Backstage With John Doyle

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Ireland’s lead guitarist chats about music, modern Ireland
and playing three gigs on St. Patrick’s Day.

In the traditional music world, people are saying John Doyle is the best Irish guitarist to come along in years – maybe the best ever. There’s no doubt he’s one reason the guitar has become an important instrument in Irish music, where it was once almost nonexistent.

Doyle has produced or played on dozens of albums, with people like fiddler Eileen Ivers and English folk legend Linda Thompson. He’s created a style that combines rhythm and melody in a way that pleases fans of traditional music, jazz and even rock n’ roll. In a review of the band Solas, (which he recently left) one critic said it seemed superfluous to have a drummer on stage while Doyle cranked out one rhythmic change after another on his guitar. His debut solo album, Evening Comes Early (Shanachie Records, 2002) showcased his singing talents for the first time.

picture of john doyleI became aware of him in 2004, when he produced an amazing CD of Irish ballads (The Light and the Half-Light, Compass) sung entirely by his father, supposedly a non-professional musician. When I interviewed him recently before a performance with ace fiddler Liz Carroll in New York, he seemed too relaxed and full of laughs to be the “phenomenon” I’d read about. It was only later, when I heard him play, that I realized the label made perfect sense.

Doyle, who moved to the US in 1991, is a real Irish “talker” with a strong brogue. He chatted about his various music projects, as well as about how Ireland seems to him when he goes back home.

Did you grow up listening to rock ‘n roll like most kids?
No, I was a folk nerd from the very start! At the age of four, I started going out and listening to my grandfather play in the pubs with my dad. “Let’s go hear your grandfather play the accordion,” my father would say. And we used to sit there – my brothers and I – and be bored out of our brains. But the music kind of etched itself into our psyche, ya know. Today we’re all really close to Irish traditional music. When I started to play, I really got into both English folk and Irish folk, traditional, sean nos (literally, “old style” a capella singing) and all that. I guess there was a stage where I listened to rock and everything else out there. But my heart is in folk music.


Back when the Chieftains started the big revival of Irish traditional music, the guitar wasn’t seen as a very important instrument. Who really brought it into the Irish picture?

It really started back in the 30’s and 40’s, with Michael Coleman, who was one of the most influential fiddle players for Irish America and Ireland. His recordings had mainly piano backing him up, but there was also some guitar -- very sparse. That’s where it started, really. Then in the 60’s, the folk revival came in here (the US) and England, and the guitar started to come into Irish culture. The people who helped it along were mainly Paul Brady, Tahis Brogh, Arty McGlynn and Donal Luney (who played the bouzouki mainly, but was also a guitar player).

Eric Clapton once said his whole style was based around the way he bent a single note. Is there any single key to the Irish guitar style?
Well, it’s all rhythm and drop D. Irish music is D-based. At the end of the day you’re always gonna come back to D. It’s the most common tuning there is.

What attracts you to a particular song?
That’s a hard question. I think it’s when the words and the music co-exist really well for me. If you don’t have a great melody, you’re lost. Sometimes I will change the melody to fit the song for my taste. It’s an ever-evolving tradition!

What do you look for in a musical collaborator?
Someone who is a dedicated musician and is able to blend in the musical situations they might not be used to. They have to like tea, too.

Do you prefer live performances or recording more?
I enjoy both equally in different ways. In both, you can create on the spur of the moment.

You’ve really come out lately as a singer and gotten a good reaction.
Were you comfortable getting up there and singing right from the get go? I used to sing all the time with my family and at sessions. Let’s say that I’m getting more and more comfortable with that role as time passes on.

Would you advise a kid to become a full-time musician?
For some people, the music industry is simply too much to deal with. For others, it’s natural to go out and live your life this way. It’s a hard life in a lot of ways really, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I definitely would not discourage anyone from making a go of it in the music scene. “Have fun” – that’s the motto.

