By Blair Matthews
Alan Doyle has, from day one, dedicated his professional music career to giving his fans songs and performances they’ll never forget.
And he’ll do almost anything to make sure people leave his show thinking it was one of the best nights out they’ve ever had.
Maybe it’s the friendly Newfoundlander in him that makes people gravitate to his music. Or it might be because he’s an amazingly talented musician.
As the former frontman of Canadian folk rock band Great Big Sea, Doyle has racked up an impressive list of accolades: 18 East Coast Music Awards, countless Juno Award nominations, and numerous acting, writing and producing credits.
Oh... and add ‘accomplished author’ to that list. Back in October 2015 he released his first book Where I Belong, a captivating memoir about growing up in the tiny fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland.
Afterall, that’s where the 47-year-old’s story really begins.
“I grew up in a really musical family,” Doyle says. “My mother was the choir director at the Catholic church in Petty Harbour. My father and uncles had a band that played regularly. We didn’t have much – we didn’t have a car – but we had a piano, an accordian, and guitars.”
Being surrounded by music inevitably led to him picking up a guitar and start playing. “I kind of don’t remember learning,” he admits. “It’s one of those things where I’ve just always been doing that.”
“My apprenticeship in music was split between my kitchen party and playing in rock and roll bands in my teenage years coupled with being in the throes of the pubs of Atlantic Canada.”
Great Big Sea was founded in 1993 by Doyle, Bob Hallett, Sean McCann and Darrell Power. Along the way, they adopted bassist Murray Foster and drummer Kris MacFarlane. Collectively, they released a dozen albums (all of which achieved Gold and/or Platinum status in Canada) and showed the rest of the world what traditional Newfoundland folk rock music was all about. People loved their unique sound – an eclectic mix of powerful singing, strong melodies, and a collection of fiddles, guitars, accordians, and drums.
The band quickly became known for its high energy foot-stomping clap-along performances; that extends to Doyle as a solo act now.
“I’ve watched James Taylor a few times. He strolls out, sings a few songs and it’s all very cool. I wish I could do anything as relaxed as that. I’m so envious of someone who can do something so effortlessly. Whereas me, it’s all I got every night. I’ve never found it hard to get energetic about a concert. If you didn’t love doing the concerts, you’d be crazy to do this for a living.”
After touring for over 20 years you might expect the grind of travelling from city to city would grow tiresome; not true, Doyle says. “I find it’s the opposite. Once Great Big Sea got rolling, I hoped that somehow I would be able to make a living doing it. Here I am (today) in Sault Ste. Marie and we’ve got a sold out show in the new concert venue for me and my new band. I feel really lucky to still be in the game.”
“I think maybe 20 years ago it sounded like a cool interview answer, but it’s true, and it’s always been true – I never got into the music biz to have the biggest song of the summer and be a huge star for three weeks and use all my money to live in a villa in Spain or something. I always wanted to do this for a living, for a lifetime.”
That’s not to say Doyle (and Great Big Sea) haven’t had their fair share of fame across the country and beyond. Their 1999 New Year’s concert on the St. John’s waterfront drew a crowd of over 90,000 and was carried by television networks around the world.
Some musicians hit a point in their career when they know they’ve made it as an artist. Doyle has a different perspective about ‘making it’ in the music industry: “I think that would be a really scary thing to discover, wouldn’t it? That you already wrote your best song... I either will never ‘make it’ as a musician or I’ve always ‘made it’. The only way I can describe it is that for me the journey has always been the destination. I’ve never had anything other than this in mind. The prize I’m getting being a musician is getting to stay a musician.”
In front of every audience, Doyle exudes confidence, a love of performing, and a touch of Newfoundland pride.
Well... maybe a little more than just a ‘touch’.
Doyle’s roots obviously run deep in Newfoundland – its culture, its people, and its way of life. Perhaps most important to him is staying humble. When he returns to that tropical island of Newfoundland, he’s not considered to be an international recording superstar, or a best-selling author. He’s known simply as ‘Bernie’s brother’ to the locals... and he likes it that way.
“St. John’s is one of the only places where you can go to the fanciest restaurant in town – the award-winning Number 1 new fine dining establishment, have a meal that competes with any other city in the world. At 11 o’clock when service is over you sit at the bar in that restaurant – you’ll have a beer with the guy who owns the building, the guy who drives the salmon truck, the guy who cooked your meal, and the guy who washes the dishes. I love that about St. John’s.”
When the members of Great Big Sea went their separate ways in 2013, Doyle didn’t miss a beat. He ventured out as a solo artist and eventually connected with a band called the Beautiful Gypsies. Their new album with Doyle at the helm is due out in early 2017.
“The new band was intentionally put together to be very versatile because I really wanted to play some of the traditional Atlantic music, I wanted to play a bunch of the songs from the Great Big Sea catalogue that people might want to hear, but I also wanted to play some of the stuff from my own records that is a bit more country or a bit more rock and roll depending on the record. This band has players that are just more used to playing different kinds of music. It’s not the same, of course, because we don’t have the same voices we always had in Great Big Sea and those were the most charming things about Great Big Sea, I felt. Me and Shawn and Bob singing together – that was always the home run.”
Even with Great Big Sea now disbanded (retired), Doyle and his Beautiful Gypsies bandmates will still be playing some of the fans’ most beloved songs but with a slightly different sound to them. There might be an electric guitar in place of an instrument or a piano part that didn’t exist in the original version. If a new arrangement of an original Great Big Sea song could bring something new to it, Doyle says he would absolutely re-record it if that’s what the fans wanted.
And giving concert-goers what they want is Doyle’s top priority, even if there are a few hiccups along the way. “There’s no way you can make it a couple of decades or more on stage and not have every embarassing thing happen to you. Every single zipper-down split-your-pants moment – I’ve probably had seven of them,” he says.
The most fun aspect of being the front guy in a band or being on his own up on stage, he says, is that his job is to roll with it every night, no matter what happens. He reads the crowd, listens to their reactions and entertains in his own unique way – as he was taught to do by his family of musicians right from the start.
“The greatest singer in Newfoundland was never the guy who could sing the highest note – it was always the guy who got the most people to sing along,” he says. “The greatest accordian player wasn’t the guy who could play the fastest – he was the guy who kept the dance floor the fullest. So it’s always been about engaging and including people and giving them something they’ll remember. I ask people to buy a ticket to my performances because I want to give them the best night out and the greatest kitchen party of their lives. They’re nice enough to buy a ticket to my concert, I’ll light myself on fire if I have to.”
Has it come to that yet?
“Not so far,” he says with a laugh.
Alan Doyle - Still proudly representing the tropical island of Newfoundland