Anyone who has listened to Irish/Celtic music the last two decades has almost certainly – sometime, somewhere – heard Dublin native John Doyle. Perhaps it was with Solas, the trailblazing Irish American, Grammy-nominated band he co-founded; or one of his memorable duets with fiddler Liz Carroll (a partnership that produced the Grammy-nominated album “Double Play”); or in practically innumerable supporting roles with such performers as Eileen Ivers, Karan Casey, Seamus Egan, Cathie Ryan, Cherish the Ladies, Cathal McConnell and Mick Moloney; or various appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion,” “The Today Show,” National Public Radio, PBS and other TV and radio outlets.
Doyle has branched out into American music as well, playing with stalwarts like Joan Baez (he was music director on one of her recent tours), Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tim O’Brien.
But whatever the context, his presence is unmistakable: a driving, pulsating guitar that seamlessly transitions from rhythm to lead to harmony (his bouzouki playing stimulates much the same nerve endings). Given that his guitar style has proved to be enormously influential, it’s sometimes easy to overlook how talented and sensitive a singer Doyle is – unless you see him during one of his rare solo appearances, which happened last month when he performed at Boston College as part of that university’s Gaelic Roots series. Before the concert, he reflected on a most eventful career, one that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Q. You were on a couple of tracks of the newest Solas album, “All These Years,” which commemorates the band’s 20th anniversary. How was that experience, being back with all those folks? Have you seen them pretty often here and there while on the road?
A. You’d think that would be the case, but it’s not – not unless we’re touring in the same area. We’re just all very busy. Still, once I did start work on “All These Years,” it’s amazing how quickly everything goes back to the way it was. It was like the first time we played together, making a new sound.
Q. In retrospect, why do you think Solas had such an impact? What made it work as well as it did?
A. Well, for one thing, I think we were all young and energetic back then. It just kind of gelled at the time, because we really wanted to have this new type of sound. I think being in America – we were mainly based in New York City – really helped create a buzz. Here was this new young band, immigrants or first-generation, and had this energy to it, you know. We wanted to change things up, away from the usual. We had all this music we really loved, like Planxty, the Bothy Band, De Danaan, and we said, “OK, what can we do that’s new and inventive?” We spent a lot of time working on arrangements, putting it all together. Recording the first album took only a few days, but the rehearsals went on far longer than that. We’d meet up a lot, go through the songs and the tunes, figure out what we wanted to hear.
Actually, I attribute at least part of our success to the opening of Starbucks – the energy, you know. “OK, who wants another venti latte?” We’d buy coffee, drink it in the studio and be all wired. [Laughs]
Q. But Solas wasn’t your first band experience, right?
A. No. I’d been in Chanting House, with Susan McKeown, Eileen Ivers, and Seamus Egan [also of Solas], and before that another band with Susan, [piper] Ronan Browne. But Solas was an astounding time. I mean, we got to tour America and the world, and we didn’t know how unusual that was, because well, you’re just going about your business. There was a big boom then for Irish music, and it was all very exciting. But we were just playing as our hearts dictated it.
Q. Was it very difficult for you to leave Solas [in 2000]?
A. I had mixed feelings. I loved what we had been doing, I just felt I needed to do something more, and find my own voice, my own way. When you have to make a big decision like that, of course, you have to consider that you’re giving up a guaranteed income. You just have to take a leap sometimes – I remember talking to my wife at the time and saying, “Will I ever work again?” But it turned out well, because I wound working with Liz, Eileen, Tim O’Brien, and other people.
Q. And of course, you’ve toured and recorded with Karan Casey [also formerly of Solas; the two released the album “Exiles Return” in 2010].
A. Myself and Karan are great friends, because we have shared the music for so long. We both have a real love of song, and love for a particular type of song, I suppose; she got a lot of her songs from [traditional singer] Frank Harte, as did I. There’s a certain way, a style to those songs. So we put together an album of songs we just always really wanted to do, something that would sound good as a two-voice thing.
“Exiles Return” was sort of an emigrant album, since we both are. And you know, even if it’s been 10 years or more, you go back home, you’re still an emigrant. You never lose that feeling. So I felt it was a special project, because we have that connection – I know that I can go and say “Hello” to Karan, and we’ll sing a song together, and it’ll be perfect.
Q. When you talk about connections, the one you’ve had with Liz Carroll seems pretty special, too.
A. Yes, from the beginning, we were very much in synch. Liz is an amazing, unique player, a fantastic writer as well. She loves rehearsing and arranging, taking a tune and making it into a piece of music. She’s always moving forward, so modern in her thinking, but she’s thoroughly in the tradition, and the depth of her knowledge of it is incredible.
