By David DeRocco
“The long road’s behind us” declares Alan Doyle on SO LET’S GO, the eponymous lead-off track on the new solo album from the longtime voice of Great Big Sea. And yet, with everything going on in Alan’s life – a new album, a new memoir and a new solo tour that brings him to Hamilton February 3rd – it seems the long musical road that’s taken him to the pinnacle of the Canadian music scene has no definitive end in sight. SO LET’S GO is a quick-burning fuse of a song that ignites this rollicking 10-track collection, an inviting slice of East Coast Canadiana that proves consistent with Alan Doyle’s personal ethos: we’re lucky to be here so let’s make the most of it. Entering the studio for the recording of this, his second solo album, Doyle was definitely ready to make the most of the opportunity.
“I came in asking all the people around me – the label people, the studio, the musicians involved – to keep asking me to raise the bar,” explains Doyle on his conscious decision to take this album in a much different direction that his well-received but more experimental solo debut, 2012’s Boy On Bridge. “I wanted 10 or 11 fist-pumping songs. I told them ‘I don’t want good I want great, I want everyone on board to hit a home run.’ I kept trying to raise the bar and re-invent the songs. It was a challenge but in a way that it normally is.”
One of the initial challenges was trying to decide which songs to record; after a flurry of writing for the new album, Doyle found he had 53 new songs in his demo folder – a career output for a songwriter of lesser acclaim. Working in collaboration with a crew that included Thomas ‘Tawgs’ Salter (Lights, Walk Off The Earth), Jerrod Bettis (Adele, Serena Ryder), Gordie Sampson (Keith Urban, Willie Nelson), and Joe Zook (OneRepublic, Katy Perry), Doyle recorded 25 “really extensive demos”, fully producing 15 of them before paring them down to the eventual final 10. Looking back on the process, Doyle acknowledges there were different strategies involved during this recording and his first venture away from his Great Big Sea bandmates.
“The Boy On Bridge record was as much a physical journey as musical,” says Doyle, as affable as you would expect a man raised in the small fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland to be. “I was stepping off the Great Big Sea mother ship to make music in my own back yard, to do it my way, with no end game in mind. It was a bit more whimsical in that regard. I was totally content to have a country song recorded in Nashville, to record a rock song in St. John, an orchestral song in L.A. It was an experiment, not focused in any way, just fun. This record was a focused attempt to take all my musical background and influences growing up, to bring them into a room with people making music successfully in Canada, and just take what they do to create music.”
The news of another Alan Doyle solo album will undoubtedly raise concerns for the dedicated fans of Great Big Sea, especially given their success. Fusing traditional Newfoundland music with their own pop sensibilities, the band’s nine albums, double-disc hits retrospective and two DVD releases have been declared Gold or Platinum and have sold a combined 1.2 million copies in Canada alone. However, Doyle is quick to dispel any notion of hard feelings or mixed emotions between his band mates Sean McCann, Bob Hallett and Darrell Power when it comes to solo records – personal side projects that have often been divisive for bands of musicians with Jagger/Richards-sized egos at their core.
“Long before I did anything outside of the band, Sean and Bob did solo records,” Doyle says supportively. “We always encouraged it. The great thing about Great Big Seas was, there was no break. It was full on for 20 years. I was always grateful. The first step off the ship I made was one I made with intense curiousity. We made almost all Great Big Sea records in Newfoundland except one. With the first solo record I wanted to do something different, to record the way Gordie (Downie) or Hawksley (Workman) did in Ontario.”
Is there any difference in writing songs for a solo project versus writing for musicians with whom you’ve spent the last two decades playing together? Doyle says it’s all about writing with the end result in mind.
“All my recent songwriting was for this record. I was focused on trying to find the best vehicles for me to wrap a big song around a little guy from Petty Harbour. There’s a time for writing songs for the band. It’s satisfying to write for the guys around you and the talents they have. It would be a shameful to write a Great Big Sea song without room for Sean’s bodhrán or an accordion for Bob.”
Doyle’s recently proven he’s also equally adept at writing for print, having channeled his creative energies into his best-selling biography, Where I Belong. The book is a lyrical and captivating musical memoir that could have inspired a classic SCTV sketch – a tale of a fishin’ musician who rises from his humble roots in a small coastal village on the Rock to become a renowned ambassador for the musical traditions of his home province. Inspired by such scandalous rock bios as The Dirt, which chronicles the legendary drug-fuelled debauchery of Motley Cure, and David Lee Roth’s Crazy from the Heat expose on his heyday with Van Halen, Doyle set out on a sentimental journey with the expressed purpose of paying homage to the blessings he’s received in his life.
“I look at my young life in the book and there’s always a sentiment of great gratitude,” he says fondly. “It’s amazing how incredibly lucky I was. There is stuff in my adult life I can take responsibility for. I can’t take any responsibility for being born into a great family, a great town, a great time to live in that town. That just kind of happened. I had no idea how much my young life prepared me for the greatest job in Newfoundland history when it became available, when Sean was looking for a singer for Great Big Sea. What could be better than that?”
Now that Doyle’s had a publishing experience in both the print and music industries, the obvious question arises: who is more apt to rip off an artist, a book publisher or a record company?
“Drywallers,” he says with a knowing laugh. “Honestly, I’ve always said this about the music industry, and now the book publishing industry, that I’ve never understood the legend of the big mean music man behind the label. I never encountered a single person in the record industry who didn’t want success. Why wouldn’t you? It could be my good fortune or maybe a good attitude.”
That attitude of gratitude has been instrumental in guiding both Great Big Sea and now, his solo career, to spiraling levels of success. Doyle says his greatest success, however, is measured by something different than fame, fortune or hit records.
“For me, success is getting to do it again tomorrow. That’s it. I’m still in the game. I joke about it, but it’s true. Twenty years ago when asked, I’d say ‘I’m getting into the music business because I want to play for a lifetime.’ Not to get rich, to have the biggest single, a villa in Spain. I wasn’t getting on a bus to tour cross Canada to get rich, it was just to do it. It’s the journey, not the destination. The game is the victory.”