REPUBLIC OF DOYLE
From Petty Harbour to International Stardom
Jennifer Wood meets Alan Doyle
Alan Doyle is one of Atlantic Canada’s greatest success stories. The former front man of the folk-rock band Great Big Sea is a gifted singer-songwriter, musician, actor, producer and author and prolific philanthropist. At 48, the Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, native has spent more than half his life in the business. His most recent work, A Week at the Warehouse, his third solo album, which was recorded at a Gastown studio in Vancouver, accomplished exactly what Doyle set out for it to do: it sounds and feels like a live show — killer live show at that. The album is a compilation of 11 tracks that pay tribute to country, rock and folk while paying respect to the sounds of some of his favourite artists, including John Mellencamp and the Payolas.
Doyle’s career, accomplishments and recognition far surpass anything he could have imagined. One of his most notable tributes was being named to the Order of Canada for “his contributions to the musical traditions of his province and for his commitment to numerous local charities.” His most recent philanthropic endeavour is his leadership role in the A Dollar A Day Foundation, which encourages people to give a dollar a day towards mental health awareness, outreach and initiatives. His clout and reach as a public figure have inspired other Canadian icons, including Jann Arden and Sidney Crosby, to add their voice to this mission.
Doyle has some major acting chops too. He has shared the screen with the likes of long-time friend and collaborator, Russell Crowe (Alan has written songs with and for him, and they have produced and performed together), Cate Blanchett, Will Smith and Colin Farrell. One of his first acting roles was alongside Crowe in Robin Hood – he was a quick study and took to the gig like a pro.
The Maritime Edit caught up with Doyle at his home in St. John’s, where he was enjoying a reprieve between legs of a hectic North American tour. We discussed his humble yet idyllic childhood in Petty Harbour, his time fronting one of Canada’s most revered bands and the band’s subsequent retirement, his wildly successful solo career, his two novels and his deep-rooted ties to home. Poking fun at himself and telling stories leaving you in fits of laughter, Doyle makes you feel comfortable the moment you meet him.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Congratulations on A Week at The Warehouse and your successful tour. How did you assemble your bandmates for the Beautiful Band?
ALAN DOYLE: Thank you, I am really happy with the album. When Great Big Sea was coming off the road and I was gearing up to perform with my own band I had a dream team in mind of musicians that I knew personally and professionally. I have fallen in love with playing live concerts with them. When we set out to make this third record, I wanted to record it live off the floor with them so that people would get a real sense of what an Alan Doyle concert sounds and feels like. My intention as a performer has always been to give people the greatest night out of their lives.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You have travelled the world doing what you love but do you relish in the feeling of going home?
ALAN DOYLE: At the end of a tour, sometimes all I can think about is coming home to St. John’s and enjoying the life that I have here. I dream about doing everyday things like spending time with my son and wife, tackling a to-do list, piling wood, getting groceries or changing the snow tires.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What was it like starting out in the music business?
ALAN DOYLE: Growing up and playing music in Petty Harbour was never like a music recital. It was an inclusive experience. I always say the best singer in Petty Harbour wasn’t the one that could hit the highest notes, but the singer that could get the most people to sing along. Similarly, the best accordion player wasn’t the one that could play the fastest, but the one that could keep the dance floor the fullest. I still very much think that a concert is like that — a concert is something that you do together, you and the audience. I think people love to go to a concert and feel that they were a part of it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Whom do you credit for your decision to pursue a life in the arts?
ALAN DOYLE: My parents are both musicians. My dad is a singer and my mom, an accomplished piano teacher. In Petty Harbour, the Doyles were a bit on the fringes in that none of my immediate or extended family worked in the fishery. Instead they worked with my grandfather and his brother, who ran the hydroelectric plant in town. I think this allowed us to look outward, even in a small way. Also, my mother insisted my siblings and I earn a university degree. We could come back and live in her basement if we wanted to, but she always encouraged us to consider what was beyond the four walls of Petty Harbour.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How have your early experiences influenced the way you feel about your success and the means that you now have?
ALAN DOYLE: I was lucky because we grew up in this little fishing town where we were probably right in the middle of the economic scale, so to speak. By that I mean we didn’t feel more or less poor than anybody else. I had nothing to compare my economic life to other than somebody across the road, and their economic life was very similar to mine. I had no idea that people my age in the city of St. John’s and certainly across Canada had more than one VCR or flew on airplanes and went to schools that had gyms and labs — you just made the most of what you had. In retrospect, it was the greatest childhood ever. Everything was there. There was lots to eat; we were warm; there were songs to sing and sports to play with other kids running up and down the hills. I mean what else could you want for when you are 12?
