John Doyle: "We All Need To Spread a Bit More Happiness and Joy Rather Than Being Self-Contained"
Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter John Doyle, born in Dublin, later based in Asheville, NC, is considered one of the world's best acoustic guitarists. This versatile gentleman with a soothing voice and a signature left-hand finger-picking style has been an inspiration for folk guitar players since the nineties. Having toured the world with numerous premium musicians, he feels that music does bring people together: "Musicians, even artists, are like my brothers and sisters; they're like family to me because we speak the same language. And I love communicating that way."
This interview was done after the long-awaited live performance of Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle trio in Café V lese music club, Prague, in October 2022.
John, before we get to your rich music experience, let’s have a look at your latest solo album, Path of Stones, released in 2020, which is actually your 4th one. You are also the author of the lyrics here. What was your inspiration for the album title track, "Path of Stones"? It sounds to be more complex than a standard love song.
It's an interesting song to relate to because, on the one hand, it's a simple story of love if you really think of it that way. But it was based on a commission that I got to write from W. B. Yeats poems. It was in his early period of poetry, which was very mythological. And so I picked little bits from the poem itself, like the "path of stones" and a few different things. Then I also picked a lot from his life about a woman named Maud Gonne, who was his lover and muse, and they were never together. But he did love her all his life. So the song is about that, but also there's a little bit of mortality in it, about life and death. There's the last verse where it goes, "I've been a salmon in the pool, a wild deer running fleetly, the savage soul of man". That is from one of the very earliest poems that came out of Ireland, written by a man called Amergin. That poem was shamanistic. It was a magic poem in early Ireland, a creation poem. It comes from about the time of Christ. So there's a lot in that song.
On this album that you produced yourself, you play 6-string and 12-string guitar, harmonium, sing the lead and back vocals, and you wrote all the songs and tunes. Is this self-reliance actually your preference at this stage of your life as a musician?
I like doing solo work because it's a big challenge. Not only playing the instruments and all of that, but from doing solo gigs and being able to hold an audience with one person because a lot of my heroes would have been those types of people – like Andy Irvine, for example, or Nick Jones or Martin Carthy. All these folk acts like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, they were all able to hold an audience just by playing the guitar, singing or telling stories. And I love that. But I also enjoy being a sideman because it's fun to learn new material and to be part of it. I really feel that musicians, even artists, are like my brothers and sisters; they're like family to me because we speak the same language. And I like communicating that way. Does it make any sense?
It surely does. You have appeared on stage with many outstanding musicians, such as Karan Casey, Liz Carroll, Kate Rusby, Heidi Talbot, Tim O’Brien, Julie Fowlis, Linda Thompson, Joan Baez, McGoldrick / McCusker trio. And Solas, of course. By the way, is there any collaboration which would stand out for you?
Each one is really important in its own way. It's very hard to say. Solas was very important because it really brought me to a place where I toured and travelled a lot and saw a lot of things. And it also made my name, I suppose, and I was able to play professionally, properly. I was playing professionally before that, but it put me into a different category. But then I liked all of them, I loved playing with Liz because we played for ten years and she's an amazing musician. Karan is a good friend. Or Mick McAuley, I'm playing with right now. I love playing with them, but you know we are like brothers with John and Mike, we live very similar lives, so there's a lot of camaraderie between the three of us.
Being a member of Solas, a supergroup, as they call it, must have been a tremendous experience. How did it feel about leaving such a thriving project in its prime?
It was because I needed to expand. I realized playing with them that I couldn't just do one thing and be happy because I felt that I had limited time to experience as much music as possible. And it was a full-time job, it was constant. Sometimes it just comes to light that after a certain amount of time, you get a little bit tired of it. The reason why I play with so many different people is that I think I get bored easily. (laughs) It's not that I don't like it, each one, but if I were doing one thing, even myself, just doing myself, I'd be very bored with it. It keeps me energized in music, having a multifaceted kind of arrangement where you're playing with three or four different bands, and that really gets your brain working because you have to think differently for each thing. I play a certain way, and I'm always going to play a certain way, but when you work differently, it does make a difference.
