Songwriter Interviews


by Greg Prato

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Undoubtedly, one of the trailblazers of the "psychedelic pop" genre was the Scottish singer/guitarist/songwriter, Donovan. Beginning as a more folk-based artist, upon the arrival of his landmark 1966 album, Sunshine Superman, the man who was born Donovan Philips Leitch offered up a heady spin on pop music of the day, especially heard on the album's chart-topping title track and on such subsequent ditties as "Mellow Yellow" and "Season of the Witch," plus the harder rocking "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Barabajagal."

2016 marked the 50-year anniversary of the release of Sunshine Superman, which was celebrated with a vinyl reissue via the Sundazed label (sourced from the original analog Epic tapes in the rare US mono mix), as well as a 50th Anniversary Sunshine Superman North American Tour, from August to October.

Shortly before the launch of the tour, Donovan spoke with Songfacts about songwriting, crossing paths with The Beatles in India, and an unlikely collaboration with Alice Cooper.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Decades later, Paul McCartney admitted that "Got to Get You into My Life" was about pot. Which of your songs did you have to pretend were about something else?

Donovan: The songs of the '60s were about the deeper lyrical songs, not just the "I love you, why did you make me blue?" songs, but songs about the alternative culture that was about to rise on the scene.

Poetry was very important. So when you actually studied the blues and jazz, you noticed that smoking grass is a big part of it. But some of the songs were talking about using the magic plants, yeah.

I guess I was the first on that. On the Fairytale album [1965], the song "Sunny Goodge Street" speaks of "Violent hash-smoker shook a chocolate machine." So I guess I was the first to mention, clearly, an actual plant... a healing plant. Now we know these plants are healing.

But I was the first to actually mention it in a song, and that's why I would be the first to be busted in London.

From 1966-1969, if you were a "high" profile rocker living in England, you had to watch out for a chap by the name of Sergeant Norman Pilcher. He was the head of a drug enforcement group, and set his sights on busting musicians for the heinous crime of marijuana possession. First off was Donovan, followed by members of the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards), and The Beatles (George Harrison and John Lennon).

Pilcher would eventually be busted himself: In 1973 he was convicted of conspiracy and perjury and sentenced to four years in prison. He's the subject of the Primus song "Pilcher's Squad" and possibly inspiration for the line "Semolina Pilchard" in "I Am the Walrus."
Certain songs would speak about it in a double entendre, but it's very easy to understand it. To be "mellow" is to be cool, to be laid back, but it doesn't have to be with a smoke. It can be through meditation. And it was meditation that became more serious for The Beatles and me, and presenting that in our music.

Songfacts: Did you contribute any lyrics to Beatles songs?

Donovan: Yeah. A couple. But my relationship with John, Paul, George, and Ringo in India [Donovan and all four members of The Beatles visited India in February of 1968] was much more personal than adding a line to a song. We shared a lot of stuff in India. There was a famous line that I added to "Yellow Submarine," which isn't the greatest line in the world. What Paul McCartney was looking for was a fill. And I'm not the only one that has added lines to Beatles songs - I think Ringo came up with the word "Help!" in that song. There are holes in songs, sometimes.

But that was the actual adding of a line. More touching to me was when Lennon in India asked me to teach him the guitar style known as "the clawhammer," or "the Maybelle Carter guitar style." He was so fascinated by fingerstyle guitar that he immediately started to write in a different color and was very inspired. That's what happens when you learn a new style.

Paul learned the style too, and wrote "Blackbird." John learned the style, and wrote "Dear Prudence." George was more interested in my chord structures - A minor descents - and he came up with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." So, we were sharing these things.

I would say the funniest bit was "Yellow Submarine," coming up with "Sky of blue and sea of green, in our yellow submarine." He already had those words to the song, but he seemed to have a hole in the song. So I took his words and turned them around for him.

But John was writing songs from this guitar-picking style, which by the way, is all over The White Album. Hence, George said later in The Beatles Anthology, "Donovan is all over The White Album." I was giving them a return to their roots, really, and they needed it at that time when we were in India in '68. We were all looking back to where we came from.

In 1967, a few months before the trip to India, Donovan released an album of children's songs called For Little Ones. His record company tried to reject it, but he held firm. "The fantasy world of children is very important," he said. Another album for children, H.M.S. Donovan, followed in 1971.
But when John turned around and said he started a song about his mother called "Julia," it was very touching to sit cross-legged in the jungle in India, after meditating, on the roof. We were sitting there, and I was showing him a few more tricks. He said, "I've got this," and started writing a song about a mother that he never knew, really. He was trying to write a song about a childhood he never had, and that was very touching to me. He said, "You are the guy who writes the children's songs. Can you try and help me with this one?" So I may have added a line there.

But I'm not looking for credit on these. We were songwriters of the same ilk, on the level of producing three songs a day, really. In fact, if John was around, he'd be the same - he'd still be producing three songs a day. Just listening to a phrase, one can hear the melody ringing. John and I grew very close on that song. I may have added "seashell eyes" - I don't know. He wanted to write a song about walking along a beach with this mother, holding hands, because he never did that. And that was very touching. But the world will always remember the line of my work, of giving Paul a little bit of help with "Yellow Submarine."

Songfacts: Where did the images in "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" come from?

Donovan: You can see in many of the British singer-songwriters that we were able to make images. John Lennon and George Harrison were artists, Paul also makes sketches, Pete Townshend went to art school, I kind of went to art school - for a little bit, in a college. Joni Mitchell is an artist, of course. Bob Dylan can paint. So we were in art school or close to painting in a big way. So "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" is very, very paint-ily. When we put the painter's brush down and we picked up the guitar, a lot of the songwriters started "painting" songs.

