Sixties troubadour Donovan chats with Kevin Cooper about his love of Nottingham, working with Mickie Most, his latest album Retrospective and his current tour to celebrate his 50th anniversary in the music industry.

Donovan Philips Leitch is a Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist. He developed an eclectic and distinctive style that blended folk, jazz, pop, psychedelia, and world music (notably calypso).

After extricating himself from his original management contract with Pye in 1965, he began a long and successful collaboration with Mickie Most; a leading British independent record producer, and had hits both in the UK, and the US. He became close friends with many pop musicians including Joan Baez, Brian Jones and The Beatles. In 1968 he taught John Lennon a finger-picking guitar style.

Donovan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.

Resting in Edinburgh after the second night of his current tour, Kevin Cooper caught up with him and this is what he had to say.


Donovan, good morning.

Nice to hear from you Kevin. How are you doing today?

I’m very well thank you, how are you?

I’m great Kevin thanks for asking.

You played in Edinburgh last night, how was it?

That’s right, it was the second show of the tour. It went very well and I’m feeling good.

Before we move on let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

That’s good Kevin, I am very pleased to do it and do let everyone know that I am coming over to see you all in Nottingham.

So just how is life treating Donovan?

I am very pleased to say that I am very well thank you. You have to remember Kevin that guys like me are supposed to be very well worn down by now from all of the touring (laughter). However I didn’t do that; I dropped out so many times from touring. I have to be enthused and I have been enthused these past few years of course (laughter). I didn’t really tour that much over the years so I am in pretty good health. For instance, I’m not over weight, I have still got my hair and I am singing better than ever (laughter).

You have recently released Donovan Retrospective; a double CD of your works. Were you happy with how well it was received?

It was released in June of this year Kevin and although the material has been released before, it was received very well. It was released to mark my 50th Anniversary in the music business and we decided that the first CD would contain my greatest hits, whilst the second CD would be quite unique as I have hand-picked those tracks from my 60’s albums. This was very important to me. The reception has been very good from the people that I have met, for example young artists who may not have actually heard so much of Donovan before. They may know Mellow Yellow and they may know Sunshine Superman so they know very little of my work so it’s great when they come up to me at my concerts and say that Retrospective is wonderful.

I understand that you actually put the album together yourself. Was that an enjoyable experience for you?

I did Kevin and yes it was however, being honest it was quite easy after all of these years (laughter) especially when it came to the hits. Although I have to say that the hits do not come up in any order. It’s not like it is Catch The Wind, Colours, then Sunshine Superman. I started it in a particular way but the second side took a little while as I had to select the 60’s album tracks to showcase the various innovations which I had introduced into popular music via my music together with the fusion of world music, jazz, blues, folk, spiritual subjects and the whole experiment of The Donovan 60’s. It took a little longer but yes, I really did enjoy doing that. Making a new package for a new presentation is always fun.

Was it easy to keep track selection down to two CDs or could you have easily gone over that?

The record company said that we could put out a box set if that is what I wanted to do. However what we had to take into consideration Kevin was that we were trying to reintroduce my work to my fans whilst also introducing it to new fans. And after taking all of that into consideration we decided that two was enough both financially and creatively.

There is a new song on there too; One English Summer. What were the thoughts behind that?

The record company asked me if I would like to record a new record and quite naturally I said yes because I was at that time working on a new album as I have never stopped writing (laughter). As Retrospective was going to be released in the summer I decided that I would write a song and I found a line in one of my notebooks. I had written down One English Summer and I straight away thought that’s it. We attached a reggae beat to the lyric and we released it as the new single. The reasoning for this was that catalogue material does not get played on the radio whereas a brand new song will get played on frontline radio.

So I visited The Chris Evans Show together with a number of other frontline radio shows and they had a new song to play. I love the idea of a reggae song for the summer. What is a British summer without reggae Kevin (laughter).