Q. Of course, you’ve been able to focus on solo work, too. And in addition to traditional material, you’ve built up a repertoire of your own songs [which he released on the 2011 album “Shadow and Light”]. How has the songwriter portion of your career unfolded?
A. I started writing songs years and years ago; it was something I’d always done. But I took a hiatus for a number of years, and then got back to it, eventually. My writing has tended to be on historical subjects, like my grandfather’s experience surviving a shipwreck in World War I [“The Arabic”] or the Irish Brigade in the Civil War [“Clear the Way”]. It’s been one of those things where I’ll say to myself, “I don’t know of any songs about this subject, so I’ll write one.” I also wrote one called “Little Sparrow,” about my daughter, Rossagh, when she was two and she would do sweet things like make little presents for you – you know, wrap them up and everything – all day long.
I just got into the idea of telling stories, and coming to find that there’s a certain voice in that, and that I kind of like doing it.
It’s an ongoing project. I’ll have any amount of ideas, and just start figuring out what I want to do with them: “Okay, now I have some time to write, so I’ll work on that.” I’ve written a few Christmas songs, for instance, for an album I did with Ashley Davis, and then I have this new album coming up for which I’ll have to write some more.
Q. You’re involved in all kinds of collaborations these days: There’s the Teetotallers [with Martin Hayes and Kevin Crawford], and The Alt [with Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O’Leary]. And you have a few more, with Usher’s Island [Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, Michael McGoldrick and Paddy Glackin], your trio with John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick, and The Immigrant Band [Rafe Stefanini, Clelia Stefanini, John Herrmann and Eamon O’Leary].
A. Usher’s Island has been a great time. I mean, you’re playing with heroes: Andy and Donal and Paddy, who have done so much for Irish music for decades. And there are three of us who play left-handed; we should’ve called ourselves “Southpaw” or something like that.
There’s an interesting dynamic to the whole thing, too. You kind of want to defer to them, you want to hear what they’re doing because they’ve been such an inspiration – but they want to play what you’re doing. You know, Mike and I are in our mid-40s, but compared to them we’re the “new blood.” I just love listening to them and how they approach music.
Andy and I are doing the songs, which is a thrill for me. He’s just incredible. I love his troubadourism, his political stance, the way he can express his ideas so clearly and cogently. He’s a wonderful a human being – they all are. I feel honored to be playing with them.
The trio with Mike and John, that’s a lot of fun, too. We have a new album coming out.
Q. What about The Immigrant Band?
A. That was a project I really wanted to put together, because I wanted to play with my friends Rafe and Clelia. Rafe is from Italy, and his daughter Clelia was born in the US, and they play American old-timey fiddle – and to me, it sounded like Donegal music. I used to go up there a lot, you know, and I heard what the old fiddlers would do, playing in octaves, with that staccato style. That’s what Rafe and Clelia’s playing reminded me of. And then I got Eamon involved because I wanted to hear two bouzoukis playing with old-timey fiddles and banjo, which is what John plays. And we all sing, too. So you have this very blended sound of Irish and American.
Q. You mentioned “new blood” earlier. You’ve been playing a lot with a young fiddler, Duncan Wickel – is that something you’re making a point of doing, reaching out to that new “new blood,” if you will?
A. I’ve been taking Duncan on tour since he was about 13, I think, and now he’s in his mid-20s. He’s just incredibly adept at so many things. I think it’s important – it’s symbiotic – that you give young musicians a break, and give them the idea that they can go tour and play. There are so many good ones out there: Those lads from New York, The Yanks – Dylan Foley, Dan Gurney, Isaac Alderson, Sean Earnest; [fiddler] Haley Richardson, and her brother Dylan. And Girsa. There’s heaps of them. And the level of musicianship has just gone up and up. It’s great to see that.
Q. Is your daughter involved in music? Have you tried to interest her in the stuff you do?
A. Rossagh plays bass clarinet in the all-county band, and she loves that. I’m putting her on an album – her very first one – when I get back home. She’s also a singer. She’s gone to some of the teaching camps that I do, so she definitely has a sense of the music I play. She knows all my songs: If I sing the wrong lyric, and she’s in the audience, she’ll say to me, “Dad, you missed the second verse.” She’s so quick.
My feeling is, I treat it like honey. I never liked that idea of forcing kids to play the music. If she wants to do it, she will. As soon as she starts playing guitar, she’ll find out there are all these other teenagers who are doing it, too, and hanging out, and then that will be the definite sign that, oh yeah, it’s cool.