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John Doyle

He has a rhythmic guitar style like no other and his playing has become one of the defining features of today's contemporary Irish sound. Born in Dublin, John Doyle now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. Apart from his own solo work, he has played with Solas for four years, often records and tours with fiddler Liz Carroll and he has produced and appeared on dozens of albums by other artists.

This interview was recorded at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Scotland 2008.

Fiona:

Tell me how you got yourself from Dublin to end up in North Carolina?

Songwriter and Guitarist John DoyleJohn:

Oh my God that's a long story! I think, when I was doing a lot of music in Dublin, you know playing away there, and doing a lot on tour, and I was playing with a girl called Susan McKeown, who I'm sure you know. And she went over. She got a scholarship for this fame school, and so she went over there. And I joined her, maybe about six months later. I went for three months, and I ended up being fifteen years there! You know, a typical story. And ten years in New York City, which I loved, and then I went down. I was doing tours with Solas and I ended up going down to North Carolina and seeing Asheville, and I loved Asheville. It was a fantastic spot right in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, and I just ended up moving down there. In 2001 or something.

Fiona:

And of course Ashville: physically it's wonderful setting but then there's a music scene there that would appeal a lot to you as well.

John:

It's kind of like one of the few places that seems like it has an indigenous music to it. So it has old timey music, you know. A lot of hippies went down there in the late '60s, '70s and kind of set up shop because it was very cheap to live and they could afford it. A lot of artists. And so it became a community that lived there. And so when I went down in 2000 it was already a fantastic spot.

Fiona:

And you've embraced some of the music as well, and one of the great native sons of North Carolina being Doc Watson. You've recorded one of his songs, and you've found yourself drawn into a little bit of the sound of the old timey music and the songs of those mountains.

John:

You can't help but be influenced by it, you know. Like playing with Tim O'Brien and playing with Dirk Powell and all those great musicians, Bruce Molski and ... yeah. You get a feel for it, and you get a taste for music. And it has this quality that Irish music does and doesn't have, you know, it has a darkness to it, and a joy as well. It has the full encompassing effect of emotion.

You know, when you hear all these old time songs and you hear the correlation between Child ballads and some of the old Irish songs, you know like Pretty Saro would be a classic example where I'll be singing one version and hear their song, and go, oh well it's the same song, only separated by a hundred years! And an ocean!

You keep on hearing these same themes. You'll hear The Mountain Road and you'll hear all these various different tunes, and then they might have the A part in the Irish form or the Scottish form and the B part is crooked! I love that. I love the idea that it came over and kind of morphed into something completely different.

Fiona:

And someone else who would appreciate the roots of all these old songs and ballads would be your Dad who's quite a resource for songs himself, and has been a great source of inspiration for yourself.

John:

He never actually literally taught me any songs. I always wondered why that was! But we learned it kind of through osmosis, you know, through hearing him and his joy of learning songs and going out and singing. He didn't sing all that much. We used to go out and see my grandfather playing. He used to play the accordion and my father would go to Sligo as well and we'd all listen to him, because we spent our holidays there. And so I think it was from there, you know, hearing that love of the music and hearing those songs, those old traditional songs, old translations of Irish songs. Hearing that from the years of eight on I loved traditional music and I think mainly because of that. And I never really delved into other stuff because I always felt that that was part of what I was.

Fiona:

You've worked with him to produce an album of his songs and his singing. What was that like for you?

John:

Like taming a wild beast! It's really funny working with your father or with your family. I totally enjoyed every minute of it, but when you get into the studio he's a real traditional singer. So, he would sing it, once, and I would go, well maybe we could do it again one more time. And he'd maybe adhere to that, once. And all I'd ever get out of him was three times. You know, he'd give me the look, the family look, you know. Ok, ok I won't go on any more! So the idea of producing him was pretty funny. But he really enjoyed it. We went down to Louisiana, we went to Derek Powell's place down there. My mother and father came there so they had a ball, you know. Down by the bayous on Lake Martin. They'd go for walks but they didn't realise they were right next to alligators! They'd go for four miles of a walk right beside Lake Martin and alligators right along the whole way. Then they'd come back and say, we've just had a lovely walk. And Derek would say, well do you know that alligators can actually run faster than you?

