Rising to fame around the same time as Bob Dylan, Scottish folk singer Donovan initially shared similarities with Minnesota's favorite musical son, but deviated upon embracing psychedelic influences in his folk tunes. In 2015, Minnesota and Donovan's paths cross again, as local nonprofit record label Rock the Cause will release Gazing with Tranquility: A Tribute to Donovan on October 16.
The 15-song covers album, which takes its name from a "Hurdy Gurdy Man" line, includes a healthy dose of Minnesota artists, such as former Replacements drummer Chris Mars (billed here as Mixd Up Kidz), rapper Astronautalis, and country-pop fiddler Jillian Rae. There are also contributions from big-name indie stars such as the Flaming Lips, Sharon Van Etten, Lissie, and the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser.
"We wanted to do something different that would appeal to multi-generations," says Scott Herold, founder and CEO of Rock the Cause. "With interest in neo-folk and neo-psychedelic music being so huge, [younger generations] know his songs even if they think they do not." Herold predicts the music of Donovan, known best from '60s hits like "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Mellow Yellow," is ripe for resurgence.
Gazing with Tranquility began as a project between Rock the Cause and Huntington's Hope, a charitable organization benefitting victims of the genetic disease; 100 percent of the disc's profits will be donated to the charity. Rock the Cause is a nationally recognized name, and that clout helped Herold reach out to Donovan and his legal team, which ultimately led to a late-night call from the 69-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. With everyone on board, Herold was ready to begin hunting for a collection of covers.
The key to a compilation record, Herold says, is to recognize the music and not the names attached. While many tribute albums draw on star power, he approached Gazing with Tranquility more studiously. He sought out highly creative artists with histories of working with charities.
"Some of the acts on the record may be more widely known than others," Herold says. "To me, it was about picking the right artist for each track." That philosophy brings an eclectic collection of covers, ranging from the spacey noise of the Flaming Lips ("Atlantis") to the warm folk of Savannah Smith ("Lalena") to the dance-groove loops of Astronautalis ("Season of the Witch"). You can view the entire track list here.
Two versions of Donovan's classic song "Atlantis" bookend the record, but the covers provide widely disparate approaches. The Flaming Lips' take is cosmic and ethereal, laden with reverb and drowning in psychedelic wonder. Mixd Up Kidz's opening interpretation of the track is more direct, with choral accompaniment, spicy piano lines, and smooth soul delivery.
Both, however, carry over the original weighty chorus, which bogs down the song's hopeful words, creating a longing feeling. Genre-changing cover songs are often more novel than reverent, but Donovan's songs are treated artfully on Gazing with Tranquility, maintaining the core ethos while offering a distinctive spin.
"'Season of the Witch' is such a jam, a classic song that I have loved since I was a little kid," Astronautalis says. As an artist, he relishes the challenge of adapting a '60s folk song and fitting it into his catalog. To do so, he dug deep into the song's foundation. "I like to think about what kids must have felt when they first heard that song when it first came out," he says. "The low groove of the verse and the bombastic sound of the chorus, it reminds me of the range that is so popular in contemporary dance music and even a lot of dance-influenced rap."
Astronautalis broke "Season of the Witch" down to its core and rebuilt it with modern dance elements for dynamic effect. "Once we added those triumphant horns and the 808s were hitting, we knew we had it," he says of the recording sessions with his band leader, Oscar Romero, who plays keys on the track. "We were listening to it on loop, with no vocals, and it just felt like that blew it wide open."
From dance to folk to psychedelia, Donovan's influence is wide-ranging, but his central message is more resolute. Run through a Minnesota filter, Gazing with Tranquility continues to spread the positive, interconnected vibes of Donovan, whether directly to music fans or indirectly to those suffering from of Huntington's disease.
"He was the opposite of Bob Dylan," Herold reminisces. "Donovan's vision was not apocalyptic like Dylan. Donovan was about love, freedom, the power of youth, and the idea that we are all connected. I think his song 'Cosmic Wheels' is my favorite. It sums up everything Donovan is about." 0x00E7
Gazing with Tranquility: A Tribute to Donovan will be available Oct. 16.