Folk legend Donovan tells Dave Freak why he’s more happy ‘living in the now’ as he prepares for a city festival.
Donovan Leitch is Googling himself. The famed singer-songwriter, who found success in the 1960s has been described as the Godfather of Acid Folk and he’s wondering what to make of it.
“Acid folk?” he ponders. “I know ‘poke’, which is folk with an electric punch, but acid folk? Is that considered a genre? I guess I might have opened the door for it, but I’m not sure. Often people don’t know where to put me.”
He chuckles. For the uninitiated ‘acid folk’ is a term often used to describe acts from Donovan, the Incredible String Band and Comus in the 1960s, to contemporary names such as Devendra Banhart and Espers. It’s also referred to as ‘psychedelic folk.’ Now he understands.
“That’s if you play acoustic guitar hard and tune it down... but it’s not just a sound, it’s a philosophy. Like modern art, it’s a search for inner colours. Photography had killed realism, so painters painted states of mind, and acid folk is a state of mind – if you’re reading certain books, pagan texts, that comes out in your music. The sound is generally very simple, but the effect is other-worldly, it’s a journey and you’re taking the audience with you.”
There’s no doubt that Donovan, who headlines Moseley Folk Festival on September 4, has taken his audience on a journey. Born in 1946 in Scotland, the singer/guitarist made his name with a series of appearances on pioneering pop programme Ready Steady Go! in 1965.
From a run of gentle acoustic folkie ballads, notably Catch The Wind and Colours, he reinvented himself with the more psychedelic sounding Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow and Wear Your Love Like Heaven.
Very much part of pop’s royalty, he headed off to India with The Beatles, The Beach Boys’ Mike Love and Hollywood star Mia Farrow, and performed at The Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert.
And he’s never really stopped performing or recording, working with production ace Rick Rubin (the man responsible for Johnny Cash’s revival) in the ‘90s and earlier this year found himself sharing a stage with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
His longevity amuses him.
“One couldn’t remember last Tuesday or think about next Tuesday,” he laughs, recalling his lack of career plan when he started. “We were reading about the eternal now... the past is gone, the future is about to happen, and as soon as it’s happened, it becomes the past, so you live in the moment – that’s all there is, only now... we’re the ‘now generation’.
"And I’m still living in the now! There was only Paul McCartney, who wrote When I’m 64, who was looking ahead. I didn’t look ahead. Who knows about longevity? You never know how long anything will last or what makes a song continue.”
But continue Donovan has, his songs championed by everyone from Georgie Fame, Eartha Kitt, Mel Torme and Joan Baez to The Allman Brothers and Kate Bush, while he’s been name-checked by such acts as Jimi Hendrix and Happy Mondays.
“Every three or four years, I seem to reach a whole new audience who respond to these bold, experimental, fusions. They hear Mellow Yellow on a Gap advert, get on the internet and out jumps 27 albums!” he chuckles before listing a few choice covers.
“Led Zeppelin used to warm up at their soundchecks with Season Of The Witch, Courtney Love did it unplugged, but it’s never been released, and some years ago the Butthole Surfers had a number one indie’ single with Hurdy Gurdy Man – it’s great to have your song forms adopted.”
At present, Donovan, who lives in Ireland with his wife and muse Linda, is in the middle of an extensive re-issue programme.
His 1960s material was reissued with added extras back in 2005 – “the 40th anniversary, who’d have thought it, eh? Forty years!” he smiles – and now, after original tapes came into his ownership, he’s busy remastering what he refers to as his “1970s Collection.”
The project begins with 1970’s Open Road, continuing with HMS Donovan, Cosmic Wheels, 7-Tease and others which saw him coin the term “Celtic Rock” and reunite with Mickie Most, the production wizard responsible for his biggest hits. Available as downloads, CDs with extras will follow later this year.
“I found 20, 30 or 40 songs I’d forgotten about,” he says, having digitised several hundred reel-to-reel tapes as well as archiving boxes of photographs, memorabilia, films, lyrics, clothing, shoes and writings.
“These items are a social document about me and my songwriter pals who bought poetry back into popular culture. In the early 1960s, pop songs were just about love and dancing, but we wanted to say something, the lyrics were important, they were poetry.”
As time passes, Donovan has discovered that many of the beliefs and ideas he explored 40-plus years ago are becoming increasingly popular.
Working with movie director David Lynch, he continues to advocate for transcendental meditation, the practice he bought back from India, and is currently introducing some of its ideas into schools as ‘quiet time’ with, he believes, remarkable results.
“There is a big barrier as people can see it as a cult, but you can stay a Muslim, you can stay a Christian, you can stay a Buddhist and still practise TM, it’s a technique not a religion, not a cult. It won’t stop kids in schools feeling angry, feeling doubt, feeling fear, but it can help them stop holding on to that doubt, that anger, that fear. It’s a wonderful thing.”
The ecological themes that came to the fore in his late-60s and ‘70s material are also now firmly on the mainstream agenda as we slide ever closer to potential environmental collapse.
“Countries are having to talk to one another. When you’re this close, who are you gonna call? Who are your Ghostbusters? You have to call Greenpeace, Save The Earth, call the very people that you mocked, that you laughed at. Who knows what will happen next?” he says, before pointing out that his hope that people would eventually be able to communicate easily between countries, unrestrained by traditional boundaries or politics is now a reality.
“You know, we dreamed the internet? When we were talking in the ‘60s, me, George Harrison and The Beatles dreamed of a time when everyone would be connected, could communicate with each other without borders, and you can do that now through the internet!
“Well,” he laughs, “except with China…”
* Moseley Folk Festival – Friday Sept 3 – Sunday September 5 in Moseley Park. Tickets: www.moseleyfolk.co.uk