From the lead singer of the band Great Big Sea comes a lyrical and captivating musical memoir about growing up in the tiny fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, and then taking to the world stage. Singer-songwriter and front man of the great Canadian band Great Big Sea, Alan Doyle is also a lyrical storyteller and a creative force.
In Where I Belong, Alan paints a vivid, raucous and heartwarming portrait of a curious young lad born into the small coastal fishing community of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, and destined to become a renowned musician who carried the musical tradition of generations before him and brought his signature sound to the world. He tells of a childhood surrounded by larger-than-life characters who made an indelible impression on his music and work; of his first job on the wharf cutting out cod tongues for fishermen; of growing up in a family of five in a two-bedroom house with a beef-bucket as a toilet, yet lacking nothing; of learning at his father’s knee how to sing the story of a song and learning from his mother how to simply “be good”; and finally, of how everything he ever learned as a kid prepared him for that pivotal moment when he became part of Great Big Sea and sailed away on what would be the greatest musical adventure of his life.
Filled with the lore and traditions of the East Coast and told in a voice that is at once captivating and refreshingly candid, this is a narrative journey about small-town life, curiosity and creative fulfillment, and finally, about leaving everything you know behind only to learn that no matter where you go, home will always be with you.
Throughout December, I’ll be selecting a variety of books to recommend as my Holiday Hints for 2014. The lovely people at Random House of Canada were kind enough to provide me with an interview with the oh-so-charming Alan Doyle, and I’m pleased to recommend his memoir, “Where I Belong” as my first pick of the season. Reading this book was like sitting at his kitchen table while the party went on around us. There is such affection in this book for his family, his home town and his musical influences that there’s never a dull moment. This is the perfect book for the music-lover in your family, and for anyone who loves a great story.
A word about this interview: It seemed the fates were against us – between fire alarms, artillery drills from the military base nearby and a wicked thunderstorm, it seemed we might miss each other. My thanks to Alan and his publicist for being so patient, and for give me so much time on the phone.
Welcome, and thanks for agreeing to talk to me today. I was fortunate enough to be at your Toronto launch event the other night – do you have any other memorable celebrations coming up for the book?
We’re having a party in St. John’s and then we’re having a launch – the book lauch – in Petty Harbour, which may well be the first book launch in the history of the town.
Is there a bookstore in Petty Harbour?
No! God no, we’re having the thing in my old school. It’s a celebration of the book, really.
I have to say that after I finished the book, I realized that it’s much like having you telling me the stories at a kitchen party.
Oh, fantastic, that’s good news, thank you. I have to say that was one of my concerns when writing the book – I didn’t want it to read like someone else was telling the stories. I’m such a novice writer in that regard, the only way I kind of knew how to do that was that I’d write a chapter, and then I’d go down to the studio in my house. I’d record myself reading it, and if it didn’t sound like me talking, I’d rewrite it. I’m so used to the way I sound that it doesn’t bother me, but I don’t read to myself often, that’s for sure.
The book is pretty much a valentine to your hometown and to your whole family. Who read it first, and what kind of feedback did you want from them?
One of the first people I asked to read it was a friend of mine called Dawn Chafe. Dawn is the editor of the Atlantic Magazine.
Dawn’s mentioned in the book, yes?
Yes! Dawn is a very literary person, who happens to spend most of her life in Petty Harbour. She married a guy from Petty Harbour and knows most of the details of the earlier parts of the book as well as I do. So I had her read it, because she could serve as a fact-checker for a couple of things – many things – but that was the first question I asked of her. I said, “If this doesn’t read like a love letter to my family and my home town, I need to know, because that’s what I intend it to be.”
That so true. It’s not like you ever set out to mock anyone, even in the more serious incidents such as the incidents with the teacher who bullied you, you still managed to remain respectful about it. Who in your family was first?
My brother! He was so good about it. He would say things like, “Well, you better check with C about the bathroom stuff, but other than that we’re good to go.”
While your family is a huge part of the book, you also seem to pick up and create families wherever you go – with hockey, with your work on the wharf, with the band. Do you think this is just something your family does, or something innate to you, or is it something bigger – the Newfoundland way? I have friends who seem to host Thanksgiving dinners for everyone they’ve ever met as well as the aunties and uncles.
I love that whole idea of no matter what, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, of building a gang around me. That’s my default position, whenever I go somewhere new or do something new is to try to gather as many people I know and to bring them along to do it with me. I love having a gang around all the time. I can’t help it. Solitude buys me nothing, and I’m the only songwriter I know who’s more satisfied by co-writing a song than doing it on my own.
We both seemed to have the childhood where you got up and had breakfast, then packed your lunch and disappeared ’til supper. That doesn’t seem to be the way for a lot of kids now. Those kinds of things shaped who you are, so if you could bring any part of that back, what would you want for your kids?
