Denver-based singer and songwriter Kyle Donovan is no stranger to competition. Who is this guy, anyway? His website says he’s “a singer-songwriter based on the Front Range of Colorado. He’s also the singer and guitarist in Miles Wide, an acoustic rock band also based out of Denver, Colorado. But that’s not why he’s on our radar at the moment. He’s gained our attention because as a songwriter and acoustic folk music performer, he’s been selected as one of ten finalists in the 2018 Al Johnson Performing Songwriter Contest. Previously, he’s won recognition at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriter Contest and has been featured in American Songwriter Magazine.
Donovan stays pretty busy with his music, playing in several different projects in the Denver area, including Summerland Sun, The Constellation Collective, and Clandestine Amigo, as well as the aforementioned band, Miles Wide. Suffice it to say, he’s so busy these days that his hands aren’t idle long enough for him to get into any trouble.
His selection as a finalist for the Al Johnson Performing Songwriter Contest presented the opportunity to sit down and ask Donovan some questions about his entry into the competition, what draws him towards folk music and how he came into being a musician, as well as any formal training it took for him to get to where he is with his music today. We also inquired as to his personal musical influences and how those influences helped him to evolve his particular style of folk music, and his approach to writing what he believes is a good song.
Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival: What was it that made you decide to enter the songwriting competition, and how did you hear about it?
Kyle Donovan: In 2016, I met Bethel Steele, a previous Wildflower! winner of the Al Johnson Contest. Bethel urged me to apply to Wildflower!, along with other songwriting competitions. We traveled together to the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance conference in Austin, TX, where I became acquainted with lots of other songwriters. The network of support that I found through the Folk Alliance community has been an incredible addition to my career, and has helped to push me into a space where I felt ready to submit my songs for a competition like this one. I have to give credit where credit is due: the people in my life, who have told me they believe in me and my music, are a driving force in my career. I want to prove them right.
WAMFest: What was it that first drew you towards music and becoming a musician?
Donovan: As a kid, I was always singing. Choral groups, vocal jazz ensembles, barbershop quartets, and a cappella groups were a huge part of my life between ages 10 and 21. Around 8 years old I learned to play the violin. Whenever we had a minute to spare during lessons, I would sit the violin in my lap and start strumming it like a guitar – this drove my violin instructors crazy and it drove my parents to buy me a guitar. I think groups like The Beatles, who featured a lot of acoustic guitar in their music, were highly influential in my desire to start playing. I also have to give credit where credit is due: Mr. Jones by the Counting Crows was one of the first songs I ever learned, and I would not stop playing it for a few months after I learned it.
Before I was ever skilled, I was highly determined to sing and play along to my favorite songs. In terms of becoming a musician, I made the leap in 2014 when my best friend from childhood told me to “Quit my desk job or shut the hell up,” because I was complaining incessantly about my first job after my undergraduate degree. He was the same person who told me that if he knew anyone who could make it in this life as a musician, it would be me. I suppose he’s one of those people who I want to prove right. I quit my job the next month and went full-time into music, playing around 100 shows in my first year.
WAMFest: Was music always something you were passionate about, and if not, what were some of the things you were passionate about before music: Sports, computers, hobbies, etc?
Donovan: Like a lot of kids raised in the ‘90s and 2000s, I played little league baseball and soccer, rode my bike around the neighborhood, and played video games with my friends. If I’m perfectly honest, I never expected to be a musician as a kid. it always seemed out of reach or impractical somehow. The narrative surrounding work growing up was, “Get good grades, go to a good college, and get a good job.” I pursued Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Colorado, because I’ve always had an intense sense of social justice and morality. I wanted to understand the world around me better, so that someday, I could be of some help.
But as I entered the workforce after college, employed by a prominent environmental non-profit in Boulder, CO, I realized through my studies and work that the entrenched political and economic systems in place weren’t going anywhere. For a while this caused a lot of anguish for me, and I felt unsure of how I could make a difference or do something meaningful with my life. Now, as an artist, I do feel a pull toward writing about social justice and helping the world through advocacy in my music. But my desire to heal and unite people through stories close to my heart is overwhelmingly powerful – and listeners often tell me how moved they were by my stories and songs.
To this end, I try to spread a message of kindness and recognizing one another’s humanity during my shows – that we’re all in this together, and we’re all really on the same team. In a way, I’m grateful to have pursued the academic path that I did, because I might have otherwise wondered, “what if” or “what can I do?” Today, I feel that I’m doing the best I can, by touching one person’s heart at a time.
WAMFest: Do you have any formal music training – did you go to school or take lessons, or are you self-taught?
Donovan: I spent a lot of time in vocal groups as a kid – learning to sight read, use the Solfège system (Do-Re-Mi), and most importantly, learning to listen. I’m fond of saying that the same thing that makes a good friend also makes a good musician – it really all comes down to being a good listener. I spent some time in music classes reading off of a page, but by the time I had a guitar in my hands, I was sick of Do-Re-Mi and ready to have fun playing my favorite songs.