You have experience with different music styles, such as Irish trad, bluegrass and folk. Should music stay within the lines, or do you learn the rules to break them? Is there any purity whatsoever?
I think there's purity in it all. But there's also the idea that you expand on something that's traditional. Traditional music doesn't mean that it was written yesterday or two or ten years ago, or 100 years ago. It's different from that. I could be singing songs that are 700 years old, or quoting poetry that's 2000 years old, if you think of it that way, like the "Path of Stones". But then it's relevant for today because it's the same human context, the same human emotions. And so when I think of music, I think of it as it's never dated in one way or another. It just depends on how you play it. If it brings it to a wider audience, that's great.
So let's say, the Pogues, that wouldn't be traditional in any way. And yes, they brought it to a wider audience, and maybe some of them will listen to earlier singers, and they'll listen to really traditional players and then find traditional music from there. I like to try and move things along in a different way, a different harmonic sense. And sometimes, I like to make it very traditional, and at other times I want to make it really not traditional. I do think there are certain things that you don't break. But things change, people play differently, and the new generation of people that come after me that might be influenced by me will do different things, some of which I won't like. But it'll make sense in the context because traditional music will not break. It won't go away just because one person changes it.
Your music companion Mike McGoldrick said that after all that world fusion music he's been doing, he still prefers the trad he plays with you and J. McCusker most.
Yes, because I think, after a time, you get back, and you play what you love at the end of the day. I'm the same way. It's so easy with Mike and John because they're such accomplished musicians in many different ways that it makes it easy because I can go and say: "I've just written a song, and I'd really love to do it tomorrow". And they go: okay. Then I'll play it for them and we'll come up with some arrangements. So that's a huge thing for me because that makes me really less bored with things and makes me energized. Because you're trying to express yourself all the time, and I think it makes things fresh.
So with this kind of approach, you've probably never got to a stage in your life when you stopped enjoying music or felt it was too much of it, is that correct?
No, I never did. There's always this kind of ebbs and flows. It depends on your mood and where you are in life. Before COVID, I was very tired, but it wasn't from the music but from travelling and working constantly. When you have children, you tend to work constantly. (laughs) So when it happened, we all had a break. It really changed a lot of musicians' perspectives. For the first while, we enjoyed it. After a while, it became very claustrophobic. And then we were happy to get back on the road again. But we did learn a lot of lessons, one of which is that we push ourselves very hard all the time – it's not the music, it's the travel and the lack of eating well and missing your family and so on. You need to have a balance.
Talking about touring. Are there any festivals you enjoy most anywhere in the world? Any favourites?
I do have my favourites. Like Tønder Festival, I love going there, it's in Denmark. Or the Celtic Connections, of course, which is a three-week festival in Glasgow. I do that every year, and I always look forward to playing there. There are lots of American Irish festivals that I love going to. Lorient is always special. There are a few in Spain that are great. And in America, there's one particular that I love going to, it's called the National Folk Festival because they change to different cities every three years to help the city grow. So I think it's great ‘cause you meet so many different musicians from Native Americans through bluegrass people to Mexican musicians, and you can get to play with every one of them.
You are a music teacher, too, and the author of many courses and tutorials. What is your calling in doing that?
I think in the last 20 years, there have been a lot more people interested in learning instruments after they've retired or to help them with other things, with emotional issues, or just to connect with other people. And so I see that the reason people play is for communication, with themselves or with other people. And so if I can be a facilitator to help people emotionally and I can give a little bit of support and they get some joy and happiness out of it, then I think that means a lot. And if someone else hears them and they're enjoying the music and they laugh or smile and feel good, then that makes all the difference. I think we all need to spread a little bit more happiness and joy in the world rather than being selfish and self-contained.
Watching you play, one feels that there are no limits to what can be played on the guitar. (laughs)
Well, there are plenty of things I can't play, even though some people have done them. There's a certain sustain that you can't get that the cello or a fiddle can, or a flute can. So you have to play it differently to make it sound more suited for the guitar. When I was a child, I went straight to folk music and never deviated from that. I love the guitar, and I really try to focus on it so that I can be as deep into the tradition as I possibly can in my genre of music.
