WITHIN THE SINGER-SONGWRITER,
FLOWER POWER STILL BLOSSOMS
By Paul Freeman [1997 Interview]
Perhaps no artist epitomized the 60s more than Donovan. Dubbed “The Prince of Flower Power,” the Scottish singer-songwriter glided from folk to pop, rock and psychedelia.
He conjured up such memorable and magical songs as “Catch The Wind,” “Colours,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Season of the Witch,” “There Is A Mountain,” “Jennifer Juniper,” “Lalena,” “Atlantis” and “Barabajagal” (on which he was backed by the original Jeff Beck Group). With The Beatles, Donovan went on a spiritual retreat to India, studying with Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi.
As cynicism grew throughout society, Donovan withdrew from view. But he’s now back again, seemingly untouched by time.
“By 1983, I’d made 26 albums and had come to the point where there wasn’t any more I could do in the studio,” Donovan tells Pop Culture Classics. “I needed a break. I didn’t feel that an entertainer was obligated to keep going. This isn’t the army.”
It was his wife of 27 years, Linda, who awakened him from his creative slumber. “She turned on the TV and said, ‘Look what the 90s is!’ It was inspiring. On all the talk shows, the subjects being discussed were 60s subjects. The New Age is in the shopping mall - spiritual paths, alternative healing, meditation, world-consciousness. Linda said, ‘Now you can make a new record!’”
He contacted the major record labels. “They all said a very nice ‘no.’ Some wrote little notes, saying, ‘We’re big fans, but we don’t know what to do with you.’ Record companies today are corporations like Shell and IBM. What the hell would I be doing in a company with 750 artists?”
But in 1993, American Recordings head Rick Rubin - producer of Beastie Boys and Slayer, the man who had revived Johnny Cash career, and a Donovan fan - called Donovan at his home in Ireland. He wanted to help the singer make a new album.
“I found out that Rick was a meditator, a vegan and a student of yoga,” Donovan says. “That blew my mind. It was like bullseye, bingo and all the lights were flashing.”
Rubin encouraged Donovan to listen to his 60s records and to reread the books that had inspired him as a youth in Glasgow and London. The resulting album, “Sutras,” is filled with acoustic examples of what Rubin calls “mystic pop.” Donovan wrote 100 songs for the project, from which the producer selected 14.
“In music, film, theater, all the arts,” Donovan explains, “you experiment, then you go back to the roots again to be nurtured.”
Though melancholy drifts through Donovan’s new work, a cosmic positiveness prevails. “As things in the world get worse, optimism appears. It’s like an ecosystem. Optimism is the immune system kicking in.”
The ever youthful Donovan, now a grandfather, alters the reality of all ages at his concerts. “I take people on a journey full of wonder. I wouldn’t say it’s entertainment. It’s an experience. Like the Celtic storytellers of long ago, I speak of myths and legends. We’re all on this adventure called ‘life.’ My songs are about that adventure.”
Donovan’s children have embarked on their artistic adventures. Donovan and his wife have two daughters, one, Astrella Celeste, a singer-songwriter-artist-designer; the other, Oriole Nebula, (wife of Happy Mondays/Black Grape singer Shaun Ryder).
Donovan also has two children from a previous relationship. They grew up with their mother, American model Enid Karl, in Los Angeles. Their father has gotten to know them only in the last few years - Actress Ione Skye and Donovan Leitch, actor, documentarian, producer and former lead singer of the band Nancy Boy. All the children and parents are now forming a special bond.
The bond between Donovan and Linda Lawrence began in 1965. But she wasn’t ready for another serious relationship at that point, following a painful breakup with Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
“Her wisdom before my youth prevailed,” Donovan says. “If we had married in ’65, it would have been torn apart. When she left, I was broken-hearted and I immediately wrote the album ‘Sunshine Superman’ for her. We met again at the end of the 60s, miraculously.”
He credits his spiritual leanings with preventing him from self-destructing, as so many of his contemporaries did. “I wasn’t really into the heavy, Class-A drugs myself. Meditation is a much better way to heal the psychological problems, rather than using painkillers.”
As we spoke, Donovan was preparing to play the Fillmore in San Francisco. There he will again be transporting listeners to a spiritual place.
“I played there two years ago and it was packed. It was curiously full of memory and nostalgia, but it as also New Age to the max.
“There were so many people in the audience that I knew were meditators long-path travelers, mystics. San Francisco has always been exceptional in its concentration of the Bohemian, spiritual path type people. There’s such a history of poetry, music and art there. It’s fascinating to play in San Francisco.”
Editor’s Note: Donovan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.