Two legends, new songs.Donovan Discs 2020/Carl Schultz
Folk singer Donovan recently took to Twitter to drop a bit of intriguing news — the kind of dispatch that makes fans more than a little dizzy.
The legendary Scottish performer announced that he had unearthed some rare songs that he had recorded years ago with Nils Lofgren, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, member of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, and longtime Valley resident.
In this case, “years ago” means approximately 50. It’s been five decades since these two seminal talents joined forces in the studio to cut a sprinkling of beautiful tracks that meld Donovan’s angelic, fluttery vocals with Lofgren’s guitar work.
Donovan fondly recalls working with Lofgren.
“When we met, I realized Nils was like me: a one-off guitar player, with his piece of fabric nailed to his Telecaster — a road gypsy boy,” he says
Donovan specifically mentioned the song “Still Waters” in his Twitter announcement. The tune is inviting from the jump as the singer’s voice quickly pulls you in for the ride. The guitar twists down its own path, which lets it shine at strategic points throughout the tune. Other times, the vocals and music intertwine, creating a sonic braid.
"Still Waters" is included on his recently released album, Lunarian, a tribute to his “wife and muse,” Linda.
“These are nine of my songs selected from many, many more that I have written for Linda Lawrence over our relationship of 55 years,” Donovan says. The two celebrated 50 years of marriage in 2020. “Each song on Lunarian,” he adds, “highlights the journey of Linda throughout her life, including the release of her new book, Luna Love.” (Pictures from her book can be seen in the video for "Still Waters.")
Like Donovan, Lofgren also cherishes the music and the memories the two artists shared, and tells Phoenix New Times how the session came together.
“I grew up in the '60s,” Lofgren says. “I played classical accordion. I started listening to The Stones and The Beatles. I discovered the British Invasion, which included Donovan, who is still a hero of mine. I also got into Motown, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Richard, and all of it inspired me. When I was 17, I hit the road as a young rock musician with my band Grin and ultimately went out to Los Angeles.”
When Lofgren got to L.A., he called his friend Neil Young.
“Neil turned us on to David Briggs, his producer. He became my mentor and kind of a big brother who produced all my Grin records,” Lofgren says.
Briggs happened to be close friends with comedian Murray Roman, who was good friends with Donovan. Donovan came to L.A. to do some recording sessions with the famous producer Mickie Most, and they requested that Three Dog Night come and back Donovan in the studio.
Briggs got the gig to engineer the sessions, and it turned out that Three Dog Night needed a fill-in guitarist.
“I don’t know how the hell David pulled it off,” Lofgren says, “but they let me fill in on guitar.” He says it was a “stunning revelation” when he found out about the opportunity. “All of a sudden, I was heading into Hollywood with David to record with Donovan and Three Dog Night.”
Lofgren says the session was magical.
“Donovan was in the booth alone — where he sang and played acoustic guitar — so our sound wouldn’t bleed into his parts. We could see him clearly, and he could see us. He played us these new songs he had written, and we learned them. We made our little chord charts and started recording. It was sensational music. It felt great. Having my best friend, David, there was amazing — and he was the only reason I was there. Everyone got along well, and we had a great time.”
Lofgren recalls that scheduling obligations pulled Three Dog Night away from the project at one point.
“David came up with the brilliant call to let Grin take over after we lost the Three Dog Night guys, and we carried on and kept making great music with Donovan.”
They never got to do live shows together, but Donovan recalls giving Lofgren a valuable tip.
“I think it was I that told him to try the guitar through the Hammond Leslie cabinet for 'Mistaken Eternity.' I’d discovered this ‘underwater’ sound effect for a vocal I did on the song “'Hurdy Gurdy Man.'” (“Mistaken Eternity” is another track from those way-back sessions that also appears on Lunarian.)
Though neither artist recalls how the tapes from these sessions got shelved, they both are delighted that some of the tracks are now out there.
“It is a great chapter in my life,” Lofgren says, “and I’m so glad that some of the music is being shared again.”
Fifty years later, both Donovan and Lofgren are still as prolific as ever.
In addition to his mid-February release of Lunarian, Donovan is using the pandemic lockdown to teach others.
“The freeze on performing live music has led us to work from home," he says. "I have a songwriting tutorial coming up to share some secrets that show how to prepare for songs to appear.”
Pre-pandemic, Lofgren, released Blue With Lou, a full-length album co-produced with his wife, Amy, that features six songs he recorded with Lou Reed. Like many performers, he had plans to tour in the upcoming year with both Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the E Street Band.
When he isn’t doing those large-scale tours, he also digs doing intimate acoustic shows.
“I do those with a local musician named Greg Varlotta. We usually go to England once a year and also play in town once in a while,” he says.
Not hitting the road in the name of rock has not been an easy pill for the veteran rocker to swallow.
“I have a great life with my fabulous wife, Amy, our dogs, and our son is just down the road, but not touring gave me a deep, dark blues that I didn’t plan on.”
The tumultuous political climate also weighed on him heavily. Now, though, with the election over, he sees some light pushing through the universal gloom.
“I’m hopeful at some point I’ll get to go and sing and play again," Lofgren says. "Rather than waiting to live, however, I’m going to challenge myself to start writing this year."
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