You’re working on a CD of Irish-American songs now, right?
Yes, I’m doing it with Mick Moloney, who’s an old stalwart in the music scene here in New York. The scene really follows him. He’s able to bring all the musical traditions around him together – an amazing guy really.

The first album I produced with Mick was a group of Irish-American songs that were really popular from 1880 through 1910, and they went completely out of favor. So the CD is nice if you want a chance to hear them now.

Now, the second CD we’re doing is more vaudevillian, with more barber shop harmony, lots of piano and even a brass section. They’re all songs written in America by Harrigan and Hart, who were really famous here in the 19th century. It’s not quite the music I’m into, but it’s really interesting to hear these songs for the first time.

Why have you settled in Ashville, North Carolina?
I like it there because there’s a tradition of old time music. You have a lot of fiddle and banjo players – it’s kind of like home in a way. I hang out with that crew. I love playing with them.

Do you go back to Ireland?
Oh yes. I love it here, but I have to go back. I still call it home. I have two brothers living there now (the other lives Sweden) and the rest of my family as well.

How does Ireland seem to you now, after living in the US for 14 years?
There’s just a huge infrastructure there now built on computers. You have the whole internet thing. There have been huge advances in technology and a lot of big international companies keeping their business in Ireland because of tax breaks. Right now, it’s the most expensive country in Europe. Ireland has changed so much from when I grew up -- I don’t think in a good way. When the common market first came in, you had the supermarkets take over from the basic little old shops. Some people would say it ruined farming, and even ruined all those gardens where people grew vegetables “out in the back.” That’s what happened in the village where my father came from. When the supermarket came, people just drove to it, and stopped growing their own carrots and things. Now that’s grown to where it’s just like in American culture. You have the malls everywhere here in the US, and now they’re coming up in Ireland too.

So the Celtic tiger was a bad thing?
I have reservations about it. It’s helped a lot of people to get wealthy, but it didn’t help some. Say, for example, you were kind of poor and on the dole, weren’t able to find a job and were renting a house. All of a sudden, the prices just quadrupled. Now you’re never gonna be able to buy a house. What happens to you? Some would say it’s just your problem. I just believe it’s a shame that, where 10 or 15 years ago you could afford a house that was the size of your grandparent’s house, now you can’t – you have to move out into the middle of the country somewhere.

Are families more scattered now?
There’s two sides to it. Families in Ireland don’t all live in the same place anymore. But there’s less emigration now, so some people would argue there’s much less breaking up of families. At least they’re all in Ireland.

What keeps this thing called “Irish Culture” so very much alive?
I think it comes from having oppression for so long. You have this kind of reaction to oppression, and Scotland has it too. The Celtic culture is full of mythology and history and satire -- full of families and generations – and guilt!

Will you ever move back?
It’s hard to go back, especially after a certain time. I remember someone telling me after I was here two years: “You have four chances to go home; your third year, your seventh year, your eleventh year and your fourteenth year.” And you know – it seems to be really true. After three years, I really felt like going home but I didn’t. The same thing happened after seven years. And you know, I’m passed eleven years now. I’m just on the verge of fourteen years here. Once you’ve been here 14 years you’re screwed! You’ll never leave.

Where’s the most enthusiastic audience for Irish music?
Here, it’s just all around the country. I’m amazed by just how popular it is. There’s one thing I see here and back in Ireland that’s kind of scary, though. Nowadays, you don’t see as many young people. It’s older people that like the Irish music. The young people that come to the gigs are more into the drinking songs – the big clamorous numbers. There’s always exceptions, but the ones who really like traditional music seem to be older now.

Lastly, when was the last time you DIDN’T play a gig on St. Patrick’s Day?
Quite a long time ago. I don’t really remember. When I lived in New York I used to do 3 or 4 gigs in a day, all in Manhattan! I know a lot of people still gigging like that. It’s hard to pass up the few bob, if you know what I mean.

John Doyle’s first solo CD, “Evening Comes Early,” (Shanachie Records) is available on For more information, visit