Alan Doyle: From Petty Harbour to Great Big Sea

Dec 19 2017, 8:40 pm

Turns out Alan Doyle, front man for the popular Celtic folk group Great Big Sea, singer/songwriter, actor, and now published author, has a soft spot for a beloved Vancouver institution: Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe.

When I catch up with him via telephone, he’s on a book tour for his recently-released memoir, Where I Belong. He’s in New York City, but he laughs when I ask him what is the first thing he does when he gets off the plane in Vancouver.

“I go to Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe on Fourth,” he says. “They have the best hot sauce on earth! Then I walk around the Seawall.”

There aren’t too many places in the world that Doyle hasn’t been with GBS. But this time, he’s making the trip solo. He’ll be reading excerpts from Where I Belong on November 13 at The Waterfront Theatre.

Hailing from Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, a short drive from St. John’s, Doyle grew up in a town whose population was (and still is), 500. It’s these early days, before meeting Séan McCann and starting up Great Big Sea in 1992, that Where I Belong focuses on.

“We were born into a tradition,” he says, citing other beloved and well-known Newfoundland storytellers, like Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh and Kathy Jones, as well as poets like Al Pittman and Al Purdy. “We were encouraged, and almost required, to make our own art.”

In his early years in Petty Harbour, as in many remote Newfoundland outports, there was little entertainment. They had the radio, but little or no television, and if they did have a TV, it was limited to the CBC (“Tommy Douglas and Hockey Night in Canada”). “Entertainment” often consisted of kitchen parties, where folks would show up with food and drinks and instruments, and sit around and jam and sing and play all night long. “The Doyles,” he says, “were more well-known than others for ‘bringing the jam.'”

“My mother, my father, and just about all my uncles played music probably a hundred days of every year…. [a]fter all, we were Doyles, we carried music in our blood.” –Where I Belong

The first thing Doyle ever wrote, then, not surprisingly, was a song. “I was about 12 or 13, and I mostly was playing traditional Newfoundland music, and cover tunes. I wrote a song about our house, the house I grew up in, called ‘Down By The River.’ I don’t know if it was any good.”

Since then, Doyle has written songs for all 12 Great Big Sea albums, two solo albums, and numerous songs for film and television. He also writes a tour blog.

“I like it,” he responds when I ask him how he likes blogging. “It’s unedited… stream of consciousness, a way to let people see what we’re doing through my eyes. That’s how I like to keep it–I see it how I see it.”

Then, in the fall of 2012, Random House approached him and said, “we think you should write a book.” Where I Belong (Small Town to Great Big Sea), was published October 14.

When I ask him about his writing process, he laughs. “There are no rules,” he says. “I don’t even know that I’ve ever even written two things the same way.” He does find that doing something physical helps move the process along, though: “I’ll go dig a hole, mow the grass, walk downtown. Ideas come from living.”

I’m curious, as well, about how his writing has changed over the last twenty-plus years. “As a songwriter, the more you mature, the more you don’t have to tell a massive lesson. You get over the constant temptation to teach people. You become more content to say small things, and have them mean more.”

And I say way-hey-hey, it’s just an ordinary day
and it’s all your state of mind
At the end of the day, you’ve just got to say,
it’s all right. –Ordinary Day, Great Big Sea

He admits to not having a favourite song, “I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on them,” but despite the thousands of times he’s performed Lukey or The Old Black Rum, he never gets sick of them. “I spent my whole young life try to get in front of people,” he says, suddenly serious. “I’m grateful that they let me.”

Not surprisingly, our conversation loops around to where it began–with food. I ask him what food he misses the most when he’s away from home on the road, and his answer is immediate and definitive. “Me mudder’s bread.”

You can catch Alan Doyle, live, in conversation with CBC radio host Lisa Christiansen on Thursday, November 13, at 7:30 pm at the Waterfront Theatre. Tickets are available through the Vancouver Writers Fest. Where I Belong is available now for purchase at major bookstores and online.

Featured image: Alan Doyle. Photo credit Brian Ricks (supplied)

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