Great Big Sea's Alan Doyle Draws Upon Celtic Music Upbringing

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On his first solo album, 2012’s Boy on Bridge, Great Big Sea singer-guitarist Alan Doyle set out to make a “travelogue.”

“I intentionally wanted to leave the tricks I learned behind and I wanted to make music in my friend’s backyard, the way they made music,” he says of his approach on the album. “I wasn’t terribly interested in bringing my own stuff into it. I wanted to learn new tricks. I wanted to go to Nashville and make songs the way they make songs down there. I wanted to go to LA. and use a soundstage and make songs the way they make songs there. I did that with different locations. It was all about learning new stuff.”

For his new album, So Let’s Go, he shifted gears.

“I brought my Celtic music upbringing into it and what I learned in my fishing town and all the traditional music techniques from Great Big Sea,” he says. “I recorded at different places, depending on who I was working with.”

For some songs, he worked with Ontario-based Tawgs Salter, a veteran producer who’s worked with LIGHTS and Cheyenne Jackson.

“He’s a very pop music guy but he does that kind of pop music centered on something small and folky,” says Doyle when asked about Salter. “He had great success with a band from Canada called Walk Off the Earth. They have the five guys on one guitar trick. They’re music sounds huge but at the center of it is a guy playing the ukulele. I love that idea that it’s a huge production centered on something small and folky and honest. I did a lot of the record there.”

The album’s title track suggests his approach. It’s an up-tempo tune that features a bit of mandolin and accordion but has such a catchy pop hook, you can imagine it finding a place on commercial radio alongside the likes of American Authors and Ewert and the Two Dragons. Doyle has said he thinks of the disc as “an album for celebrating the good times.”

“I joke that I wrote songs for a concert more than a record,” he says. “I wanted these songs to be the cornerstone for a great night out for people. I wanted the songs to be ideal for a great concert. ‘So Let’s Go’ is a bit of a personal mantra of mine that I’ve had for years. It’s a call to action. In my mind, it’s the simplest piece of advice I give people over the years. So often people overthink things and doubt things and wonder if they’ll ever get a chance to do things. They say, ‘I want to go downtown.’ I say, ‘So let’s go.’ They say, ‘I want to go to Europe.’ I say, ‘So let’s go.’ ‘I want to go back to school to learn to be a dentist.’ I say, ‘So let’s go.’ It’s really a call to action and a celebration for people who realize that time is short. ”

Music runs thick in Doyle’s blood; he grew up in a musical family. Living in a small fishing town on the coast of Newfoundland, he had to create his own entertainment.

“Unlike even isolated towns on the coasts of America, on Friday night, there was nobody coming to entertain us,” he explains. “There was no rolling cavalcade. My parents had to learn to do Friday nights themselves. The Doyles became the minstrels of the town. And they still are. I’m just one of my Doyles. They’ve learned to make it for themselves. I’m part of that tradition. You hear people say they learned their lessons the hard way. I learned them the easy way. I was 12 before I realized that everyone didn’t play guitar. I thought everyone played guitar.”

He has often said that the other members of Great Big Sea, who were in a successful pub band called Rankin Street in the early '90s, recruited him simply because he had a van.

“That’s been my joke for years and they’ve never corrected me on it,” he laughs. “They played pubs for four or five years and had a huge following but they didn’t have the exact lineup they wanted. They wanted a guy who could write rock music and they saw me play in some pubs in downtown St. John’s where I was doing solo gigs.”

Doyle refers to Great Big Sea as “easily the biggest blessing of my life.” “It’s such a wonderful thing to call the mothership,” he says.

But after embarking on a 20th anniversary tour in 2013, the band went on hiatus. The remaining members haven’t figured out how to move forward.

“[Singer-guitarist] Sean McCann wants to leave the band and has gone on to another career path,” says Doyle. “He does public speaking. I’ve done my stuff, but I would like to do Great Big Sea stuff too. It’s a complicated thing because Sean still owns the name. We have to administratively figure a way get him out of it and then creatively figure out a way to do it without him. It’s very difficult.”

Doyle says he’ll play tunes from the Great Big Sea catalog when he’s in town. And he’s got great memories of performing in Cleveland.

“One of our first gigs was in Cleveland where we opened up for Moxy Fruvous at a rib cook-off,” he says. “We played in front of a tent. The headliner was going to be the Flying Wallendas. I’m not making that up. It was on the parking lot that would become the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I love Cleveland. I had some great nights there. If you’re from a fishing town near the ocean, you hear about rock ’n’ roll places. I think of some places as musical destination and Cleveland was rock ’n’ roll. If you can get to Cleveland, you were in a real band. I was fascinated by the music of that town and the possibility of being in it. Nothing trumps sports in Boston and nothing trumps the movies in Hollywood. But nothing trumps music in Cleveland.”

Alan Doyle, 8 p.m. Thursday, April 23, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS, musicboxcle.com.


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