You have mentioned that it is your 50th Anniversary in the music business. Back in 1964 could you have ever envisaged that you would still be touring and still be as popular today as you were back then?

The simple answer Kevin is no, nobody could ever have envisaged that. There were two waves; the first wave was 1963 to 1964 and mine was 1964 to 1965 and nobody actually knew if what they called Rock and Roll was going to last anyway. They all thought that it was going to be a fad (hysterical laughter) and that it would only last from 1955 to 1965 and then something else would come along (laughter). The world of jazz, folk and blues invaded popular culture; the straight pop world. It was the Bohemian ideas of literature, poetry, ecology, civil rights, protest songs, and when that happened we had no idea just how long that was going to last.

Me and my buddy Gypsy Dave (Mills) were hitch-hiking around and when he finally got me in front of a professional microphone and I recorded the first material in Tin Pan Alley in London in late ’64 we didn’t actually think any further than the following Tuesday. So nobody ever knew just how long this was all going to last. All I knew was that I had something important to do, and I really wanted to do it. In the business it is called the hunger and it separates one artist from another. It separates a hugely successful artist from a reasonably successful artist Kevin. It is not the hunger for celebrity, fame, success and money; it is the hunger to communicate with an audience.

As soon as they arrive in front of that TV camera or that audience, something happens; the audience will know that this artist wants to communicate. And so I really wanted it to last forever of course, and it has (laughter).

What was it like working with Mickie Most?

What can I say except that Mickie was a whiz Kevin. He was a great producer of the time who I needed to meet in order to develop my recording style in the studio and he was the master. Of course I’d had hits before in the so called Folk Donovan Period but there in the Folk Donovan Period were the seeds of what I really wanted to do. I was fascinated by the studio sound of Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers and when I met Mickie that was it; it was perfect. From the first time that we met, Mickie and I got on fantastically well and he taught me so much Kevin.

I have to ask you, where is home?

Well Kevin you know that they say that home is where the heart is, and I guess that for six months of the year that would be Ireland, then we have a wee place down in Majorca which we try to get to as much as possible; at least for three months of the year. Then we spend the remaining three months of the year travelling. So I suppose that you would say that my home is half in Ireland and half in Majorca.

You have not toured the UK for ten years now. Do you not enjoy touring?

That’s right Kevin I have not done a UK tour now for ten years. I couldn’t believe it when they told me it was so long ago now. I still get asked to play at festivals and I often agree to do them. Four years ago now I played the blues festival over in Australia and I just pick up the phone when they ring. But I have never had a concentrated wish to do a full tour. Honestly Kevin, I do enjoy it, and I am, so they tell me one of the top ten British performers of the old school.

Whilst on the subject of festivals, Harvey Goldsmith has recently been quoted as saying that the era of festivals within the UK is dying. Would you agree with that?

Well Kevin I know Harvey quite well and he is probably talking about the golden age when there was really only two or three major festivals a year, but now of course every village wants their own festival. You can drive through the English countryside just before the summer or even the late spring and you can see that every village wants their own festival. You can’t blame them Kevin because in this world where they are trying to make everything the same, I think that people are reacting against it and are trying to stay individual. So I have to say that Harvey is right in one sense in that there are no individual big festivals left really. Glastonbury is probably the only one and my god it’s big. Harvey is right in that it is so big that it breaks the rules of a festival.

Back in the day the rules of the festivals were that there were no more than thirty odd thousand people there but of course now at Glastonbury there are over one hundred and seventy-five thousand people there; it’s huge. However what’s nice about the new festivals Kevin is that they have expanded into art, poetry, theatre, which is good too.

You closed the acoustic stage this year at Glastonbury with one of my favourite artists, Jack Savoretti. How was that?

Jack is great, I love him. He was also playing at the festival so I had a walk over to watch him and when I heard him I thought that’s the guy for me. We played Young Girl Blues which is on my Mellow Yellow album which I had recorded back in 1967. It was a great session.

In 2012 you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then in 2014 you were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which gave you the most pleasure?

