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Donovan Dives Into the Ancient Roots of His New Album, ‘Gaelia,’ and Why He Still Believes Music Can Save the World 

British Folk Singer Donovan Leitch.   (Photo by Avalon/Getty Images)
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Among the many pleasures of Donovan’s new album, “Gaelia,” which is released today on various platforms as well as the singer’s own webstore, is “Lover O Lover,” the second of two new collaborations with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. (The first is the album’s first single, “Rock Me.”) 

First of all, it’s a great entry point for any conversation about the septuagenarian poet/bard/former pop star and his unique body of work. There’s a timeless, ethereal quality about the track, which nicely matches Donovan’s best ‘60s-era fusions of passionate folk ballads and sensual, melodic hard-rock instrumentations. In the case of “Lover,” “timeless” is shorthand for “great make-out record,” a category that Donovan minted just in time for the “free love” explosion of boomer libidos back When We Were Fab and a genre that one assumes, hopes, for the sake of human existence, never goes out of style. 

Secondly, it represents the overall mood of most of the album’s many first-rate tracks, most of which might best be described as having a mighty “What Godblessed era am in?” vibe about them.  

Meeting Donovan near Hampstead Heath in London, a place his fans will recognize as a key locale of one of his finest Swinging London ‘60s songs (“Hampstead Incident”), does absolutely nothing to dent the transported, other-worldly state of mind one gets from repeated listens to “Gaelia.” 

Sure, Donovan cheekily promises at the beginning of our chat, “If you’ve got the questions, I’ve got the answers,” but that’s not, it turns out, as simple as it sounds.  

The ostensible purpose of our conversation is to discuss the album, zoning in on the process, such as the pleasures and complexities of collaborating with brilliant Irish musicians as well as classical music superstar Nigel Kennedy and rock royalty Gilmour, among others. 

But as we’ve chatted before, last year, about a new animated series that Donovan and his wife-muse-creative partner Linda Lawrence created, I don’t come to any conversation with Donovan foolishly expecting simple facts, statistics, i.e., Variety showbiz talk. 

The joy of jamming with Donovan is that you will get your answers, but you will also share an unbridled ride through many topics, from Jung to Cocteau to B.P. Fallon to Marty Robbins, all of which eventually wind up back at the subject at hand: “Gaelia.”  

Before getting into the here and now of “Gaelia,” Donovan first addressed what “the new album” meant back in those times. 

“Creating this collection of 13 songs is a completely different process from what making an album meant back in my early days on the road. Back then, you were on the road all the time, and you only had a few days off, so we would cut three songs in three hours and make an album in a week. That was the golden age of ‘Get it done, release it, tour it and love it.’” 

If “Gaelia” was made at a more leisurely pace, it does resemble in tones and themes the kinds of magical spells Donovan was weaving back then.  

Both the album and this heathside chat reminded me of something Variety’s Owen Gleiberman recently wrote about the lovely, buoyant 2007 Disney film “Enchanted” and its current, dyspeptic sequel, “Disenchanted.” 

“The beauty of ‘Enchanted’ is that… Giselle, who had cartoon birds flying around her and kept breaking into song, was too wholesome to be true, yet that was her appeal, her slightly ridiculous joy… But 15 years later, I realized just how far out of fashion this sort of thing has now fallen.” 

In Donovan’s view, that “joy” is not only not out of fashion, but we lose that joy at our own peril. It’s a point that connects both “Gaelia” and the guy the Beatles dug and gently ribbed as “Mother’s Nature Son” on the White Album over a half-century ago, to the 21st century climate-change crisis in a surprisingly urgent and compelling manner. 

“Behind this album,” Donovan explains, “is a continuation of what was in my early work and it’s in my new work. It’s a kind of a natural Mother Nature love of the sequences and the circles of time that go on as we’re here living on the planet. Singing about the birds, the bees, the oceans, the trees, the gulls above the beaches. But I think the real question here is ‘What is the drive that is consistent in your work?’ And I would have to mention Robert Graves and ‘The White Goddess,’ this curious, unusual book, which said and maybe reintroduced to the world that the actual true theme of poetry is the celebration of the four seasons of the earth.  

“They revolve and keep a pattern and a rhythm to the way of life on the planet. This has been disturbed and destroyed for so long now that I feel from my time here, from my beginnings of my Scottish-Irish family, that I am dedicated to continue the true theme of poetry that Robert Graves spoke of. So, what is it?  

“Basically, it’s the relationship of people to celebrate the four seasons of the year, which actually respects Mother Nature and all her ways. The patriarchal invasion of ancient matriarchal cultures was devastating and continues to this day. That’s why, in 1965, when I said ‘All the world is beautiful,’ they printed that in the pop newspapers in letters two inches high, in a kind of sarcastic and ridiculing way. It was like, ‘What is he talking about?’  

“All my work has this constant theme through it. By the way, it also created terrible ridicule for Robert Graves! But every other song of mine celebrates the Goddess. She is Mother Nature. And we have been placed in this extraordinary position, almost on the edge of extinction, by this totally, overly male view that every resource, every river, every breeze, every cloud, every metal in the land should be raped and pillaged and sold as a commodity.” 

