Alan Doyle, best-known as the lead singer for the Canadian band Great Big Sea for over twenty years has sold over 1.3 million records. So Lets Go, Alan’s second solo album was recently released . I was able to get on the phone with Alan as he prepared for the new year, a new tour with a new band The Beautiful Gypsies.
BT: I first saw Great Big Sea, and you weren’t even listed on the bill, opening for Sinead O’Connor and The Chieftains at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, and I’ve sort of followed you since that moment.
Alan: Yeah, that was in 1998 or 1999, that was a great time. That was one of the biggest breaks we had in our career, kind of got us in front of so many people across US. The story you just told I’ve heard so often, that’s where people heard us the first time.
BT: I interviewed Darrel Power years ago as well, right before you played a show at the Troubadour, so I’m used to seeing you in smaller venues, not quiet the Canadian dynamic.
Alan: No, we’ve gotten used to over the years, myself and Great Big Sea, even up to the last tour, we got used to wandering back and forth between big places and small places, festivals, beer gardens, theaters and hockey rinks. I love the variety of it, that we can dodge back and forth between Canada and the US, dodging back and forth between seasons. The variety that gives you, one day you might be at a festival in front of 10,000 people, the next in a speak easy in front of 125.
BT: As a performer how does that effect your stage show?
Alan: It’s kind of your job to read the room, and to give the room what it needs. That’s first and foremost your job as the front man of any band. If you’re in a theater where people are quiet, listening and are intrigued by the stories from folk songs for example, it’s kind of your job early to know that’s what they want, to give the night what it wants. Other times if you’re at a beer garden or a college, you quickly learn that they want to dance and shout back at you. It’s part of the stage craft, you try to read the room and give the night what it wants as quickly and as best as you can. You don’t always get it right..I certainly don’t (laughs)
BT: You’re now on your second solo album, is there a change in the songwriting, or recording solo versus the band dynamic.
Alan: Well, for sure, the thing about recording for a band that’s been established for a long time, like Great Big Sea, is that you’re constantly try to service the talents that live within the measure. You’re trying to write stuff with everyone in the band in mind. It would be silly to do a Great Big Sea record and not have a single song on there that featured four part harmony, it’s what we do, we do that really well, so it would be a shame to not have a song like that. Whereas when I’m writing for myself, it’s way more free, or open. I don’t need it to service anything other than my voice, everything after that is up for grabs. I’ve been very lucky that people have accepted whatever comes out of my mouth musically.
BT: Now do you feel a little more pressure now that it’s only you, or is it a bit for freeing?
Alan: Yeah it’s both, I would be lying if i said I wasn’t more nervous because it’s only my name on the poster. it’s also a little more liberating and it’s a bit of a catch 22. You miss the weight of the two decade old ship and the power of that cast of people and what it brings. But you’re also super excited about bringing something new and something I’m really confident and comfortable with.
BT: When people asked me who Great Big Sea was, I always described the band as my happy band, or the music I go to when I’m in a really good mood. So Lets Go doesn’t disappoint on that end. After twenty plus years, how do you keep such a positive outlook.
Alan: Awesome, on the So Lets Go record, I kind of wrote a lot of songs about the concert. What it’s like to have the chance to sing for people, and have that special night together. Music for me has always been about celebration and ceremony. I don’t think there was a single song that I did in my young life that I didn’t sit either at a party, concert, church service, it was always to facilitate some sort of ceremony more often than not some sort of celebration. Unlike a singer/songwriter who sat in their room for a long time working on their craft, music for me is celebratory. It is what it is, I mean that in a practical sort of way, it’s what it’s for. Music is to give people a good night out, I know that’s not entirely true, but it’s entirely true for me. It certainly was when I was a kid, it was about facilitating some kind of gathering of people and nine times out of ten it was a gathering of people that wanted to do something joyous.
BT: I saw GBS a few times in LA at smaller venues than you were doing in Canada at the time, do you enjoy the “kitchen party” atmosphere of more intimate shows?
Alan: it’s always been that way for me, the whole kitchen party vibe that I grew up with, in the little fishing town in Newfoundland. I never found any reason to leave that behind, whether we’re playing a 50 seat coffee house, or a 10,000 seat hockey rink. Where I grew up the greatest singer wasn’t the guy who could hit the highest note for the longest, it was the guy who could get the most people to sing along. The best accordion player wasn’t the guy who could play the fastest or most complicated stuff, it was the guy who kept the dance floor filled the longest. I don’t know why, but that’s never left me. I always think of music as this inclusive thing. I don’t want music to be something I recite for people. I never wanted that, it’s not the kind of evening I want to have, or the kind of evening I want to give to people. When we sign up for a concert together, singing it together, it’s a great night out for everyone, as much for me as it is for you.
BT: I read that you feel even in that celebratory feeling that you felt from a professional obligation to give the best show possible every night. Do you find that harder now than you used to?
Alan: (laughs) Because I’m older…it’s true, there’s a couple of things I find difficult that I didn’t find difficult. I never used to find it difficult to do six concerts in a row and have one day off and do six more in a row. I never found it difficult to fly sometimes 20 times a month, but lately the musical aspects creep up on you. it’s undeniable, I don’t enjoy it one bit less, but I’d be lying to you if certain things aren’t harder than they used to be. Mostly purely physical things, like the act of doing it sometimes. Its never the concert, it’s the getting to and from the concert that hurts sometimes.
BT: Reading through your blog, being a family man now, do you find that keeps you more grounded as a man, and an artist having those responsibilities as well?
Alan: I don’t know if I’m more grounded than I used to be. Being from Newfoundland has a built in grounding network, sometimes called your family (laughs). Especially St. Johns, it’s not the type of place where I get out of the plane and roll up to the local pub in a Hummer or something. It’s not that kind of town, here I’m still Bernie’s brother. It’s almost not an option to not stay grounded, long before you have children or a family, the town itself keeps you down to earth.
BT: I think that’s a great way to grow up.
Alan: I’ll give you a great example, the Canadian equivalent to the Grammy’s are the Juno’s. The first time the Juno’s were in St. Johns, I don’t remember the date exactly around 2000 or so. I remember talking to a friend of mine on the organizing committee and he asked about red carpet and limos and I explained to him that I’ve never seen either of them in St. Johns, it’s not that sort of place.
BT: You’re going out to support the new album, are you going out all year, or just doing pockets?
Alan: I always do pockets, that’s one of the things about having a family that changes your schedule. I don’t usually go out for more than three weeks at a time, and when I’m coming down your way in April, well I just finished a little tour, then I go home, beginning of March I go back out for a few weeks down in the south of the US, then meet up with the family and do a little vacation then I come up to see you guys (Tupalo Music Hall, NH) and have another couple weeks off then the summer stuff kicks in. It’s always little manageable size tours.
BT: How is it playing with the New Gypsies?
Alan: It’s a dream come true, having a band like this band is something I’ve wanted to do since I was about 13 years old. I remember when I saw John Cougar tour that record I love so much called The Lonesome Jubilee it had “Check it Out”, and “Paper in Fire”, where singer songwriter rock and roll and folk music came together, in a way that he and Bruce Springsteen have so many times. But John had a fiddle player and accordion player doing these pop songs, and I remember looking at that going, if I could ever do it my life that’s the kind of band I would have. I would have a young band full of people that can play rock and roll and folk music at the same time. That’s what this band is, it’s a collection of some of my friends and favorite musicians that I’ve known in Canada for almost two decades.