Singer-songwriter Kyle Donovan has a knack for finding universal themes in everyday life. On his debut solo release, Then and Now, which drops this week, the former student of philosophy draws on his penchant for penning material with a compelling blend of mystery and commonality while simultaneously displaying impressive vocal and instrumental talent.
Donovan's skills have taken the Colorado troubadour to five major festivals and contests in the past year, including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, the Kerrville Folk Festival and an award-winning performance at the Wildflower Arts and Music Festival.
With the help of more than 200 friends and fans, he raised in excess of $20,000 to support the recording and production of his latest effort. A DIYer and self-taught sound engineer, Donovan undertook the recording, mixing and mastering of the album himself over the course of three years, consulting with numerous audio engineers, including two-time Grammy nominee James Tuttle.
Westword spoke to Donovan about the new album and other aspects of his rising folk artistry.
Westword: How long have you been in Colorado?
Kyle Donovan: I've been here for about ten years. I moved here to attend school at CU Boulder in 2009, and as soon as I graduated, I got a desk job and started down that path. But I had a friend who kept me straight and who turned to me one day and said, "Man, you gotta quit your job or shut the fuck up." I was complaining too much. It was great. It was some honesty that I needed. So I did quit my job, and I went back to New York and moved in with my dad for a little while. He was great. He took it really well and encouraged me and let me focus on music, which gave me a head start. A lot of artists and musicians have to start out while working their day jobs, and I kind of got to drop everything. But I went back to New York for a little while and focused on my music. I played over a hundred gigs in the first year and did some recording. I recorded a couple albums and played in a band under the name Miles Wide. After doing a nationwide tour with that band, I came back to Boulder. As soon as I got back to Boulder, I felt like this is where I'm supposed to be; Colorado is my home. Then I lived in Denver for a while before moving up to Longmont, where I live now.
What kind of degree did you earn at CU Boulder?
Philosophy and political science.
Has studying philosophy had any impact on your songwriting?
Yeah, one of the themes of my new album is universality and humanism, and I love that aspect of it. There are certain universal questions that don't have an answer to them. In terms of ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, he thought the best answer is that actually you don't know the answer to some questions, and that the person who accepts his lack of knowledge might actually be the wisest. They had such a great concept of duality. All this metaphysics stuff about particles and waves — what a particle is and isn't. It's cool because you get down to a sub-atomic level, and you find out that there are these dualities to things that they figured out. The ancient Greeks knew you needed the light for the darkness 2,000 years ago.
Did you say your dad moved out to Colorado to live with you?
He did. He sold the old childhood home that I grew up in back in Rochester, New York, and moved out here. It was the place I went back to when I moved home to start my music career. I wrote a song about it on the new album. The song is called "Old Wood Door." I was working on songs for the album, and I was trying to figure out what to write about, and my dad called and said, "Would it break your heart if I sold the old childhood home?" He lives out here with me now.
Talk about the mysteries of life — he has come into some health challenges. It's been crazy. And talking about there being questions to which we'll never have answers, the pain of mortality really lends itself to feelings of meaninglessness. Pain can lead to those bigger-picture questions, like why are we here and what are we doing? Through all of this, he has continued to instill in me a sense of peace and optimism, but also of acceptance. Even in the darkest moments, my dad continues to be unique, and I love it. We live together here in Longmont.
Is this your first full-length solo album?
Yeah, I did an EP and a full-length with my last project, Miles Wide, which is a band I put together with some Boulder people who I talked into playing music with me right before I moved back to New York. But this is the first album with my name on it and where I'm giving direction to players in the band. I've written and released two other albums before this, but this is the first solo one.
That was a pretty impressive fundraising effort for this release...
It's a huge community effort. A ton of musicians came together to help out with it. I produced the record, recorded it and mastered it myself — with a lift from all the people who helped me crowdfund it on Kickstarter and all the musicians who joined in, too. I'm planning on recording some more singles over the course of the coming months, because it was so successful.
Is it a full band on this release, or mostly solo playing?
There's a full band on most of the tracks, but the "Old Wood Door" track is just me and a guitar, and there are a couple tracks where it's just me and a piano and a guitar. But the rest of it is a band thing. I do a little of both as an artist. Sometimes I play solo, and sometimes I'll play with a group here in Longmont called Clandestine Amigo. I also do some stuff on electric guitar in that band.
Can people hear all these sides of your playing on your new album?
Yeah, and I was able to include a lot of amazing regional talent to help create different sounds for every song on the album. It's got a bunch of people including Bonnie and Taylor Sims from Bonnie and the Clydes; Monica Marie from Monocle Band, Kate Farmer; Antonio Lopez; Colin Robison; and Jason Bertone and Michelle Pietrafitta from Banshee Tree. They all did incredible work on the album.
So are you doing music full-time now?
I am, and I also do a podcast called The Songwriter Hour, which is an interview-style show where I talk to local musicians. I do it at a place called Still Cellars, where they play their songs and I ask them questions along with an audience. It's a cool event where I can get in touch with the community and promote new artists and create the kind of place where I would want to be. It's mostly singer-songwriters.
Do you have any musical influences you want to mention?
Early on, it was all Beatles, all the time. As I got older, it branched out to Simon and Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young and some of that classic-rock stuff. Then I found bands like the Counting Crows. They were a huge influence growing up.
How many tracks are on this new album?
It's a nine-track album.
Kyle Donovan album release, with Bonnie & the Clydes, 7 p.m. Thursday, August 29, eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce Street, Boulder, $22.