Wayward Son: Irish/Celtic musician John Doyle plays Charlottesville
Irish musician and guitarist, John Doyle, plays Charlottesville with Mick McAuley this Wednesday, June 15th, at Potter's Craft Cider presented by the Blue Ridge Irish Music School. WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with John and the conversation began with John talking about his early life with traditional Irish music.
John Doyle: My father is a great singer and a collector of songs and he works on old traditional songs. So that's when I heard most of my songs as a child. And my grandfather and uncle both (and my father actually) play accordion. We used to go this place in Sligo. We still do. That’s where my parents live now and I’m related to half the village. We used to go down there every year to visit my grandparents and we stayed there all through the summer, which is kind of an idyllic country living for two months. During that time, we would always go to my grandfather's session in Kalani, which was a kind of a really good session. At the time, I wouldn't have known, but all of these great luminaries of traditional music were playing with him and we’d listen to all this amazing music from the age of three and four in the pubs. And we used to sit down there with our grandfather and listen to him play. So it kind of seeps in, of course.
JD: My uncle in Donegal, he was actually a nice accordion player, but he was one of those people that loved music more than anybody I ever knew. And so when I was a teenager, I went up to live there for a little bit and he really kind of cemented my love for it because of his love for it, so that set me on track.
WMRA: At what point did you say I want to do this and when did you say it's the guitar for me? Did you try other instruments? How did that happen?
JD: I got my first guitar when I was about 12 and I quickly grew obsessed with it. And by the time I was 15 or 16, I was saying that I was going to be a professional musician. My mother didn't even know that I was playing. It was kind of one of these things where I willed it.
WMRA: Were you hiding it from her that you didn't want her to know you were playing or what?
JD: I was noodling in the back and would noodle when we watched TV, playing on the ads. And I noodled here and I'd noodle there. And I’d listen to all the records like all the Beatles records and I listened to Grateful Dead and I’d listen to Motorhead and play along with a little acoustic guitar. And then I’d play all the traditional songs and all that too. Paul Brady and Andy Irvine was one of the huge things. Bothy Band, of course, even though that was later on. Planxty, I love.
WMRA: Thank you. Planxty. Yes.
JD: And then what cemented it for me was my brother is really an eclectic collector of music and he was bringing back all of this amazing material like The Incredible String Band and Nic Jones. And then I heard Martin Carthy for the first time, this great English folk guitar player. And for some reason that just galvanized me - I wanted to play like that for songs. So I was tuning the guitar left and right and breaking strings trying to figure out what he was doing and forming my own style at the same time between backing tunes and playing this kind of other style, the English folk style.
WMRA: “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.”
JD: Exactly. Yeah. What an amazing thing. “Willie's Lady.” “Sovay.” All of these amazing things. Even the early “Scarborough Fair.”
WMRA: And you do a pretty good version of “Sovay” yourself, by the way.
JD: That's why I did it on the first album and I realized later on that I got the melody kind of wrong. You know the way you kind of learn it from osmosis. You remember playing it but then you go ‘hold on a second, I’m playing this slightly different.’ And that’s how traditional music changes over the years.
WMRA: When I hear you on an album, John, in 10 seconds I know it's John Doyle on guitar. It's unmistakable to me and I wonder why that is. Is there a certain technique you use? Why is your sound so recognizable?
JD: I don't know. I think it's a way of attacking the guitar. I’m left-handed as there’s a certain type of rhythm that I have and maybe people are just used to hearing me. I'm on quite a lot of records. But I'm not sure what it is. I’m nearly trying to get away from what I'm trying to do. If you know what I mean. There’s a certain kind of thing that I'm known for and I'm always trying to re-invent and re-elaborate as I go, but the sound still comes with me, of course, because I am who I am.
WMRA: You’re a founding member of the band Solas. And I can still remember hearing that first album, that first song “Nil Na La.” It just comes right out of those speakers. So powerful. What do you remember most about making that first Solas album?