I took a few guitar lessons here and there, but I’m mostly self-taught. I spent a lot of time playing the same 4 chords over, and over, and over again until they sounded smooth. That same childhood friend I mentioned earlier (his name is Thomas) helped to instill a passion for music theory into my heart during college, so a lot of my playing is trained and thought out in that sense. I’m a bit of a theory nerd, so don’t get me started on parallel keys and chord choices, unless you want an hour-long diatribe about the beautiful interwoven nature of the different modes.
WAMFest: How would you describe your music style, and what is it that inspires or motivates you to write about something, a particular topic?
Donovan: I learned pretty quickly through playing in bars and cafes that stealing the attention of the room with a loud guitar and screaming vocals wasn’t my style. I saw too many musicians try that trick and get ignored by audiences. My approach is basically to play my set, regardless of the venue, as if I’m playing for a packed, hushed living room of 20 friends. At times, it’s quiet and subtle, but it forces listeners to pay attention, lest they might miss something. I often play in other musicians’ bands, and my style is much the same: I would rather play tastefully and subtly, at the risk of not playing enough, than to “overplay” and overpower the sound of the band any day.
I’m often inspired by events in my own life, or events that I’ve seen people close to me go through. Love, loss, childhood, and the passage of time are common themes in my music. Songwriting is a sacred sort of ritual for me, and it often takes hours of quiet, meditative time to get just a few lines on the page. A lot of my music is from the first-person perspective, and I’m interested in expanding that to write more from the perspective of others.
WAMFest: Who are your musical influences, and what was it about them and their music that inspired and influenced you and your own music – your sound and/or style?
Donovan: I would say some of my biggest influences as a kid were The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Counting Crows. The tight-knit harmonies from John, Paul, and George really cemented a love for singing early on, and the same is true for Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s duo. There’s something so ethereal and beautiful about the music from both groups that touches a tender place in my heart. It’s something I’ve always wanted to replicate.
Counting Crows’ Long December was often playing around New Years’ Day, and I’ve always loved the descriptive, detailed storytelling that Adam Duritz puts forward in his music. His voice is an emotive tenor, but distinctly different from so many others. There’s something powerful in his songwriting that I’ve always admired.
More recently, Anna Tivel has had a huge influence on my songwriting. Her approach on songwriting is like a well-crafted sentence. It’s not too simple, and not too complex. Just enough is being said to support the sentiment, and it’s being said beautifully. When I saw Anna play at Folk Alliance International in 2017, I cried my eyes out and got up the courage to approach her the next day. When I asked her what the secret to her writing was, she told me to listen to Guy Clarke, read a lot of books, and never to make a song 100% truth or 100% fiction. I’ve done my best to heed those words ever since. Anna’s my musical hero at the moment, and I can’t get enough of her music. Please check it out – I promise you won’t regret it.
WAMFest: For you personally, what are the best and worst things about being a working musician and songwriter?
Donovan: The best part of the job absolutely is the connection I’ve found to a larger community. There are so many talented musicians and songwriters on the Front Range of Colorado, not to mention the incredible base of support and music-loving listeners here. Having a community of people who are so passionate about music is a huge part of my life, and I’m grateful every day for the people that surround me. Moreover, I’m grateful for the ability to make a living by expressing myself through original music and collaborating with others to bring their ideas and songs to life.
There’s a real lack of security as a working musician. I’m primarily self-employed, which means I’m responsible for setting goals and deciding what success looks like. Maybe back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a model for “making it” in the music business. Today, the landscape is very different. Anyone can make an album, and no one can sell one. I’d say the biggest drawback to being a working musician is also one of the biggest advantages: You’re on your own schedule, and you set the standard for success. For some people, that’s daunting and even terrifying. I count myself lucky because I see it as a challenge, and I’m driven to succeed by all the folks who believe in me and my mission. I feel like the world has my back.
WAMFest: Where do you see yourself and your music in three to five years from now?
Donovan: My trajectory right now is sending me toward more listening rooms. I currently play a lot of bars, restaurants, and cafes which pay a small guarantee, but have little regard for the sanctity of an original folk song. In three or four years, I would be grateful to have more shows where I’m playing to an audience who is hanging on every word. I’d like to expand my skill set to being a composer and producer, as well as a performer. I run the sound board at a local coffee shop right now part-time, but I’m working on expanding that into producing other independent musicians. I’m working on becoming better at piano, and I’m hopeful that those efforts will be fruitful in a few years. I would love to be able to fluidly accompany my voice on the piano as well as the guitar. I’d also like to travel more — to Europe especially. Building small fan bases and pockets of venues throughout Europe has been a dream for a while, and I’m starting to see it take shape in my mind’s eye.
WAMFest: If your entry is chosen as winner, what will you do to celebrate?
Donovan: This might sound strange, but if I win the competition, I’ll probably book a tour to celebrate. The accolade would help me get much closer to my dream of playing listening rooms and house concerts — and if I travel through Portland, Oregon, Anna Tivel’s hometown, I’ll ask her if I can open up a show for her!
Kyle Donovan will compete in the Al Johnson Performing Songwriter Contest on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. on the United Healthcare Singer Songwriter Stage in the Eisemann Center. Kyle is also booked to perform on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. on the CityLine Stage at the 26th Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival. Tickets available www.wildflowerfestival.com and more information about the contest: http://www.wildflowerfestival.com/songwriter-contest/.