You'd just have to think of John's "Picture yourself on a boat on a river" - you're actually in a movie or you're in a painting. "Tangerine trees and marmalade skies" - he's painting. So, "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" was really a paint-ily song - watching a sunset go down:

Color in sky, Prussian blue
Crimson ball sinks from view

It's a painting, really. We were very fascinated with painting, and when we stopped, we put them in the songs.

Songfacts: How did you feel about it when a soda was introduced called "Mello Yello"?

Donovan: We were asked to be involved at one point. They didn't want me to be involved - they just wanted to take the title. See, you can take a title, and it's not copyrighted unless you have made a product called "Mellow Yellow." Coke was in rivalry with Pepsi, because Pepsi had Mountain Dew. We offered the song.

I'm very active in commercials and TV series and film with my music, because I feel it's very important, and I've got more songs in commercials, series, and movies than I believe any other songwriter. I consider it really the new "super radio." Commercials are super radio, and I attract a lot of attention from music supervisors who wish to use my music, especially in the film world. But, when it was Coke, for Mello Yello, and they dropped the "W"s. The story goes that they could use the title, but they didn't have to use the song. So I didn't mind. And they didn't want the song. But then it didn't sell, so maybe they should have used the song after all.

Songfacts: Did the lyrics you write always make sense when you were writing them?

Donovan: It depends what kind of song you're speaking of. You see, I come from a tradition of natural poets, and for the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish, the tradition is very ancient. There were schools of poetry in Scotland until the 17th century. It is a tradition. That is why you will find a lot of Gaelic, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh last names among the most popular songwriters in the world. Woody Guthrie is a Scot, Cash is a Scottish name, and the Everly Brothers had Irish grannies.

So this tradition, the poetry comes very naturally to me. But does it make sense? No. It's different sense. Poetry is not prose. Poetry is a very specialized way of using words, and especially with music. Music and poetry must be together for its most powerful, because then you can hear the sound of the words. And so, they always make sense to me, my words.

Songfacts: Why did you do some of the "Jennifer Juniper" lyrics in French?

Donovan: Hey, I've got to try my hand! Like my pals The Beatles with "Michelle."

After I tried it, I asked my French pals what they thought of my French verse. They said, "What French verse?" My accent wasn't right. So, it was a trial. I don't sing in other languages.

Songfacts: That's one of your songs about a love from long ago. Does that make it challenging to perform?

Donovan: No, not really. They are fresh to me as always. We're all amazed that they still retain their power. When I sing them, I don't necessarily feel like I'm repeating something. Singing a very fine piece of work doesn't bother me at all. I enjoy it.

Every night, it's a different sound. It's a different reaction to the song. So no, I don't have any trouble singing songs. And artists should sing their body of work.

In this 50th year, it's very important, because 50 years of work is a long time. The great works of my generation, they come from the '60s and '70s, because we were so popular so young.

Songfacts: How did you get involved in the recording of the Alice Cooper song, "Billion Dollar Babies"?

Donovan: I'm not shy of trying any genre. That particular session, I was at Morgan Studios in London, and I just happened to be there when Alice was downstairs. He came up to say hello, and then he invited me to listen to what he was doing. He was particularly doing this song called "Billion Dollar Babies," and he said, "What do you think?" I listened.

Now, back in the '60s, I made some powerful rock songs myself, "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Barabajagal," working with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. I was no stranger to power rock. But the power rock he was doing was very interesting, because I loved the gothic/Edgar Allan Poe kind of Hammer Horror movies myself. I'm quite a fan of gothic literature.

So here was this guy that I just met, he played me the song, and said, "Would you like to put a vocal on?" I said, "OK. Give me the chorus." I listened to the chorus, and his guitar player was playing like Keith Richards - something very powerful that he'd learned from Keith or from Brian Jones in the Stones. And when I listened to the chorus, I said, "OK. I'll give it a go."

But I learned something: I had to sing in falsetto. Power bands in Britain had already learned that to have a singer in a power rock outfit, you need a singer who can go into falsetto. That's why you've got Robert Plant in Zeppelin, Jon Anderson with Yes. They have to raise their voices into the high range.

Chris Squire of Yes, who was a friend at the time, I said, "Why is it?" And he said, "Well, it's very easy. If you want your voice to be heard, you've got to climb above the guitars in the mid-range, or else you won't even hear the vocal." And it's true.

So, I immediately said, "Hey Alice, what do you think of [sings the song's title in falsetto - hear it in the clip above]?" So I did the falsetto, Alice loved it, and then I forgot about it, and never even thought about it, until someone told me later, it went to #1. And I was half the vocal! So Alice and I, when we meet, we have a chuckle and a laugh about it. It was a great pleasure. And the best thing about it was nobody knew it was me for so long!

August 10, 2016
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Comments: 1

  • Mark The Amp-shark from Aurora, Colorado - UsaDonovan's invaluable contribution to Billion Dollar Babies is likely what propelled that grotesque classic into popularity, his accent inflected a sinister but intellectual rationale that took the composition from circus tent to penthouse with addition of a single obtuse element - ingenious/serendipity! THANKS for the great old-school interview, Donovan is a largely-overlooked statesman of Rock! GREAT to learn he has been musical all along, and nice to see him boast proudly of his present level of accomplishment.
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