JD: During the course of that previous year, we had rehearsed a lot. We did the work. So we were kind of preparing for it as we were going and we were really kind of paying attention to the changes of each tune. So when the first album started to formulate, we went down to Sigma Studios up in Philly, and from the very first hit that we played there was something really energetic about it. Like quite intense. When you're in the middle of it, you don't really recognize it, but as soon as you get out of it, you understand that there is a special thing happening. So you're in it and you're not really realizing it, you’re just having fun and you're playing really intense music. But we did all of that in a week. It was all old recording. It wasn't digital recording. It was all analogue. So we had to kind of get it right. And I think there's a lot to do with that. And Starbucks had come out to Philly for the first time and we were drinking lots of coffee.
WMRA: That's the reason!
JD: I'm kind of serious. We were drinking a lot of coffee and smoking a lot of cigarettes.
WMRA: It's still such a great album.
JD: It is a great album and a great sound.
WMRA: If that band was formed today, it would be a super group.
JD: Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Everyone went on to do various different things and it's great. But everyone's a great musician in that. I loved playing with that band. It was so much fun.
WMRA: A lot of Irish Celtic albums are structured the same way. You're going to get four to five sets of tunes. And you're going to get four to five songs. So when you're making a new album, how do you make sure that what you're creating isn’t a copycat of what you've done before?
JD: It's hard because traditional music by nature is repetitive. If you're doing a traditional song, someone has done it before. You're trying to work on the idea of how to come up with a song that maybe has a different version of a song, or go to the archives and try and find one that someone hasn't done for a long time. Or you write traditional songs in that vein, which is kind of a difficult and strange kind of concept in a way. You're writing traditional music for a contemporary modern day.
JD: Tunes are kind of easier to write in a contemporary way, with more traditional feel because you have certain kinds of bars – jig, reel, hornpipe, etc. So, you can write those tunes and you can change it up somewhat cordially. You can change it up, use different instruments on it. Use different ideas on it. There's lots of ways of kind of making it unique in its own way, but you are set in a certain pattern. It's like Bluegrass, like old-timey music. It's like any of those things. You have a pattern, you have a way about it. Once you stray too far from it, it becomes something different which is okay too. But you have to understand that it does become different and it does change and it changes from traditional into something a little bit different, whatever it is. In bluegrass music, you have new grass and Jazz grass and we don't have that difference. We don't have that kind of word at the difference, you know, as in themed. So it's all traditional music, but contemporary traditional music.
WMRA: I was going to ask you about that. I was thinking of the song “Pound a Week Rise” that you do with Liz Carroll. That song is so good, John, and I was wondering when you're tackling a song like that, do you go back and listen to the version that Dick Gaughan did? Or do you find lots of versions before you make your own? Or do you avoid listening to other versions, so that what you lay down is totally your own thing?
JD: I try and do the last one. Yeah. Of course, I heard it from Dick originally. He's one of my heroes. Because of his intensity and because of his attack, his way of using traditional song even though that's a song written in the early 80s, I believe. He used that song to kind of portray what was happening to the modern people in a way. So I kind of remembered that song. I memorized it from years back and when it was time to come up with a song, I was like, well I love that song. So why not do it in a different way and try a different approach to it. Playing with Liz Carroll was an amazing thing too. We love rehearsing. It’s like the love of doing homework. You know, we’re kind of nerds.
WMRA: You just love playing, right?
JD: Well that does help. It's the idea of getting variations down. So if I came up with a different approach to a verse, Liz would go, ‘Now, hold on a minute, John. Now, say if I do this, can you do this?’ So it would be back and forth all the time and that's one of those great things that happen when you have a good collaboration.
WMRA: Well, I was going to ask you about your collaborations. You've done a lot of these duo albums. You’ve done an album with Karan Casey, Liz Carroll, Jerry Holland, and your newest record is with Mick McAuley. When you make these duo albums, how different is it between albums? Obviously because you're working with a different musician, but do you tackle it differently? You must.
JD: Well you do with different personalities and different ideas. Of course, I'll come up with my stuff. I'm always trying to figure out - here's a new song. Here's a new tune. I've always got a backlog of something, because I'm always working on something. And so I always have a backlog of traditional music or a backlog of songs that I've written or tunes that I’ve written. With myself and Mick, we had done a couple of tours, maybe three or four years ago before lockdown and so we were meaning to make an album. And so when lockdown happened, we just decided to make the album and he had come over, and he recorded a little bit at that time or just a bit before it actually. And so, we had gotten half the album live. And then we decided to do the rest of it during lockdown.