Donovan Jaume Caldentey

One of “Gaelia’s” strongest tracks, “Ghost of Pagan Song,” was first written down in 1971 when Donovan and Linda spent time at Castlemartin, on the banks of the River Liffey in Ireland, and a fitful dream inspired the song’s fevered tale of spirits, nature, questions and answers. 

The origins of “The Ghost of Pagan Song” are what Donovan recalls as “not the first time I woke up remembering the stanzas and some of the melody that I was singing the song in the dream. It suggests that we talk about what is the difference between waking and dreaming!”  

Again, Donovan grounds the moment firmly in the past before he’s ready to fully address the present. 

“The first time this happened, by the way, was ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda.’ Gypsy (Donovan’s late early career companion Gyp Mills) and I were in Sweden. Linda and I had not really broken up because we had never really joined up. But somehow I knew we were soulmates, and I woke up in this Swedish hotel around early 1966. I was yelling ‘Gyp! Gyp! Gyp!’ and it was about two in the morning and he woke up saying ‘What? What? What?’ I said ‘I’ve got to write this down!’ And I picked up the guitar and I remembered five verses of ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda’ in the madrigal style of the song. 

“The same thing happened in 1971 in Castlemartin where Linda and I had secured ourselves, maybe in some ways as a protection against the extraordinary ‘60s that had just happened, and collapsed.”

Scottish folk and pop singer-songwriter Donovan, USA, circa 1975. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images) Getty Images

Donovan explains the meaning of that “collapse,” because he’s not just speaking metaphorically, but also sharing the toll of ‘60s pop stardom. 

“Clive Davis virtually created Epic Records, but I created the first music for Epic. But by the end of the ‘60s, it was all Hell’s Bells, everything was falling apart and I really had a bit of a nervous breakdown. Record companies were grabbing at me as if I was leaving them. Then we arrived in Ireland, and it was a haven.   

“It led me to ask myself, ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ And I found I am, like Robert Graves, re-establishing the true poetic theme, the celebration of the four seasons of the earth, which human beings, in their great error, are not continuing to honor. Therefore, disaster is in the future. 

“I sat in Castlemartin, an old Georgian manse, on the River Liffey, and at that time it was impoverished, with hardly any furniture. There in the old library of Castlemartin, I had a dream that night. And I woke up and remembered several of the stanzas, and what is that about?  

“Not only did I wish to continue that crazy ridiculed job that Robert Graves began in the 1940s, trying to re-establish the true poetic theme, but what I was also doing in that old house was remembering, ‘What am I? What is the power that I have? What is this power that sells all these records? What is it that they’re all reacting to?’ And it became clear that I was interested in the power of the pagan song. What is that power? That great oratorical, musical compositional power of poetry that so many great Gaelic artists have? I was looking for somebody to call, somebody to speak to me. And of course I projected all this into the dream, so that I would be visited by the ghost of pagan song.”

Though not all of Donovan’s songs came into being with such dramatic and colorful surroundings, the Forever Young bard, sitting here in Hampstead, a wool hat on his head, jean jacket, essentially exactly the guy on the cover of “What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid,” 57 years ago, with some lines but but remarkably robust and spookily ageless, makes it clear they all spring from the same well and always have. 

“When somebody asks, ‘How do you write a song?’ Simply put, something occurs to me, perhaps a phrase and you might ask, ‘Could that be a voice from a deeper level that is saying ‘What you’re feeling is now expressed in this phrase.’ When the phrase comes that expresses what I feel, is it being directed by a higher level of us that will now express it, will now express what that phrase actually means in music. 

“Remember when (Bob) Dylan was doing some of those rare interviews back in the day and some guy was waxing on about one of his cool songs and Dylan says, ‘You think I wrote those songs?’ He’s saying, ‘Look, you don’t know the process. But you think I wrote those songs?’ That throws a spanner in the works of finding a way to actually describe this, doesn’t it.” 

Once again, the guy from Variety sat down with the poet from Glasgow (and London, L.A., Joshua Tree and County Cork) ostensibly to talk about “the new stuff” and went farther and farther afield without ever leaving the Heath, which, for the record, was actually “hung with magic mists” after our lunchtime conversation.   

“Gaelia” is an exciting new collection of songs from a guy whose lifelong devotion to peace, love and understanding might be funny to some, but it’s a welcome tonic for those thirsting for folk grooves packed with Donovan’s unique heart and soul, quite intact and — might I add? — quite rightly. 

Since I mentioned Marty Robbins, I must explain it’s the most Donovan thing now to get a text explaining something discussed that seemed wonderfully obscure, or perhaps only obscure to someone foolish enough to think they know music the way Donovan knows music.  

In the course of explaining the connections between the music of European synagogues and the music traditions of Ireland and Scotland, Donovan notes in passing that many of Robbins’ songs and so-called “Western” ballads such as “Streets of Laredo” can be traced back to Irish folk songs. 

An hour later my phone pings and there’s a note from Donovan. Here’s what he sent me.  

The Bard Plays On.