I have to say Kevin that both were extraordinary of course. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognises what you have achieved in many areas of recording, performance, image, presentation and song writing. You have to have maybe created something quite extraordinary, for example a new genre or a new way of doing something. It includes everything really and it was a great joy to be honoured. However, the Songwriters Hall of Fame is specific Kevin; in fact it is very specific because it is all about the song. I suppose that for a songwriter the Songwriters Hall of Fame is quite close and quite dear and to have been honoured for that was wonderful too.

I have to ask you, at what point in your career did you feel most musically satisfied?

Oh my Kevin what a great question. I would hope that it is still to come (laughter). To be honest it’s difficult for me to answer that Kevin as there have been some extraordinary highlights for me along the way. Firstly for me to have returned poetry into pop culture is a big mission of the Bohemians as when you bring more meaningful lyrics into popular music you also introduce social issues into the main stream. It was important to me to write about communication, unity, the brotherhood of people around the world; this is so very important to me. It was incredible that I managed to bring poetry back into popular culture.

Secondly, for me to be able to play solo at the Madison Square Gardens in front of forty thousand people when you could hear a pin drop, that is quite important. That’s why I am an extraordinary artist live, and I had taken it for granted for a long, long time. My dad said to me that I made great records and that there were very few people who wrote songs as good as I did. And then he said that there was something that I did that very few people could do. He said that whenever I walked out onto a stage, even before I had played one note on my guitar, the audience were there with me. It’s a natural talent which is difficult to pin down as to exactly what it is. That was a highlight.

However Kevin, the big one has to be meeting Linda (Lawrence). Meeting Linda was a great prize. Not only that, but that the two of us would get involved in meditation and in bringing meditation back was brilliant. So looking back, the three things are bringing poetry into popular culture, holding an audience before I had even played a single note and then meeting Linda and promoting meditation with her and The Beatles. There are three highlights for you Kevin (laughter) although I’m afraid that I have got too many (laughter).

Are there any ambitions left for you to achieve?

I have had enough success and enough satisfaction to fill three careers Kevin (laughter). Any singer-songwriter would be happy to achieve half of what I have achieved and have half of the hits that I have had. But I still want to continue and this is why; when I first started in the music business way back in the 60’s there was a sort of dialogue from a generation who saw that the planet was being wasted and people fighting each other over the most horrible things; greed and acquisition. Now whether the 60’s can be looked upon as a failure on the one hand I don’t know but really we see it as a success. We brought together a lot of ideas which people had to discuss. So I am going to continue as much as I can to present on my web site the two hundred unreleased Donovan songs which we have recently discovered. Also I will continue to present the whole idea of meditation for schools all around the world. That’s the mission and I am still on it.

I have to ask do you enjoy your time spent here in Nottingham?

Well Kevin, every city in Britain has a pub which is important to the Bohemians, where they could go and meet other like-minded people and in Nottingham it was always The Trip To Jerusalem. I can remember spending hours trying to swing the ring onto the bull’s horn in there (laughter). Gypsy Dave and I met a young lad in The Trip To Jerusalem when we were seventeen who invited us back to his parents big house in the country telling us that he had a professional tape recorder back home. That was probably the very first time that I was stood in front of a professional tape recorder Kevin. So Nottingham is a very important city for Dave and I because we did manage to get in front of a microphone and a professional recording machine (laughter).

I always enjoy coming to Nottingham and Nottingham is a city that is very important to me. Not only because of Robin Hood and his Merry Men but I will be feeling like Will Scarlet by the way (laughter). I will be singing all of my hits but unfortunately I won’t be dressed in red like Will Scarlet but I promise to be your minstrel in Nottingham Kevin.

On that note I will once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

Not a problem Kevin and I look forward to seeing you in Nottingham. Thanks a lot. Bye for now.


Donovan plays The Albert Hall Nottingham on Thursday 15th October 2015

The ‘Donovan Retrospective’ album is out now