Donovan has been doing more with music than you might think. The 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and ’60s folk rock icon has played SXSW, released several internet-exclusive albums through his website, been honored as a BMI Icon, re-wrote one of his songs for Futurama, and supports the musical wing of the David Lynch Foundation by putting together exclusive musical collaborations — featuring musicians like Peter Gabriel, Moby, Ozomatli, Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds, Tom Waits and many others — that fund rehabilitative Transcendental Meditation programs (techniques that, incidentally, he learned in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and The Beatles).
Any of this would be cause for celebration, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was a long-overdue honor for one of the world’s greatest songwriting treasures. And so Donovan is celebrating in his own way — by treating his fans to three shows this weekend in the D.C. area (and an upcoming tour) and writing new songs with bigshots in Nashville.
How do you do? You’re from a thing called The Vinyl District – what’s that?
Well, we’re an online music magazine that’s dedicated to supporting independent record stores and the vinyl/analog format.
Wow, that’s great! That’s good news, because that’s where I started.
Yeah! I understand you have the distinction of releasing the one of the first double LPs in rock music.
Isn’t that amazing? Yeah, I’ve heard that story that I was the first double in popular music. I guess you would know more than I about that! [Note: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was the first rock double LP; Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden was one of the first box sets.]
And then you’ve released your last few albums exclusively through your website and iTunes.
That’s right. I didn’t really know what a record company could do for me anymore. Of course, Universal still has my early material on their label, Sanctuary, and that’s 1965. And then Sony, for the world excluding the UK, has my earlier material from ’66 to ’69. And then after that, I’m kind of looking after myself.
There seem to be quite a few other musicians of your era that are doing the same thing mostly, like you said, because record companies aren’t as interested, but also because they prefer the creative control.
Yeah, and it is that way. It’s true. Although I did recently consider putting my huge album archive out on a regular record label and then I thought, well, it’s available anyway and I can make some special packages like Ritual Groove.
Which is a pretty great package! The “soundtrack to a movie that has yet to be made.”
[Laughs] Well, I was having a little fun because it was really encouraging my fans to make video of my material, which they do anyway on YouTube. It’s not for a major movie for anything. I ran a little competition and I got some movie friends of mine to judge and we did a little something on the website just for fun. But there are hundreds of videos of my material on YouTube, but you probably know this sort of thing.
And that doesn’t bother you at all?
Well, I didn’t encourage it before YouTube said they were going to join the game just a little bit. Now the making of visuals to music… I didn’t want it until it got legal somewhat. It’s not legal everywhere, but at least in certain countries, YouTube is paying and infinitesimal little bit to the industry. Also, many of us think it’s like a commercial when somebody makes some images to your music. And so I OK’d it for that.
There are quite a few artists who don’t feel that way. They feel that there’s nothing beneficial to anyone using their music without permission.
Well, there’s two camps, isn’t there? Some musicians want to bring in very strong laws and use a very big stick to hit the fans on the head when they do anything “wrong” with our music. That’s not going to work. The real people that really should be paying is the providers, I think, which [in YouTube’s case] is Google. And they’re paying a little – at least it’s a start. You’re either for it or against it. Those in the music world that are for it think it’s a commercial, and some artists give their material free of course, as you know. And some on the other side don’t want their material [used at all] and will chase YouTube to bring it down all the time.
Of course, I did something recently at the Royal Albert Hall with Jimmy Page and Danny Thompson and my daughter and son and the London Contemporary Orchestra, and the very next day it was on YouTube and we had to bring it down. That was because, really, the quality was very bad and I want to release this wonderful celebration of the Sunshine Superman album performed in its entirety last June… and I want to release it in the proper manner. So, I disagree with just putting stuff up that you shouldn’t really do. There were kids in the front with cameras and the Royal Albert Hall was supposed to stop all that. [Laughs] But you can’t really stop a cell phone. So, it is a difficult situation.
I have to ask: Will that “proper release” of the Sunshine Superman concert include a release on vinyl?
You know what? I think I’d like to do my new stuff all on vinyl. I’m thinking of doing a 10” just to show some archive stuff in an old way. I believe now that there is a trend of releasing vinyl and digital and a link to the music at the same time.
It does seem that way more and more.
Well, I have a friend [now] at Sundazed Records [Bob Irwin]; he helped me with my project back in ’95-’96 – the “Troubadour” package. He was in the business of helping record companies – especially mine, Sony – by being a compiler. He makes great box sets! He also was brought in for Try for the Sun, the next box set. He made such a wonderful package [for Sundazed], and when I asked him what he was doing he said, well, he’s essentially a vinyl company.
