Donovan represented with new bonus material. (laughs).
But here’s something: The Undiscovered Hidden Treasures archive that we’ve just discovered over the last five years. Music that nobody has ever heard. Music that I had forgot that I had recorded and had even forgot I composed. 400 analog master tapes have been transferred in the last five years to digital, uncovering extraordinary songs. My career has been so long that I forgot that I recorded them! They will be revealed on my website soon enough: The Undiscovered Hidden Treasures.
RCM: Which covers the ‘70s ‘80s ‘90s or…?
D: We are talking ‘70s. Scores and scores of songs. At the time when I met Paul McCartney and John Lennon we were turning out three songs a day basically. Somebody would say something, and if the guitar was in your hands it would become a song.
What we are talking about is not complete songs but we are talking starts. These starts were maybe half songs of phrases and melodies which would often become the Lennon/McCartney songs. Many of these immediately were recorded by me – solo a lot of them – in Morgan Studios in London. So we called them “endless demos.” But they are not really demos. I don’t really think that I can make a demo.
When Paul McCartney fell on the piano, in the time he had picked himself up, he would’ve written three songs. When the melody’s start hitting the guitar or the piano, guys like me and John and Paul…we discovered “the pool” with fish you see. Now when we start fishing with a bit of a melody, songs appear and this is how it was, and is still.
RCM: “Is still.” Does that imply that you’re composing new material currently?
D: Yes, these things are still happening. If I care to pick up the guitar—a phrase, somebody will say a phrase, or a magazine will have a line in it, and you try the line in the song (anything will do) and out of the line maybe comes the melody, maybe the second melody and these things happen still.
And if you sit me down in front of a microphone like [director] David Lynch did about a year and a half ago – he said “Bring with you into the studio, Don, ONLY a song that has come to you in the last 48 hours. I’ll record you.” So I went in and we did the thing that was called I Am The Shaman. I worked on it 48 hours, and it is now on iTunes. Not with any promotion – just to see what my fans would like about David Lynch producing Donovan! I Am The Shaman is very much like a David Lynch soundtrack. David is a spontaneous genius.
RCM: So songwriting for you comes that easily? You still can write 3 songs a day?
D: After we recorded Shaman David said “Can you just write a song right now if I just give you a title? ” I said, “Yeah, try me.”
I am so aware now, and experienced and skilled that if you pushed the buttons, things happen. I am not really making the songs, I create a circumstance for the songs to come.
It’s “fishing,” is what David Lynch said. To catch the big fish you must know how to go into the pool where all the creativity is… and it’s inside us of course. It’s nowhere else. The little fish swim on the surface, but the BIG fish swim deep down.
So how do you get that great idea to come out of the pool? Well you have to prepare yourself to go in and the way to prepare is you play the forms. There are many musical forms and if you practice them in an absent-minded way and you don’t really care about writing a song and you’re thinking of something else, and you’re really relaxed, and you’re half meditating… out of the pool could jump a fish because you’re creating the form.
It could be a blues form, a folk form, a jazz form, could be an Indian form, it could be an Italian form, a flamenco form. You are playing the forms of the music that you love and that is creating the circumstances for the pool to start being activated.
RCM: Just wait with your fishing line in the songwriting pond…
D: If you’re skilled and you’ve done 10,000 hours of songwriting as the Beatles did! Before they made their first original recording and their first composition they had done seven years and had practiced every musical form in popular music! Three shows a night – every possible form from rock and roll all the way through to music hall. They were prepared after the 10,000 hours. They had already prepared the form.
RCM: Your song Wear Your Love Like Heaven was turned into a commercial. At the time, being in a commercial was uncool – was considered “selling out.”
D: I think it was about a perfume called Love…
RCM: –Right. Lemon-scented perfume. They turned it into “wear your love like lemon.” You must’ve been paid pretty well…?
D: Oh yeah but that was early days. Now it’s more sophisticated because music supervisors are very clever in looking for songs for products. The most exciting product was actually a mission for the whole world — to find alternative energy and catch it! Catch the Wind was actually requested for a GE commercial. Catch the Wind? For wind energy?