John Doyle with Fiona Ritchie at Celtic Connections 2008, Glasgow, ScotlandFiona:

Fiona Ritchie still with you, along with guitarist, singer, song writer and producer, my guest, John Doyle. Tell us how you crafted that signature guitar style?

John:

When I started playing the guitar, I started as a bet, to see whether I could play the guitar or not, and I won the bet. But from that moment, I really got enthused by it, to say the least. You know I was obsessed by it, the idea that I was listening to, on the folk side, on the English folk side, I loved Martin Carthy, I loved Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, and John Martyn on the Scottish side. And I listened to all these very closely to see how they were playing and what tunings they were in. But the thing was I had played upside down for two and a half years. I hadn't my own guitar, I had my father's guitar, so I played upside down. And so from strumming upside down I had to go on the upbeat first ...

Fiona:

This is because of your left-handedness?

John:

Yes, my left-handedness, yes.

Fiona:

We just don't want people to think you were standing on your head!

John:

Yes! Or I just turned it round for the crack! So I had to go up, down to up from the bass to treble, you know. So that kind of created this kind of upbeat to a degree when I finally turned the guitar around. So that was one reason why I play the way I play, with the solid upbeat. And then, the other thing is that I would listen to Arty McGlynn as well and Paul Brady on the Irish side, and Dick Gaughan and John Martyn on the Scottish side and all these great players. And then from that you just kind of eventually get your own style of playing. You never really stop developing your style, or at least maybe you shouldn't. You know, you keep on learning from people. So when I went to hear old timey music it changed again a little bit and when I played with Tim (O’Brien) it changed a little bit again. You know, because you have to. You have to change and fit in with certain things. Not play Bluegrass - I could never play that way - but I could play a certain way. So I kind of found a middle ground.

Fiona:


Change and adaptation have been the hallmark of your career really because that's a lot of what you do. I mean you've played for years with Solas, and we came to understand what you were doing first through their albums, but then you've played on really countless other people's albums, produced other people's albums and that's really what your career's been about in recent times, just working with loads of different people.

John:

Yeah. I love that. I love music. And I really do think it’s a family of musicians, never mind a world, but a family of musicians that I am part of. They are a family to me, you know. Because I travel so much and I meet people on the road all the time and when you see them, it's like seeing your brother, you know. It's like seeing your sisters. They have this kind of thing. And you maybe have a few days with them, and you hang out and have fun and whatever. And then when you produce someone, or when you play with somebody you're kind of speaking a vocabulary between the two of you, you know. And I love that feeling of collaboration. And I think if I was in one thing for any length of time I would just get bored, you know. I don't know if I could do it. Cause I like the idea of being able to learn music and having that wide range of feeling from music.

Fiona:


One musical conversation that we've enjoyed eavesdropping on has been the one between you and Liz Carroll in recent times. And it's just lovely to hear the conversation between your’s and her instruments. Well you can just tell by listening to the music that you're both enjoying it greatly. Maybe you can tell us a bit about that collaboration.

John:

Well, I love Liz. Liz is one of my favourite people in the world, and not only that, she’s as close to a genius as I think of as far as music is concerned. She really is. So when you play with her, you have to be aware at all times of what's going on, you know. And when you play her tunes, when she brings out a new tune, you know, she's very pointed in what she needs as far as what I would bring, and then I would bring in other stuff. So we have this kind of communication between the two of us in that way, you know? The only time we ever have an argument is when we're in the studio, you know! Because we each have definite opinions about it. On the road, it's the most hilarious time we'll have. You've interviewed Liz. Something always goes on with her, you know? It's great crack.

And if you hear a session anywhere, there's a good chance you'll hear a Liz Carroll tune.

Fiona:


Yes, the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year Awards that are held at Celtic Connections: one of the finalists also included a Liz Carroll tune. And again, just to know that the music is percolating down to the upcoming generations, obviously her music's just become part of the scene.

We look forward to more “Wayward Sons,” also your production work, and no doubt our paths will cross here or over there, so good luck with it all. It's great to talk to you.

John:


Thanks Fiona.