And what happened was he made a 2,000-unit release of my Sunshine Superman on vinyl – he says he just does about 2,000 – and the fans loved it! But then they started to write to him saying, “Where can I get a turntable? Where can I get a needle?” So I said, “What did you do?” And he said that he had to start making them or supplying them. And so he ended up supplying not only the vinyl, but he was also supplying the turntables and the needles. He said he’s selling more turntables than the vinyl now! [Laughs] It’s a funny game, the vinyl game. Does your audience ask you where to get turntables and needles?
We do offer free advertisement to independent record stores and we run ads for a few turntable manufacturers.
So, there’s quite an enormous supply system now, is there? What would you say the sales of vinyl are like?
From what I’ve read, vinyl sales have increased as CD sales have decreased.
Isn’t that funny?
Some say the increase in vinyl sales it’s a matter of sound quality, some say that people still love album art and liner notes. We think it’s probably a combination of both.
Well, the rebirth of analog, I guess, as well when you think of it. Did you get a copy of what Sony’s done around my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?
No, I haven’t, but I’d love to talk to you about The Essential Donovan.
Oh! They’ve re-released The Essential Donovan – they’re a Sony Legacy series that they do. It has some new material and that, basically, is my new release this year in a way.
And you’re doing the mini-tour as well to celebrate your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?
Well, the odd thing is it’s not a tour so much as it’s three performances. I’ll be two weeks in DC, one week in New York, and ten days in LA. What it basically is to celebrate with a party – one in DC, one in New York, one in LA. But I’m spending more than one or two days because I’m doing media, which is what I’m doing with you. I’m announcing my tour of next year, which will start in spring or early summer so, essentially, it’s “Hello! Thank you! I’m really pleased about being inducted!” I’m gonna have a party and talk to media and do radio, TV, and online to announce that next year I’ll finally get back on the road and come and play to some of my fans around the world.
Having been a touring musician for as long as you have, how do you keep going? When I spoke to Mike Love a couple of years ago, he’d mentioned that the Transcendental Meditation he learned in India with you and the Beatles and the Maharishi continues to keep him sharp – both creatively and physically. Is that the same for you?
OK, well I can tell you a few things there. Well, yes TM certainly does relax the nervous system. People think when they sleep that their nervous system turns off, when in actual fact it remains. And one can experience tension all the way through their sleep. We discovered – me, George Harrison, and The Beatles and Mike Love and many others in our readings – that there was another form of consciousness. Because we live in three basic levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. When we were fascinated about yoga and reading all the incredible stories of the yogis, the yogis spoke of a fourth level of consciousness called transcendental super-conscious vision. When you see the Buddha smiling with his eyes half closed or a yogi doing meditation… we always wondered what they were doing and what was going on! Well, it’s a mantra and we wanted to learn it.
Sure enough, The Beatles and I became friends; Mike Love I knew as well over in America and when we went to India. So we were all fascinated [by this] and we found a yogi and he taught us a mantra and how to meditate and we went to India, all of us together, which is a famous trip now.
And so we learned personally what it actually meant to relax – deep relaxation. Now, what good is that? Well, deep relaxation relaxes tensions in your inner self. You’ve heard of psychosomatic illness, well most illnesses, really – and difficulties in life like anger, doubt, and fear and horrible things that people experience, fear being the biggest one – are healed by total relaxation of the nervous system through meditation. So that’s helped me all my life, just like Mike says.
That’s very, very cool.
And now it’s being applied in schools because Maharishi, our teacher, before he passed on – before he “dropped the body” – he passed on an enormous system around the world. David Lynch, the charismatic, incredible filmmaker formed the David Lynch Foundation for the very same purpose of putting this meditation in schools to relax the terrible situation in education. And it’s being applied. The model, the great Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, is the prime example where all teachers, all the staff, even the guy that cuts the grass, all the students, and all the parents – some of them who even have houses near the university – are all meditating.
Now, The Beatles and I – before David got the foundation – we promoted it when we came back from India and I continued promoting also. Now it’s available the world over, not just for kids, not just for students, but the world could do with students meditating in the morning and the afternoon, and showing extraordinary results: 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes before they go home in the afternoon.
You work with a charity record label, Transcendental Music. Are these sort of meditation programs something it supports?
Yes, that’s part of the David Lynch Foundation activities. What is happening is that major artists, and I suppose I was the first with The Beatles and Mike Love, [come together]to promote this. There’s a huge vinyl package out – you probably know about it – and that vinyl package features me and the yogi and all the wonderful things including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Sheryl Crow and a host of others. A couple of years ago, we did Radio City Music Hall and that’s on DVD soon. But the idea of this Transcendental Music label is very important because major stars are giving tracks that are not available anywhere else.
And sales go to support the meditation in schools programs?