Having unscheduled, unstructured time with a big gang of dudes! That would be IT. I wouldn’t say or wish for another thing. My little boy is eight, and he doesn’t necessarily need for him to have the childhood I had, working on the wharves and all that. I think whatever he’s doing and hopefully whatever he ends up doing in his young life will be as fascinating for him. There’s no reason for a different circumstance not to be as equally fascinating and fantastic for him. The one thing I try to provide, even though it’s difficult in a modern parenting kind of way, is unscheduled and unstructured time so he can play with a gang of kids on his street. It’s just eight kids on a trampoline. Their lives are so rubberized and so structured and so scheduled that it’s out of control.
So you wouldn’t give him a knife and a bucket and tell him to come home when it was full?
I’d probably be put in jail if I tried! If we parented the way my parents did [laughing]… those times were so different, especially in Petty Harbour. When I talk about being on the wharf as a kid – I was talking about it with someone the other day – they say to me, “It sounds dangerous, but it probably wasn’t”. I have to correct them and say “Oh no, it was, it really was, of course it was.” We were under no illusions that our safety was anyone else’s concern except our own. We knew going in that “Guys, you’re on the wharf, if you fall in then you’re going to drown, so don’t fall in.”
Food is a huge memory piece for you in this book. What is your best food memory?
Oh, that’s an easy one… Mom’s bread baking in the house. Just being in the house, knowing that at any moment, eight loaves of fresh white bread would be sitting on the counter, covered in butter, waiting for us. We were allowed to have a go at the bread; most of the other food was guarded, but we had 24-hour access to the bread and we made good use of it. She still makes eight loaves at a time.
You grew up in a pretty traditional town, both in cultural and religious terms, yet there are some very strong women in your book. Who do you see as your strongest female influences?
My mom, obviously. She was the only member of my whole extended family, the Doyles, who wasn’t from Petty Harbour. Most of Petty Harbour people, Doyles included, were inward looking all the time. The default position was to stay in Petty Harbour, but my mother’s philosophy was to be more outward looking. She had sisters in the United States, sisters in different parts of Canada, and somehow through her I always felt that travel and exploring were options that were a little closer for me than some people. Don’t fall into a habit of staying somewhere just because you think you should. Live in Petty Harbour because you want to be there.
When you talk about your parents, you talk a lot about how they so often gave to others, without a second thought. I know that charitable work is a significant part of your own life, but it’s not a huge part in the book. What do you feel are important areas where you feel you can give back?
Most of our really big charitable work for me happened when Great Big Sea started, when we became in a position to help others. The book ends before that, of course, but in my adult life it’s kind of become a big thing, because luckily I’m put in a position to help. I’m more and more aware that I wouldn’t be a position to help without the general public, so when there comes an opportunity to give back to them, to say thank you, it makes sense. I can’t do it as often as I could, but I try to do as much as I can.
Tying in to that last question … I have to ask, only because Ken Dryden was there last night and I’ll admit to being a little starstruck – have you thought of participating in Sleeping Children Around the World?
Oh geez, I’m still a huge fan of his. He’s so fantastic. I remain a massive fan of his, first as a goalie with the Montreal Canadiens, but then as a writer and educator – he’s a bit of a hero of mine. I’d love to do more with him if we could find the right project together.
Just a few short questions for you to wrap up….
What are you reading?
In my bag I have Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, and it’s supposed to be my reading on this trip but I haven’t had a chance to start it. I hope to though – I haven’t done more than the first few sentences, I’ve been so busy!
What is it in the waters of Newfoundland that makes everyone so creative?!
Entertaining is generally born into Newfoundlanders … we are more likely to be in the concert than going to the concert. Especially in my family – we’re all musicians and, you know, most Newfoundlanders are social-holics, especially compared to the rest of Canada. It’s like we take it upon ourselves to be the life of the part. What comes with that, of course, is the music that lives in the air. There were songs that you just know, and that you don’t remember learning. In my own particular case, at my own high school, I was lucky to get there with teachers and friends in a little heyday of the arts, where the school was just the right size, so if you wanted to be on the hockey team and on the theatre arts program, that was cool. Everybody got to do whatever they were interested in, and that was great. I met musical friends of mine, and theatre friends of mine – all these super-duper incredibly creative people who were encouraged and allowed to chase whatever fancy came to them. It was as stroke of luck to be in that school at that time.
[Laughs] Be good! Can’t top that one, man. Be good at your gig. Be good at your job. Be a good dad to your kids, be a good husband to your wife. Be a good brother to your brother, a good bandmate to your bandmates. It covers it all, indeed.
Last question – your mom’s last words to you are always “Be Good”. What are your last words to your son?
She sounds like a pretty wise woman. Will she be at the party? With her bread?
Of course – accordion too, I hope. It’s going to be a long night!
My thanks to Random House of Canada, Alan Doyle and especially Lindsey Reeder for facilitating this interview. Where I Belong is out now, and is a fantastic holiday gift for pretty much everyone on your list!