I would be lying if I told you that I ever gave the concept of money or having it much consideration. Having a financially sparse young life prepared me for being on the road with a band. One of the things that we talked about early on with Great Big Sea as we started touring was that we had to share rooms. This concept didn’t even faze me. I had never had my own room in my life! The long hours of touring also felt effortless. I started working on the wharf when I was ten cutting out fish tongues and helping fisherman unload cod traps, so this transition was a dream. What’s that? You want me to sing a few songs with a band? Well, I think I can manage that. Relax in a car with my thoughts to myself surrounded by my bandmates for hours on end? I have no problem with that either. I guess what might be perceived as challenges to others seemed simple and easy through my lens. So yes, my early life was a blessing.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Where were you when you received the call you were being named a member of the Order of Canada, and what did that feel like?
ALAN DOYLE: I was sitting right here in this chair. My manager called and said, “The office of the Governor-General is looking for you!” I instantly thought that I had to be in trouble — I don’t know, maybe I had said something about the Queen? Being recognized was a nice surprise. But I fully appreciate that there are many from this area that have the same commitment to sharing our musical heritage and giving back to our communities, so I was incredibly honoured to accept the recognition on their behalf.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What is it about coming home after a tour that makes you appreciate your home life?
ALAN DOYLE: I like coming home because it’s where my family and my friends are. This is where I grew up and I know it sounds ethereal, but this is where I belong. I don’t need to think about why I would come home; I often need to think about why I would leave. My default position is here, and I have come to realize how lucky I am to have that. Many people either can’t go home, for whatever reason, or have no concept of what home is or what that feels like.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Do people respect your privacy when you are home in St. John’s?
ALAN DOYLE: Sure. In St. John’s and in Petty Harbour I’m still and I will always be “Bernie’s brother.” I mean — come on — imagine trying to be a rock star in St. John’s? Seriously! Picture someone like me rolling up in front of The Duke [of Duckworth] in a Hummer with gold wheels or something like that… I would be assaulted!
THE MARITIME EDIT: What does a stellar night look like for you now, and how has it changed over the years?
ALAN DOYLE: Oh, I can have a great night out doing many things, and I am a big fan of various kinds of nights out. I am happy to sit in a pub and chat with friends and strangers. I love going out to watch sports with my son, going to the theatre or staying home and watching television! I am lucky because I get to experience so many different kinds of great nights out.
But probably my favourite night out is the one that I am professionally engaged to do. I know that that may sound clinical, but I take my responsibility as a performing musician seriously. To think that someone would go and get a babysitter or get on an airplane, pay for a ticket, roll into whatever town that I might be playing in and give me their night is a big deal to me. The ticket price is one thing, but for someone to give me their time is huge. I feel that there is a serious obligation for me to make sure that it was worth it for them. I know how difficult it is to get a night out sometimes, and I am always honoured when people give their night to me.
THE MARITIME EDIT: With the responsibility for and commitment to your fans’ experience in mind, is it difficult for you when a concert doesn’t go as well as you would have hoped?
ALAN DOYLE: To be honest, no. Not really. That is the beauty of being a live performer. You get to go back and do it again the next night — do it better. But there is always something that goes wrong, whether the glitch be technical or whatever. That is just the beauty of a live performance. It’s an opportunity for people to realize that a live concert is a human experience. There have been times, and it has happened very rarely, where I came offstage and knew that everything had been perfect: The technical side was great; the music and audience were fantastic. Everything was bang on … except me. Those are the most devastating nights — when I know that it would have been perfect and the only thing that was off was me. But that is OK. Any musician that has said that that has never happened to them is a liar!
I brought my friends to a mini-premiere of Robin Hood at the Avalon Mall in St. John’s. I remember feeling so proud and excited. But 20 minutes before the film started I had this cold feeling hit me. I became terrified and paranoid as I started to think, “Holy s*** If they don’t like this there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.” It wasn’t like a concert — I couldn’t shift gears, tell stories, ramp up the crowd — the film was set in stone.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Your performance in Robin Hood was excellent. How did that part, and acting in general, come to be?
ALAN DOYLE: I met Russell Crowe in early 2000 when he was in Toronto. He was a fan of Great Big Sea. We met following one of our concerts, and he asked if I could write some songs for his band in Australia, which I was happy to do. We co-wrote additional songs for various Great Big Sea records and later a song for a movie. One day I received a call from Russell and he asked if I could play the lute. He said that he had a movie coming up and they were looking for an Irish-sounding man that could play the lute. A few months later, I went to L.A. for a table reading. I sat with the lute on my lap, read lines and I got the gig for Robin Hood. It was very surreal.
