Donovan: ‘The songs try to say important things with lightness’

The singer, who is about to be 70, on bardic poetry, a drugs sting and ‘Mellow Yellow’ sung by kids

I think of myself as a poet. I grew up with poetic influences – what I know from my background is the bardic poetry, which came down through oral tradition. And Scottish folk music, which was liberating, humorous, real. What happened in the 60s gave a new voice to that tradition: the bohemians and the eccentrics, people like me and George Harrison going through the old bardic books. We infused it with the spirit of that time.

I was the first British pop singer to be arrested for possession of marijuana. It was a sting: they found 2oz of the best Leb at my place. But it was 1966, and a badge of pride. I did think: “I’ve gotta get out of here,” and someone recommended a deserted Scottish island.

There are three kinds of love. There’s intuitive love: that which a child feels, which makes you reach out to help someone. There’s emotional love: “I love you,” Aphrodite’s love – the basis of it all. Then there’s what I call conscious love. That’s a feeling of: “I want you to be fulfilled, and if you are fulfilled, I’m fulfilled.” And this third kind of love needs a bit of work – some conscious effort.

It wasn’t all just fun and games, the 1960s, but I have a light touch. The songs I write and sing try to say important things with a lightness.

My sense of humour comes from the Irish side. We get something from the music halls. There’s that great Beatles line: “For the benefit of Mr Kite, there will be a show tonight…” It’s light-hearted, but so exciting.

In the long run, food, shelter and clothing are all we can do to help each other. It is up to us to realise where the fear is coming from, and to conquer it.

I now live in Ireland for half the year, and have a life and studio in Mallorca. I love it in Mallorca. It’s where the roots of the music are, it’s where the tradition comes from, and it’s the last wilderness of Europe.

Sometimes the songs just come to me. I don’t sit down to write like you’d sit down to make a pair of boots. “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was something someone said to me. Like Dylan Thomas, who fell in love with the sound of words, I think the sound of the words themselves is music.

Recently I heard some children singing “Mellow Yellow” – well, they were singing: “They call me smelly belly.” And I thought: “You know you’ve had some effect when your song becomes a street song for kids.”

I realised something long ago, and I think this now: I can’t save the world, but if I can share some ideas people might be able to save themselves.

If you can’t feel love, then you are afraid. And you have to ask: “What am I afraid of?”

I suppose all I really know is that I’m still here. I’m still alive – and that’s good, because we’ve lost too many.

Donovan celebrates his 70th birthday with a special concert at The London Palladium, 30 Argyll Street, London W1F 7TE on 6 May (


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

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