JD: And so we were back and forth with all the different materials and he's a lovely songwriter and a great musician, obviously, a great singer and a good tune writer too. So it was really easy to actually come up with stuff because you've got: we need an A tune and the next day he would have the A tune. And he had a couple of songs in the back burner as well. So it turned out really well. I'm actually really pleased with it.
WMRA: Are you constantly listening to this music? When you're driving from gig to gig, are you listening to Planxty in the car or are you listening to Motorhead?
JD: I actually listen to audio tapes of books.
WMRA: I’ve heard a lot of musicians say that they don't really listen to music that often anymore.
JD: I don't listen to as much music as I would like. Every now and again, I'll ask my daughter, who's 18, and she’s a great collector of music and beautiful singer too actually. I'll ask her, okay, who should I listen to? And she'll give me a playlist or something and I listen to that and then I'll go through some old stuff, you know, whatever comes up.
WMRA: You talked about Martin Carthy earlier and he was a two-time member Steeleye Span and that's the band that got me into all of this stuff. I was a hard rock, and heavy metal guy, but when I heard Steeleye when I was 17, my world changed.
JD: That's very funny. It's kind of a strange thing, isn't it? But Maddy Prior’s singing was something else and the harmonies. I talked to Martin Carthy about that in particular because there’s few harmonies that they used to do and they would do seconds, like just one tone apart. And it would sound so good. It would be like glass shattering.
WMRA: Have you ventured into some of that more progressive side of the music? I dare to say a bad like Horslips, but is that something you've ever listened to?
JD: Oh, I loved Horslips. And I loved all that stuff. And I would listen to Steeleye Span and, of course, Fairport. I was a real big fan of Fairport and Richard Thompson, and all that.
WMRA: The last couple of Steeleye Span albums really rock, I don’t know if you follow it at all anymore, but they rock harder than they ever have.
JD: That’s good to hear. There’s hope for me yet to go into death metal.
WMRA: Have you ever thought about making a progressive Irish album?
JD: I actually have. I’ve thought about doing it. I would have to get the right people around me to do it with.
WMRA: I wonder what some of your fans would think. Do you ever worry about that? Let's say, you really decided to make a progressive rock Irish Celtic album, but then do you also say ‘I don't know if my current fans are going to really dig this.’ Does that worry you?
JD: I think this day in age, it doesn't really matter as much because you can record an album and then tour for the fun of it. You're not making that much money anyway, so you might as well just do what you want to do. I’m in the stage where I'd like to think that I can do what I want to do. I've been thinking about it.
WMRA: So what can we expect from the concert Wednesday with yourself and Mick McAuley?
JD: Mick plays the accordion and plays guitar, sings, whistles, etc. And I play guitar, bouzouki and sing. So there's an even split between tunes and songs that either of us will sing. So we're basically doing the album that we just recorded and with a few little gems thrown in, either Mick or myself. A few, little odd ones, from the old days. But it’s great. What I love doing with Mick is doing harmonies, because he’s a very powerful singer, so I love harmonizing with them. So, just very strong harmonies and quite a lot going on.
WMRA: This is music you grew up with. It's part of your family, it’s part of your heritage and here you are, one of the greats in the genre. That’s got to be so rewarding.
JD: I suppose. You don’t really think of it that way. Any musician who plays, if you've done it for long enough, you're in a place where what you're trying to do is just play. I don't listen to what I've done. I'm trying to always think of the next project and something that I want to do next. And I'm kind of focused that way rather than focus on what I’ve done. I try and focus on the present and the future to kind of keep moving.
WMRA: Yeah, I think that’s what you have to do as a musician. If you just keep going backwards, what's the point, right?
JD: Yeah, even in traditional music, it might go two directions. You might go Celtic rock vain if you want, or you might go into something else, or you might go right back to the roots and just kind of go right back into just guitar and voice, which I’ve always loved. Just doing that. And there’s something so powerful about that. I’ve been listening back recently to early Carthy stuff, and all these musicians. Richard Thompson, John Martyn, Nic Jones, Nick Drake, all these people who just play the guitar, Neil Young, Dylan. They just sang a song and play the guitar. There's something incredibly powerful about it because everything is stripped away. And it's either a good song or it’s a bad song. You've got nothing behind you that can take away from that or adhere to it.