RCM: So your music in commercials is fine with you…
D: Commercials, TV series, and film – usage of my music can reach an incredibly HUGE new audience of students and young people.
The song I wrote for David Lynch - David said “Sounds like a car commercial, Don” and I love car commercials! Car commercials are pop art. Popular music and popular art go together. Popular modern art started making images of popular culture.
This is not new, this is history – it began down on the streets of Paris – when Braque and Picasso saw the posters that had been painted for the Folies Bergère. The rain started peeling the posters and the poster underneath started coming through on the poster above it and that’s when collage was invented. And these two artists decided what if you cut up any images and stick them together, and that was the beginning of Pop Art . Way before Andy Warhol, way before Peter Blake. These guys in Paris were seeing popular images of popular product blending together and realizing that the popular images were what people were seeing. And commercials are similar, so I support commercials.
RCM: They help to you reach a wider audience that you might not otherwise reach…
D: My music has got a great searchlight on it this year called “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” that I welcome with open arms. Because that searchlight will maybe call a student of say 16 years old to google the word Donovan, and 23 albums will appear. And possibly on one of those albums there will be song that this young person will relate to, and it will express something to them that they had difficulty expressing themselves. This is the power of music and poetry. Commercials are seen by the largest audience in the world so I embrace that and am not at all scared of it. And it is not selling out, it is selling in!
RCM: Ok, musical questions. Did Paul McCartney sing back-up vocals on Mellow Yellow? Some say yes, some say no.
D: No – when Paul came in the studio he was really just claps and good cheer and you can hear him saying “Mellow yellow,” but he didn’t do real word back-up.
RCM: Your song Hurdy Gurdy Man perhaps introduced people to the instrument, but there is no actual hurdy gurdy on it.
D: Somebody sent me a version of my song Hurdy Gurdy Man on the instrument the hurdy gurdy, which was interesting. It is a little bit of a bugger to tune. I had a go at – it was a bit raucous.
RCM: In our Judy Collins interview she talked about her experience on Pete Seeger’s great television show Rainbow Quest. You were also a guest on this show. What are your memories of Pete?
D: He was my great ally, was a champion, and presented me at Newport and invited me to play on his Rainbow Quest Television show. I will never forget it and always thank him. I hope to run into him this year because it is the Woody Guthrie 100th Centennial. I am invited to play at the Kennedy Center for the centennial and I hope to see Pete there.
RCM: You helped introduce the sitar to popular western music. How were you introduced to it?
D: An older Bohemian turned me on to his vinyl collection which was HUGE and it included Indian music – Ravi Shankar sitar & Ali Akbar Khan, the Bauls of Bengal. We couldn’t afford all those records but there they were. And there was one of them with Ravi Shankar and that blew me away!
RCM: And Shawn Phillips your sitar player – he later brought the sound to you?
D: Shawn at one point said he played sitar, and I said wow – and so we started doing this duet. One night Paul Simon came around on his first trip to England looking for songs and he went to see Martin Carthy. Paul was collecting folk songs, and in that that flat with Shawn is where we developed the first acoustic/sitar duet.
Shawn studied under Ravi Shankar for a couple of days as well and then we went down to see George Harrison to see how he was getting on with the sitar. Shawn showed George how to use the sitar not in an Indian way, but in a Western way and get riffs out of it. So we started developing this sound, and that’s how it came.
RCM: That was before your trip to India?
D: Oh yes – that was in early 1965 leading up to the extraordinary recordings of Sunshine Superman with the sitar – me and Shawn.
RCM: Those Sunshine Superman sessions included your good friend, Jimmy Page. Are there any particular memories or stories about him you’d like to share?
D: There is. He had a lot of guitars, and one day he asked me “Do you want to see the guitars?” and I said yeah. So we walked into this corridor and there was something like… three or four hundred of them! All in cases! I said “can I open one?” He said yeah, and I opened one up. It was beautiful. I picked it up, I strummed it – it sounded great. I said “It’s in tune!” He said “Yeah, they all are.” If that’s not Spinal Tap, I don’t know what is.