Even though the guitar is actually not a traditional Irish instrument, is it?
No. But it really started in the seventies, and it made a lot of sense in the way that it's played. It quickly became part of the tradition, similarly to a bouzouki, which is a Greek instrument.
You are a phenomenal player for both finger-picking, as well as rhythmical accompaniment. Whom have you followed, or are you self-taught?
My two main people for the strumming guitar were Arty McGlynn and Paul Brady because they both had this particular style. There were little shades of Steve Cooney in there, too. And for the backing up of singing, I followed a lot of English folk, such as Martin Carthy, Nick Jones, Richard Thompson, all these. Also, my brother used to bring back lots of blues and jazz recordings, so I'd hear different types of music and started playing a little bit of this and that. So everybody forms your style, you don't get it from the air but from all these people that you hear. I moved to the US in 1991, and there I was exposed to different music, such as bluegrass. In '92 I did a tour with a bunch of bluegrass players, Ralph Stanley and other great musicians. And I started to hear American traditional music properly for the first time.
Insounder deals a lot with gear and practical tips for musicians. What is the best type of guitar in your genre, could you name any brands that you would recommend?
Sure, I have a few different ones. So the main one I've been using of late is made by a man called Kevin Muiderman. He's also a reconstructive surgeon, so he's very good at what he does (laughs), but he's a good friend of mine, and he's helped me to find tones and different types of guitars and things. And he's made my bouzoukis for me. I got two Fylde guitars recently, they're from England. He's also a great maker, he used to supply Nick Jones, Martin Carthy and Martin Simpson, and they're all heroes of mine. Then there's a great Irish guitar that I have, called Lowden, that I love as well, but I have one that I got in the early nineties, and it's my favourite one to record certain things on. So never ask what's the one instrument that we have because, especially guitar players, we have so many. (laughs) For certain things, I'd play certain instruments because if I'm playing very hard and I'm playing strumming like with Liz or with Mike and John, then I'll play a certain type of guitar, like heavy and in a different tuning as well. In Prague, I was playing the Fylde. It's a new guitar, so I'm breaking it in again, and I'm hitting it very hard. (laughs)
Yes, I've noticed you have been tuning it a lot. (laughs) By the way, do you still use the drop D tuning that you are known for?
Yes, I use drop D tuning when I'm backing up songs or tunes or things like that. And then for solo and for my own songs, I use C modal tuning. So it's c, f, c, g, c, d from the bass string. It gives me more freedom to work with voicings on the guitar to suit how I sing and how I play. I've played this since I was 16.
Let's move to the stage. How do you do sound at live gigs – you have been using two pickups, one for the bass strings, is that so?
I used to do that two years ago. And the sound of my playing is very like that anyway, so I didn't really need it as much. On most of my instruments, I have a K&K pickup. And I've got this one that has a mike and a pickup in the guitar. So it gives a little bit of mike sound as well to the natural sound because, without some sort of mike, it sounds a bit artificial, I think. And then I've got an LR Baggs on the Fylde, and that works out fine as well – it's nice. That has a mike and pickup in it too, and I run it through my own DI box with echo and things on it.
You’re a Grammy award winner (Tim O’Brien: Fiddler’s Green), and you have received two Grammy nominations (Solas, Liz Carroll). Is there anything more to be achieved or to be heading to at all?
I suppose there's always a place to head to, you know. To write the perfect song. (laughs)
A number one hit? (laughs)
Oh, not a hit. (laughs) Just a perfect song. A song for me that's a hit doesn't mean that it's monetarily successful. It's two different things. I've never gone for the money ever, which is a funny thing to say, but it's true. If I spent my time learning to write to make money, it would be a very different type of song I'd be writing. But with traditional music, the highest compliment that you can get is that other people sing your song, and they think it's part of the tradition. And it becomes part of the flow of what traditional singers and players play. That's the highest compliment, and you've succeeded in that way if that can happen.
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