This spring, Alan Doyle should have been on tour in the Western U.S. and Italy playing songs from his new album, Rough Side Out. Instead, the former Great Big Sea frontman has been performing in his kitchen, streaming one–hour “Suppertime Singalongs” from his St. John’s home. In the process, he has raised over $600,000 for mental–health awareness, Kids Help Phone (which is currently experiencing a three–hundredfold increase in calls), front–line health–care workers and more, all through his charity A Dollar a Day. “It’s been a huge, bright light in a really odd time,” he says of the generosity of his fans. Besides the home benefit concerts, Doyle has been writing a third book (a non–fiction collection of funny stories) and a musical adaptation of The Grand Seduction for the Charlottetown Festival. He spoke with us about being at home with his wife and son, his tentative summer travel plans and how he sees himself as a facilitator of a great night out.
enRoute What has surprised you about the transition from in–person to online shows?
Alan Doyle The thing about these broadcasts is that they’re in your house. Your children are there, someone might ring the doorbell. You’re doing your super–cool guitar–guy thing and then suddenly your dog comes in and pees on your foot. People see a side of you they didn’t expect. They’re used to hearing your rock–god voice and suddenly you switch to your loving pet–owner’s voice or your dad voice.
ER In your memoir Where I Belong, you say, “A band needs a crowd and a crowd needs a band.” What do you miss most about that connection right now?
AD I’ve been in bands since 1983, and this is the longest time I’ve gone without playing a gig. I think people understand the emotional satisfaction that comes with playing music for a crowd, but it’s physical, too. There are muscles in your body that you only use when you’re standing up for two hours playing guitar and singing songs. But what I really miss is the feeling of coordinating a great night out for people – I love the notion that I am the facilitator. As I get older, I’m so aware of other people’s time. Some people take an airplane to see me, for some it is a three–hour drive, others get babysitters. If someone’s going to give me a night of their life, that is a serious responsibility to me.
ER Do you collect any mementos from the road?
AD I actually prefer to leave things behind in places. I had a pair of Doc Martens that I wore for a decade – they must have been in 2,500 cities. Great Big Sea was finishing a tour in Washington, D.C., and after the show I went to our dressing room, closed the door, lifted back one of the ceiling tiles and put those Doc Martens in the roof of the Warner Theatre. That was about 10 years ago, and I bet they’re still there.
ER What else, besides music, have you been up to at home? Have you been homeschooling?
AD I have assisted with that. I’m not very good with Grade 8 math, so we’re doing some different projects. I helped my son, Henry, and his cousin record an hour–long podcast, which included an in–depth discussion on Power Rangers, for a media assignment. And I’m getting to do things like building decks and fences. Again, I’m not very good at it, but my neighbour is a master carpenter. I ask him for instructions in the morning and then get to work.
ER Growing up in Petty Harbour, you wanted to travel outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. How has travel shaped your life?
AD When I was a kid, playing in a band seemed possible to me because all my family did it. But travelling the world seemed impossible because none of my family ever did that. I love that as a musician, not only do you get to go to Chicago, but you get to be part of what’s going on in Chicago that night. Maybe in some other towns, you’re all that is going on. It’s also a thrill to fly into Montreal and know that as soon as the gig is over, you’ll run out the back door as fast as you can to get to Hurley’s Irish Pub, and sit at that particular table around the back corner; or that when you go to Halifax, you’ll stick around at the Economy Shoe Shop because [former MuchMusic VJ and club owner] Mike Campbell might ask you over to his garage. That’s the stuff that comes with travelling and with being in a band – it’s an incredible combination.
ER Any summer plans?
AD I sort of envision this summer being one where we’re totally free to roam around Newfoundland and maybe even Atlantic Canada. I would jump at an opportunity to have a month off – the first one since 1982 – and be able to take my wife and son in our little trailer, get on the ferry and just bomb around Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. That’d be a laugh.
ER What makes your own city of St. John’s a great place to visit?
AD I love seeing people who are clearly tourists looking around with their eyes wide. For me, I walk by the St. John’s harbour 50 times a month; I walk my dogs up the back of Signal Hill every single day. But you see someone from the Prairies or an urban part of Canada, and they are just mystified. You walk out of a hotel downtown, and seven minutes later you’re in nothing, just the woods. There aren’t many places you can do that. And, of course, most Newfoundlanders love showing people a good time when they get here. As a frequent visitor to other places, there’s nothing better than arriving somewhere people are excited to have you.
First travel memory I was 20 years old before I took my first flight. It was April 1989, from St. John’s to London to visit my brother. I didn’t sleep a wink because I just wanted to see what happened. It felt like magic – you walk into a door in St. John’s and out of a door in England. And I still love that you can play a gig in London on Sunday night and be walking up and down the street in St. John’s at lunchtime the next day.
Favourite souvenir A Great Big Sea gig poster from the Fillmore in San Francisco.
Dream seatmate I’ve had two already. I sat with a retired Newfoundland ferry captain who, for three and a half hours, told me his experiences driving the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Newfoundland. The other was Bob Cole of Hockey Night in Canada.
Top Canadian destination Montreal: It might be the best food city in the world. I came from a very homogeneous place, but there you’ll find people who speak four languages. And it has the Montreal Canadiens.
Travel has the power to… Keep you young. You’re wide–eyed, learning and curious – all the things you were as a kid.