RCM: How did your meeting with the Maharishi in Rishikesh come about?
D: Before I had met Maharishi George Harrison and I, and John and Paul, my pal Gypsy, Shawn Phillips as well – we were all reading about meditation and yoga and eastern philosophy. It’s Alan Watts, it’s Zen, it’s Buddhism, it’s Hinduism it’s Yogananda, it’s Upanishads – we’re reading really. What’s it all about? What is meditation? We were looking for somebody to teach us. When we meet Maharishi and we finally get a mantra – now we can actually meditate.
RCM: So you had sort of a “celebrity credibility” to be able to meet him?
D: Not really. Maharishi was on a tour of the world introducing his newly developed technique which is a simplified form for the west given to him by his teacher Guru Dev.
Pattie Boyd and George had been to India the year previous – he to study the sitar with Ravi. And while he was in India the Shankar women put Pattie Boyd in a Sari and took her out, and one of the things they took her out to was a lecture by a new yogi on the scene called “Maharashi.”
So when she went back to England the Beatles had never heard of him. When she saw in the press that he was coming to Wales she said “George, the teacher is coming to Wales why don’t we go down?” George called me up saying “We found the guy – he has got the meditation, he has got the mantra.”
So I met with Maharishi on the west coast here when he came over here – he initiated me down in the lower flats of Beverly Hills. Then George phones me up said “now we’ve got it, we’ve been invited to India.”
What happened there was we learned DEEP meditation. We needed it – our super-fame was becoming extremely stressful. And I was ready to step back from this fame. So we took our acoustic guitars, and George brought in a sitar, a tambura, a tabla for Ringo. And we sat there for six weeks in the jungle meditating, eating health-food and writing songs on acoustic guitars. That’s why the White Album is so acoustic.
RCM: So what was a typical day like there? Was it group sessions, individual?
D: We had 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon. On one’s own, sometimes a group. When you’re in an Ashram sometimes you’re told by the teacher to go in and stay there, for days. Food is brought into you in the dark, to your bungalow. This was deep meditation.
RCM: So would the Maharishi also talk to you individually?
D: Yeah he may come in. We would just deeply meditate for days on end and you would sleep when you were tired, and when you woke up, you meditated. At one point you might hear shuffling in the room and you would realize Maharishi was sitting next to you, and he would ask you how you were going. And you would explain to him your experiences.
It’s hard to explain what it is. You are diving into deep, deep areas of the 4th level of consciousness that we’d only read about. Then you would come out and go to have lunch after a couple of days and then in the evening the guitars would come out.
We were back where we were when we were students back when we just sort of started in the music when we were playing songs. There were no sessions, no concerts to play; we were just ourselves. It was incredible; what an experience. Which had to end at one point.
RCM: Is Transcendental Meditation still part of your life today?
D: Still doing it. In the ‘60s meditation was the great boon that we found, put it in our songs, and then gave it to the world. And now all these years later it has been established in so many schools around the world.
David Lynch created a foundation inviting me to be the musical wing, which I am. We have been presenting it – Linda, me, and David. Now my daughter Astrella and her husband Jason. People are invited here and they are given instruction by one of the young teachers of TM.
And the meditation is being presented to the makers of the music because through their music – like me and the Beatles through our music – millions of their fans can become aware of it. So it’s a mission. We are still presenting this because governments should be putting it into schools, because it reduces tension in the schools.
RCM: So you believe that TM is a great healing force…?
D: Meditation releases the tension in the nervous system. The nervous system is relaxed to such a state that the child – he or she – is not scared anymore.
It is the holding on to anger, frustration and doubt and fear, that has created all the problems in the world, but meditation has a way of releasing this.
When you come out of this meditation after doing it over a period you will find that your life has become more understandable to you. This is was what was in all the books! That is why a Buddha or a holy picture from India shows a man, or a woman with half closed eyes, and a small smile. We always wondered “what on Earth are they doing? What are they experiencing?”
Once you experience this, your life problems and your physical problems will find solutions. Sounds magic right? Meditation will heal for you. If only the whole world did it – there would be an incredible change in the way the whole world is run. That is the mission!