THE MARITIME EDIT: That must have been an entirely different life than the one you were used to.
ALAN DOYLE: It was the steepest learning curve I had ever experienced. The role was incredibly demanding and called for a lot of stunts, dialogue, jokes and songs. But it was insanely fun. I felt like I was getting to walk in someone’s backyard, so to speak. I was surrounded by the greatest filmmakers on the planet: from directors, stunt people, set designers, cameramen, actors, horse trainers, you name it — the best of the best were all there. It was incredible to be surrounded by that kind of talent.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Were you confident in your acting abilities throughout the process?
ALAN DOYLE: God, no! I didn’t have a clue! I had performer instincts, but I had to learn acting skills on the spot. I was lucky because we were all friends. I would get a quick tutorial before we would shoot a scene and we would take it from there. But I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about my performance. Honestly, I was too busy trying not to drown, fall off the horse, get an arrow in the eye and trying to remember to not stand in front of someone while they were on camera.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Are you still pursuing acting roles?
ALAN DOYLE: Truthfully, I don’t now nor have I ever pursued roles, but I always end up getting jobs.
THE MARITIME EDIT: So, no waiting by the phone wishing it to ring? You are the luckiest actor alive!
ALAN DOYLE: I know — other actors must hate my guts! Some of my friends are among the top tier of the acting world and they are all the same — every one of them are wondering where their next job is coming from. I don’t envy the actor’s lot in life. The performing and the doing is one thing, but the other components would be incredibly challenging.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The disbanding of Great Big Sea isn’t called a break up but a retirement. How did you come to such amicable agreements when you were parting ways?
ALAN DOYLE: My opinion about the whole thing was that I didn’t want us to burn the ship to the ground fighting over it. When Séan [McCann] decided he wanted out, we tried to find a harmonious way to go on without him, and in the end, we knew that we couldn’t do it without a fight. I was quick to raise my hand and say, “I don’t want to fight about this. I would rather part the ship and get back on it when everyone is happy about it again. I don’t want the last thing that we do, after 20-plus years of looking after each other to have a big racket.” And that is where we left it.
In all honesty, the last year of Great Big Sea felt like we needed to take a break anyway. That is a long time to spend in a band. The last thing that I would ever want anyone to think is that I blame anyone for the parting or that someone drove the bus into the cliff. I think we had a great run and I am grateful for it. Specifically, I am grateful to Séan and Bob [Hallett], who were my business partners for a large part of my adult life. They taught me most of what I know about traditional music.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What does a day at home in St. John’s look like?
ALAN DOYLE: Mostly husband and father stuff. I get my little fella up and ready and take him to school, then come home to walk my dog and tackle a to-do list that my wife gives me. When I am home for a while, I can usually get caught up on that and I spend more time in my studio. I usually produce one record a year for other musicians. I’ve produced one for Russell [Crowe], my sister, Michelle, The Irish Descendants and for other friends. I really enjoy producing and working on other people’s music. In this role, I am working for music’s sake. I’m not there to consider how the song will sound live or worry about the writing. My job is to make the record sound as good as it can be. It’s a refreshing process.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What are your favourite places on the East Coast?
ALAN DOYLE: I love Iona; it’s at the split in the land of Cape Breton Island. It could be in Lord of the Rings. I also love Halifax and its mix of people from all over the country and the world, and yet it still has an East Coast feeling. We recently took a family holiday on the north shore of PEI, and that was incredible. I think Moncton is one of the best cities in the country. Moncton was the first bilingual city I played in, and I always love the duality that it represents. My favourite restaurants are Leo’s Fish and Chips in St. John’s and The Lower Deck and Bluenose II in Halifax.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You speak a lot about luck and gratitude when you talk about your career and many achievements. Where does this humble sentiment stem from?
ALAN DOYLE: Most successful people in the arts, who get to do it at all, are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do what inspires them. I think that is true no matter the level artists are performing at. I also think that the most content people are the most grateful. Ninety nine percent of the people that I have met in the arts are aware that their success is the result of a team that has made it happen. I was lucky early on in my career to have been tangled up with an incredible band and manager, a great crew and all the people that have stuck with me, even since Great Big Sea stopped playing together. Trust me, I couldn’t get out of bed without these people and the influence they have on me.
This story originally appeared in The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here.