And it supplies the finances the teachers to teach the students the techniques. Certain schools – tough schools and good schools alike – are turning around. We’re doing as much as we can. There is a kind of block against it; people think it’s a religion or a cult when in actual fact it’s a basic technique. You can be any religion; anybody who’s got any faith can use Transcendental Meditation to be a better Christian, a better Muslim, a better Buddhist. It’s actually a system that had been lost in the world, but has now been re-introduced.
Much of your music has mystical, Celtic elements to it, so this all seems to flow together with you.
There is a Western tradition of spirituality, but it’s so old and it got lost and so you actually see meditating figures in old sculptures. The Greeks and the Egyptians had their own [versions of meditation]. But the Irish and the Scots and the Welsh – we had our own particular what they called a form of meditation; we had a lot of musical meditations. I think that’s why you’ll find – from Britain especially and in America with the Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrant connections to music – we Irish, Scots and Welsh are very much a part of popular music. Lennon and McCartney are Irish names, myself included, and many a popular figure – including the great American Woody Guthrie, who’s celebrating his centennial year this year, is a Scot. Guthrie comes from the Scottish tradition and his grandmother taught him all those Scottish songs. And of course popular music in America is very much influenced by the Celtic sound.
So, we kind of did it with music, and it’s true – certain music can play someone into a deep sense of rest. A lot of my music does that.
Do you have any new music that you’re working on now? I know you said The Essential Donovan was really like your latest release.
Well, yes – I can’t help it! I don’t write songs every day, but I’m influenced to write songs each week. I’ve just come from Nashville on my way up from Charleston where I opened a very special photographic exhibition called “Sound and Vision.” This “Sound and Vision” is on my website and it is monumental photographs of rock and roll, jazz, blues, folk, reggae, soul, and new rhythm and blues. This exhibit down there includes the photograph that is used on the package you see on the front of The Essential Donovan.
And so I came up to Nashville from Charleston and went straight into the studio – it’s very historic, Nashville, for me because my first label in 1965 was in Nashville and called Hickory Records. [I recorded] “Catch the Wind” there, and we were looking for an image for the vinyl single –the 45 – to present in a bit of news. So, [when] I went back to Nashville and immediately recorded a brand new song called “The Harmonica Girl” and played with some of what they called the “A-List” in Nashville – really fine players. Michael Knox, a huge producer of note, helped me put it together. I would go to record in a classic studio called Treasure Isle – and this is a very famous Nashville studio that’s produced enormously wonderful works – so I did record [new material] there.
Again, I have to tell you that the new way of [music] distribution is much like the old way in the 1960s. People are just releasing one song now, you know that.
I do – things have reverted back to being single-centric.
I know, so it’s a single I’ve just made and I’m gonna release it in some way before I get to LA. I’m going to try to put it out if I can; I’m still building the track and [when it’s ready] it really will celebrate a new Donovan song. I don’t have a commercial label, but I have my own.
[Also], what I’m finally bringing to completion is an enormous archive! People like me and Neil Young and Dylan –we have an enormous amount of material that we even forgot we recorded. I’m just coming to the completion of 400 analog master tapes that have been transferred. There’s at least four or five albums nobody’s ever heard. So, that’s something to look out for on my website!
As far as new songs, I can’t help but write new songs! I’ve written about twenty-five new works over the last five years, so following Ritual Groove I think “The Harmonica Girl” and other titles: “The Three Kinds of Love,” “The Language of Love,” “Gimme Some of That” – those tracks are in progress. So, there’s a new album coming out for the tour next year, yes!
You’ve been giving interviews for nearly fifty years, and so I’m really curious: Do you ever get tired of answering the same questions? Like the one about India with The Beatles?
No! I mean, there are basic questions that repeat – that’s true. But in actual fact, in answering them I look for new ways! [Laughs] But my interviews, whenever I hear a question that I’ve been asked before, I get quite excited because it allows me to talk about other things around the period.
The trip to India was just amazing with The Beatles, really, and people keep asking me about it again and again. I taught [The Beatles] all these guitar styles and chords – I didn’t realize how much I was teaching them – and the “White Album” has a distinctive sort of Donovan influence. But it’s not only the music that I can answer these questions to you about, but I can talk about music as a wonderful thing to present positive ideas to the world. I’m kind of an ambassador, as poets are. So, same question – I can make different answers about the same thing! [Laughs] It’s fun for me!
Well, thank you for answering that same question about India from me. And thank you for writing my favorite song that I hear every year on my birthday.
[Laughs] Oh, yeah! Of course! Now, listen – that was written about going to India! That one line, “Is she sleeping? I don’t think so…” Her eyes are closed, but she’s not sleeping – she’s meditating! She quietly sits upon the hill, after all. And so, I’m glad you’ve got your own song! [Laughs]
You know, you may think you’re a “small” outlet and that I’m going to be talking to bigger outlets, but every interview’s important to me. Thank you for wanting to speak to me!