RCM: Ok we’ll plug it for you! Where can people find out more?
D: You can be introduced to it at The David Lynch Foundation. But you can also be introduced to it by looking up your local TM. It is coming to the whole world - we hope sooner than later.
RCM: Your career will always be associated with the Beatles. Was there perhaps one Beatle more than another who you felt closest to?
D: George was closer in many ways in our love of Indian music, but also in our studies of meditation. I loved all the Beatles and I still love them.
The Beatles are the best thing that has ever happened to this planet – there is no question about it.
RCM: How did the Barabajagal sessions come about – the ones with Jeff Beck?
D: My producer Mickey Most was recording Beck at the time on an album called Beck-Ola, and was recording me. During that time I would play him all the stuff that happened that week – maybe 20 songs, not all complete, and he said “stop – what’s that one? ” “It’s called Barabajagal.” “OK, that’s the next single.”
He said why don’t we bring Jeff and the band in the studio, I won’t tell them what you’ve got – you’ll just play it to them. So immediately they their gear and we’ll do a head session: play it three times and that’s it.
You understand, Jeff Beck – unlike Clapton – Clapton is what you would say, a purist in the blues. Jeff Beck embraces jazz guitar as well – he’s got a jazz-blues groove. Mickey Most was very clever: he heard the jazz groove in Barabajagal. So when Jeff heard it, he went ”all right, I’ve got it,” and we cut Barabajagal in 3 or 4 takes.
RCM: How did you end up singing on Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies?
D: In the recording studio – Morgan Studios in London 1972 – I was doing Cosmic Wheels upstairs with Mickey. Downstairs Alice Cooper was doing his record. He wanted to meet me I went down to see him and his guitar player was sounding like Keith Richards. And I said “that’s interesting, let me hear what you’re doing” he started playing this track Billion Dollar Baby… And I like the idea – horror movies, gothic novels, all that stuff. I got the impression this guy was doing a theatrical – like David Bowie – but he was being a spooky, kind of dark horror story on stage, I thought that’s cool – and he played me the song and asked “do you wanna sing on it?”
RCM: –And this was the first time you ever met him?
D: –Yeah, but when you are visiting sessions this happens a lot. But look, the guitars are so powerful I’ve got to go into falsetto to climb above them. In fact I had just met in the recent years Chris Squire of Yes, and he told me the reason why the singers of the power bands with heavy guitar sing in falsetto like Robert Plant, like Jon Anderson, like the singer in Deep Purple, like Roger Daltrey of the Who – the only way they can get on top of the guitars is to sing (sings) ”way up there” - so if you can’t sing that high – you ain’t gonna get the job.
So I said I’m gonna climb right on top of this and have a go! I went straight into the studio and (sings) “BILLION….DOLLAR BABY!” and then I did this spoken part as well. It was theatre, it was music hall. And it was fun. I didn’t know he was going to keep it. And then it came out and went number one.
But then he came upstairs and I had pulled these young pubescent, nubile girls as backup singers And their chaperones, mothers were with them. I was doing the bit on Cosmic Wheels, and was asking these young girls to play this particular part. The track was I Like You, and so at one point, suddenly the door bursts open and Alice Cooper walks in, and immediately the chaperones and the mothers stood in front of the nubile girls to protect them. And he comes up and says “OK, what are you doing Don?” And I played him the part and he said “Let me do the choir” Let me conduct the girls.” And I said OK, and I told the mothers and the chaperones “he’s ok! He’s not as dangerous as he looks!”
RCM: He’s just Vincent Furnier!
D: He didn’t have any makeup on, and so he went out and he said “OK girls…this is how you should sing it – “na na nanaaaaaaaaaaaa…” nasty like! Of course I didn’t let the girls do that in the end. But he was only having fun, and the young girls loved it. And of course we all know he is a sweetheart.
