One thing you have to admire about Alan Doyle – and there are many enviable attributes – is that he has neither allowed success to go to his head, nor does he take for granted the success, the accolades, the fans or the respect he has accrued over the past quarter century at the heart of the Canadian music scene.
First as a founding member, vocalist and songwriter for the beloved and wildly popular band Great Big Sea, and over the last few years as a solo artist, Doyle’s music, and especially his deep, emotive voice, have become part of the Canadian cultural lexicon. So you wouldn’t think that this deep into his career, with a bookshelf full of awards that he would be worried about whether that career might someday stall.
But in a blog on his website from December of 2016, he admitted that he was worried if a last minute show booked for Ottawa would do well. To muse about this privately is probably astute – do it publically and one has to wonder why Doyle still seeks that sort of validation to prove that his solo career is indeed doing well.
It’s a career that sees him set out on a Spring tour with dates on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, including a swath of shows in Ontario, starting in Lindsay on March 28, before moving on to Kitchener, Parry Sound, Toronto and wrapping up in Belleville at the Empire Theatre on April 1 (no foolin’!). For most of March, Doyle and his band, The Beautiful Gypsies, are touring throughout the United States, and will head back there for some shows in New York State before the current run comes to a close.
“I just feel lucky to still be in the game at all internationally. We have so much work south of the border these days. I think about half of all our gigs are in the U.S. most yeas. Then we have a big festival in Germany and a gig in the U.K. coming up in June, so it`s wonderful to be progressing in certain markets outside Canada and also to just be a musical tourist, that`s fun too,” Doyle said from his home in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“And when it comes to that Ottawa gig, listen, I am always grateful when I see a concert selling out, and I have always been that way because I spent so long in bands where nobody came – everyone has. And then with the big shift in my professional life over the past few years when Great Big Sea stopped playing (in 2010) and I sort of ran out on my own and tried to generate my own circus, you’re never certain if people want to see you in a different jacket and you wonder if they will come down to see you in a different ship, is how I say it.
“Every now and then I just like to take stock and I will look at a show as a marker. ‘Let’s just see, this is a tough one. It’s last minute, so it’s a good litmus test.’ The Ottawa show was like that and it sold out and the Belleville show was kind of like that too because I only booked it about a month or so ago. And the last time I checked there were only a couple dozen tickets left. So these litmus tests have been very good so far, and that’s encouraging, because there’s nothing more intoxicating, man, in the live music or the live performing world than momentum and feeling like it’s still growing.”
And it is growing, as now with two critically-acclaimed solo albums under his belt, Boy on Bridge released in 2012 and So Let’s Go released in 2015, Doyle is starting to build a pedigree and body of work that is separate – but not disjointedly so – from his days with Great Big Sea.
The Alan Doyle ‘brand.’ if you will, has included more acting gigs in recent years, including appearances in a couple of Russel Crowe films (Robin Hood in 2010, and Winter’s Tale in 2014) and on CBC Television’s popular Republic of Doyle, which was created and starred his pal Alan Hawco. And in late 2014 he released his first book.
Over the past year or more, Doyle has also been working on his second book. It is an autobiographical work in the form of a road trip – a very significant road trip in the life of a then-young Newfoundlander and his band.
“It’s called A Newfoundlander In Canada and its really about my first journey across Canada and how it looked and felt to me out of the Great Big Sea van window. And I found talking it out a lot more helpful on this one than it was on the last one [2014’s Where I Belong]. On my first book I didn’t need to talk about it a lot to editors and stuff because it was filled with stories that I had been telling for so long about growing up in my little fishing town of Petty Harbour, and it’s kind of fantastical because it lives so far away in my memories. Whereas most of the stuff that I talk about in the new book happened over the last 20 years so it’s not so fantastical yet. But it does have a similar vibe in that it’s just me telling honest to God, matter-of-fact stories that happened on the road,” Doyle said.
“It’s really a book about discoveries and comparisons and the way we kind of do it in the book Is we go to a province and then we go home. And then we go to another province and then we go home; and the journey takes us across the country with a slight chronology about the first 10 years of the band wrapped in there with some of the struggles we had with how Newfoundland was seen in pop culture in certain parts of the country, and even within some parts of the media. It compares how Newfoundland was seen then versus how it was seen 10 years later and how much the position of Newfoundland in the national newspapers shifted, going from kind of punchline to cultural icon in a decade.
“And I don’t claim any credit for that in this book, if someone else wants to claim it they’re more than welcome to, but I will say the arts had a ton to do with it, and we were part of that for sure. But I am sure having Rick Mercer and This Hour Has 22 Minutes and guys like Allan Hawco [Republic of Doyle, Frontier] and going back to Codco, had people in the rest of Canada saying, ‘maybe there’s something going on out there and we just don’t get it?’ One of the things that I hope comes through in the new book is how fascinating it is that it turned around so quickly. It turned around in basically a decade. And you look at a place like the Appalachians or the Deep South in the U.S. – they’ve been trying to turn the negative stereotypes about hillbillies and stuff around for 150 years. It’s just incredible how quick it changed, which I think speaks volumes about the country and I think it speaks volumes about Newfoundlanders, and it’s all good.”
