At first, it seems an unlikely duo. Russell Crowe, Oscar-award winning actor, and Alan Doyle, frontman for Canada’s uber-popular folk rock band, Great Big Sea. Yet, it doesn’t take much time to realize that the two artists have more in common than not. A passion for music (for those of you who don’t know, Crowe has been a songwriter and fronting bands since he was a teenager), a penchant for giving audiences a hard-partying, memorable experience; and a sensitivity to the details in life that infuse their music with a crystal clarity that rings true to the human spirit.
The two have been writing music together for nearly a decade. But you won’t hear either of them make a splash about it. They released the Crowe/Doyle Songbook, Volume III (ironically, there is no Volume I or II) last August in a MP3 file download format. The album verges hauntingly on poetry and gives a revealing take on a variety of subjects, including an honest account of the toll fame takes on the human soul – something we rarely hear discussed. Not only is the album beautiful musically, but the storytelling is raw and authentic. And it’s that authenticity that makes it – and them – stand out.
Crowe is currently filming Les Miserables, the first time the acclaimed musical has been filmed as a movie, and declined to be interviewed for this article. Alan is in the midst of planning Great Big Sea’s 20th Anniversary tour, releasing his first solo album and keeping pace with a myriad of tasks and tour dates. Despite their schedules, they manage to continue to capture the everyday stories of life in lyric and melody, often via email. With the Crowe/Doyle Songbook, they created a set of songs that goes back to the heart of songwriting, an album that reaches into the human heart, soothes, entertains, and makes us think. All while staying true to their own Story. Not an easy task in a world that adores image and conformity. Alan took some time between tour dates to talk with us.
Before we talk about you and Russell, how did you come to be a folk rockstar from Newfoundland?
I suppose I always wanted to be in a band for a living, but never honestly thought it was possible. I certainly never thought as a teenager that folk music would get me anywhere. It wasn’t until I was in University that it occurred to me that we had something special and unique in our own backyards, and it would be a shame for me not to be a part of it. I consider myself really lucky to be from a place that has recorded its history in song. Very few places have as many songs to sing for every occasion. So, without knowing it, being a Newfoundlander gave me a massive head start as a songwriter and a singer, as I was immediately immersed in a song culture.
So folk music gives you… ?
Honesty and authenticity. I feel like I have a story that is my own and not borrowed from New York or Chicago or wherever. I don’t try to be anyone, but me. When I write a song, I want to convey something that is true to people. Truth is really the only thing that works in a song.
How did you and Russell come to work together?
I met Russell when we were both presenters at the NHL Hockey Awards almost a decade ago in Toronto. I had heard that he was a GBS (Great Big Sea) fan and had even performed one of the songs I had written. I made sure I was standing in the hall when he was passing through and casually introduced myself. He had first heard of GBS and my writing when he was filming a movie called Mystery Alaska in Canada in the late 90’s. After a few chats he asked if I ever passed through Toronto where he was living while filming Cinderella Man and if I would like to write a song or two. I totally jumped at the chance, of course, and the rest is history.
Let’s talk about your creative process. How do you work?
It’s taken quite a while to trust my own instincts. I often will go with the first thing that pops into my mind, especially about a lyric. I’ll reconsider melodies again and again, but I’ve always found that the first thing you say is the most true. I love deadlines. I really have no routine. I can work anywhere. I co-write a lot and love doing it someone else’s way. I have relationships with folks like Mike Post where I primarily supply the lyric and he the music. With Russell it is often the opposite. I’ve learned that to collaborate successfully, you have to get it right, you don’t have to be right.
You often adapt traditional music to a modern audience – what is the greatest challenge in that?
Taking a great song that has 14 verses and no chorus and adapting it to fit a more modern 3-minute form. That can be tricky. I’m lucky to work with Sean McCann and Bob Hallett in GBS as their instincts about this kind of thing are awesome.
So how would you describe the songs you write?
No idea. They just are what they are, to me. Friends tell me my songs sound older than most. Others have described my songs as Celtic sounding. I’m happy with any description of my music, really.
(Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea, Mike Fraser, sound engineer/mixer, and Russell Crowe at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver recording Boy on Bridge. Photo: Mike Fraser)
How does your collaboration with Russell work?
It’s always different. No rules. Our schedules are so crazy that it is often difficult to be in the same place. We often send stuff back and forth via email. Lyrics, a melody, a short demo MP3 of an idea, whatever it takes.
What has Russell brought to your music that wasn’t there before?
Many things, but the biggest by far is how he has changed what I think a song can be about. Prior to working with Russell I would have never have written a song about a jailbreak, or a deceased aunt, or an immigrant cane cutter. I’d have been happy enough writing about ex-girlfriends, drinking, and Catholic Guilt. Now the sky’s the limit.
Does Russell challenge you to stretch and dream bigger?
Constantly. In the most encouraging way possible. He does this with all his friends.
The Crowe/Doyle Songbook veers away from the pure sound of GBS. But one can definitely hear your talent and musical style in it – did working on this album stretch you as a musician?
Yeah, the original demos for most of this CD were done with just me and Russell and Dani [Danielle Spencer, a featured vocalist on the album]. Three singers with me playing guitar and mandolin. The challenge was to make them compelling in the most stripped down form. I’ve done that a lot with GBS, but in most cases it involved rowdier tunes. The Songbook songs are much more reflective and poetic so it was a little off the beaten track for me.
What has surprised you most about this album?
How Carl Falk re-imagined the songs with all his scoring and pop sensibilities. He has an incredible musical vision. It was a pleasure to work with him.
How pleased are you with the decision to release the album electronically?
Very. I have to thank Russell for it all as it was really his idea. I love the fact that these folky kind of songs were delivered to the people in the most modern way possible. The album is now also available in hard copy from www.parkbeachmusic.com.au.
You’re releasing your first solo album. Tell me about it. What can we expect?
The Label guys will probably call Boy on Bridge a country/rock record. And that’s fine with me. The songs are influenced by writers and albums I loved growing up like John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. There are three Crowe/Doyle songs on there that should represent our catalog well.
What’s next for you?
GBS has a few dates here and there and everywhere over the next little while. We just did our first tour in Australia and are finishing our GBS XX – 20th Anniversary CD. But most of my focus for the bulk of 2012 is on promoting and touring my solo CD and documentary film, Boy on Bridge.
And finally, what do you love most about being in this business?
Performing. It’s always been my favorite thing to do. I know many Nashville peeps who never get to perform the songs they write. I don’t envy that at all. I’d never opt for a career completely off stage if I can help it. As long as people will listen, I’ll sing a song for them.
Alan Doyle’s solo album, Boy on Bridge has just been released. The Crowe/Doyle Songbook, Vol. III is available online via iTunes, Amazon and other online music retailers.