RCM: Talk about the inspirations for your song Atlantis
D: I already had the chorus “Way down below the ocean where I want to be.” This melody was similar but not exact to a folk song Derroll Adams was singing called Columbus, Georgia. [Columbus Stockade Blues]:
And I was playing this song with Derroll, and I guess a bit of that melody went over into it. And I was reading this book by Phylos the Tibetan, [A Dwellar on Two Planets] which is a channeled book. And it was about Atlantis, and I was fascinated with it so I wrote this piece on the continent of Atlantis. And I wanted to do a spoken word record and I did.
RCM: Since Atlantis is so often compared to Hey Jude – do you remember the mash-up that the New Christy Minstrels did of the two songs? It’s on youtube.
D: I haven’t seen it.
RCM: Many people forget that you recorded a number of albums from 1970-2009, that perhaps just didn’t get the recognition that they deserved. What happened to those?
D: They were before their time, and they were all about ecology and meditation and it was too early for people to understand. ”The HMS Donovan” (laughs) - the secrets are being prepared to be re-presented…! The 70s will come…!
RCM: Does it seem to you as you look at your career…that the folk-rock music scene that once was in fashion, and then wasn’t, has now come full-circle?
D: It’s not a circle, it’s a spiral. And the root… is folk music. And blues, and jazz for popular culture. You have to go not back to it – but you come above it, like a spiral – because there can only be so much experimentation and then the new generation has to go back and see below it where all these roots are. And the roots are acoustic music and the form of the folk song. So it’s wonderful when you say the light shines bright, and then the light comes off an artist, and then the light shines bright…
RCM: It’s a perfect time for you to be relevant again…
D: I’ve never felt out of time. The music that I made and the music that I still make, is based on studying the forms and the roots. The young artist has to study the forms. Now we, as artists, have become what the young students of music will study, now. And so we become the roots. But real deep down in the root is always the folk. A tree’s nurture comes from its roots and that’s the same with music. And so it is great that young artists will go back into the root.
RCM: Any new or young artists that you can single out?
D: Bat for Lashes is one. There is a girl, called Rumer, in England. She goes WAY back to the roots – she goes to Jack Elliott! Jack Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie. And now this year Woody Guthrie will be the root that everybody will go back to. To not only get the nurture for the extraordinary songwriting, but for the social consciousness. The social responsibility of governments to the people.
RCM: — That’s what our magazine is all about. There does seem to be new activism – in the Occupy movement, and in music….
D: Yes, and Woody Guthrie stood up for that and suffered for it. And now we are going to honor him this year: The Centennial of Woody Guthrie!
And the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s career, and the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the name of Donovan. These three things are very important events this year because they will focus always back to the root of folk and social conscious music.
RCM: So now you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some HOF artists have long careers over decades with 30-40 albums. It seems like you had a ton of hits, then took a lot of time off from the business. Hall of Fame aside, how do you personally see yourself, and perhaps your legacy?
D: Basically I am lazy. Also, if I am not inspired I won’t do anything, because I don’t do this for money or fame I do it because I want to, and it is my pleasure. And unless I’m inspired and the muses inspire me– if they don’t think I should say anything I don’t. The music doesn’t have any date – it’s perennially young because it will always appeal to the seeker who wants to follow what the songs are singing about . My career looked like it was over but I never really felt that. I just withdrew.
So there is a light time and there is a dark time. There is spring and there is summer and there is autumn and winter. And the cycles of my career have gone round, and in and out, and now the work is being appraised and reappraised and focused.
But the main thing to remember is I am still alive, I’ve still got my hair, I’m not overweight, and I am healthy. And I am feeling inspired again to work. These things are personal to me and I need this time to reappear because I’m feeling inspired.
RCM: So did this nomination help with this inspiration?
D: My astrologer says it’s all been happening in my stars. The planet Jupiter– my life is experiencing a Jupiter return in my chart. It’s perfect timing for me. It’s not that I should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier, it’s a perfect time!
Nobody could quite put their finger on what I did. I’m an outsider, a most unique artist in many respects I didn’t follow any rules or genres. I broke rules and I opened up and expanded the perimeters. I expanded the borders, and I expanded the possibilities of music composition – in rock, jazz, folk, blues, poetry and theatre. I expanded music in such a way that now all the rules are not rules anymore, and that’s why young artists like me.