As well as the new literary tome, Doyle is also completing the mixes for his latest solo album, which is most likely going to be billed under the moniker of Alan Doyle and the Beautiful Gypsies, in recognition of the respect, esteem and affection he has for his backing band.
“I went back there about a week ago for a day just to kick-start the mix and we’re just getting the final mixes now and will very soon be in the can. We’re going to release a single in the spring and the main record in the fall around the same time as the book. I wanted to treat it as a band record and do it with the band that I play with live. I wanted them featured heavily on the record and they are. I wanted everyone to know about what they’re going to see when they come see me live and I thought it was a great opportunity to have the band involved and tell all the fans in advance that, by the way, this is the kind of thing you will hear when you come and see Alan Doyle and the Beautiful Gypsies in concert,” Doyle said, adding that the album will be called A Week at the Warehouse, as it was recorded over that short time period at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, which is owner and run by legendary Canadian producer Bob Rock, best known for his hard rockin’ work with Metallica, Bon Jovi and The Cult.
Lately he has been working with singer-songwriters and troubadours such as Doyle, Jann Arden, Michael Buble and Ron Sexsmith.
“What I find funny is there’s a big part of Bob that is very mellow, and he is a real folk song lover. I never thought of it for a second, but when we were chatting on one of the first days of the recording about some Metallica stuff and he said, ‘Enter Sandman is just a fairy tale folk song.’ And I was like oh. my God, I never thought of it like that. Bob’s such a Led Zeppelin fan, especially the acoustic, Celtic part of Zeppelin and I can see how that would have served the metal bands so well to have someone come in and say, ‘the sound is great, the solos are great, the energy is great, but we need songs that tell a story to people.’ And that was the tweak he gave to Metallica for that ‘Black’ album,” Doyle said.
“And so for a fella like me, I sent him a bunch of tunes and he called me back and said, ‘so many of these songs are just home runs for me. They’re Celtic story songs – everything I love in the world.’ Even though that sort of stuff is my bread and butter, this record is going to definitely be a leap for me because it is a big studio live band-type record. It’s a real live vibe and normally on a record you have to try and dial up the energy on the musicians’ performances. For this one, I spent most of the time trying to rein it in. It was like the speakers are going to burst. It sounds like an indie band that just got their big break, which is kind of true.
“It’s just balls to the wall and the instrumentation is driven by traditional Newfoundland instruments – mostly accordions, mandolins, fiddles and some banjos.”
The Beautiful Gypsies are a remarkable collection of musical characters, some of whom have been part of Doyle’s career, some who are newer friends and creative accomplices. For all of them, he holds an unwavering, family-like affection.
“The first call I made when I wanted to do my own project was to Cory Tetford. He is an old friend of mine from Newfoundland and was in a band called Crush for the longest while. He is one of the most talented musicians I have ever met – a talented musician and a talented singer/songwriter in his own right. I just knew for a fact that he would be an anchor for this whole thing, and I was right. The second call was to Kris MacFarlane who, as you know, played drums in Great Big Sea forever. He is the guy I trust the most with the hardest job in show business, which is trying to keep me from speeding up. I tell you, he’s sat back there for 20 years with the reins tightly in his hands,” Doyle said.
“A friend recommended Shehab Illyas to me and I didn’t know him very well, although I had met him a few times when he had a band called Mir. I have known him more as a movie maker [he shot some of Doyle’s solo videos], but when we started rubbing our hands together about who could play bass if we based most of the band out of Halifax, people said there’s nobody better than Shehab. He’s an all-round amazing musician and traveller and artist, so we met and he’s amazing. He plays bass, but he’s really the video documentarian of the band and he takes all the photos. He’s also good at telling you if your shirt is stupid, and stuff like that.
“And I think that we have who I think is the greatest instrumentalist I have ever played with in my entire life, the amazing Kendel Carson. She’s just otherworldly – and remember I come from a fiddle background. There’re lots of fiddles out here in Atlantic Canada and I have met or worked with a lot of fiddle players and I don’t know anybody even close – and I can’t say that often enough. And rounding out the troupe is Mr. Todd Lumley, who plays with Hawksley Workman all the time. He plays piano, keyboards, Hammond and tons of piano-accordion in this band. I met Todd a thousand years ago when he was playing keys and accordion in The Waltons and I think he is one of the most versatile keyboard players I have ever seen. He basically became the heart and soul of Hawksley’s band for a while. So, without exception, the Beautiful Gypsies are the number one people I would ask to play in any band, anywhere. They’re just fantastic.”
For more information about upcoming tour dates, as well as following the progress of the new book and album, follow Doyle on Facebook, Twitter, or at his website, http://alandoyle.ca.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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