In late May, Kyle Donovan packed up his guitar and headed south, about a hundred miles west of Austin, to perform in the Kerville New Folk Competition. Sitting backstage the day of his performance, the Longmont-based musician focused on his breath. In a moment an emcee would announce Donovan’s name and he would step onto the stage and face 500 sets of eyes.
He was nervous, and the moment came quickly. But centerstage, a surprising sensation washed over Donovan.
“Everyone was dead silent, just waiting to connect, waiting for you to show them something that they already knew but had forgotten, waiting for something powerful to emerge that they could relate to,” he says over coffee recently in Gunbarrel. “In this really beautiful moment, it struck me: I’m not only not alone, this isn’t about me.”
If you look at Donovan’s career as a musician, it’s clear he’s always known, at least subconsciously, it isn’t about him. Everything he does is in service of the connections that come from music. It’s all about community — he’s all about community.
Though he seems a little bashful when he talks about it, Donovan maintains a regular gig singing to elementary school kids about important topics in science with a program he developed called Rock On! Science. (He has some educational background in astrophysics, which helps. We’re not sure what the political science and philosophy degrees help with.)
Then just last year he launched a live performance podcast, The Songwriter Hour, inviting musicians from around Colorado to share their stories and songs in the intimate space at Still Cellars in Longmont.
“The podcast was created out of a desire to serve the community, but also a desire to build community, a desire to build a sense of connection with other musicians and with other people in the community,” he says, “and I discovered quickly that it was way more than either of those things … there was something more powerful and almost divine about the space that was created. The space [at Still Cellars] can only hold about 45 people, but when you have a group of 45 people who are really silent, really listening to every word these people are singing, there’s a power there. It’s almost palpable in the air.”
Donovan finds himself searching more and more for this “transcendent connection,” the sense of unity that flooded him at Kerville and during his podcasts. When he decided to pursue songwriting seriously just five years ago, he figured the best thing he could do for himself and his music was to define success on his own terms.
“You have to know what your values are, what your goals are,” he says. “You have to know what you’re going after because nobody can define success but you. ‘Making it’ is making a living. Other than that, it’s all up to you.”
His work always serves his core values: it builds community, it’s a genuine form of self-expression, an act of service, a positive influence for others… and it earns Donovan at least a little income. (Remember: ‘making it’ is making a living.)
His forthcoming solo album, Then and Now, is a physical representation of Donovan’s values. More than 200 people pooled their resources — whether that was donating to a Kickstarter campaign, creating the album art, adding percussion to a track or providing advice on mastering in post-production — to bring the album to life. Donovan penned all nine tracks, and also took on all the post-production work. Local troubadours Bonnie and Taylor Sims, Antonio Lopez, Jason Bertone and Michelle Pietrafitta of Banshee Tree added their talents to the album.
Taking cues from master songwriters like Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) and Paul Simon, both vocally and lyrically, Donovan presents an album that examines the human experience through personal narratives of love and loss and the befuddling relativity of time. His voice, a clear, effortless tenor, celebrates and soothes as easily as it laments and unsettles. With genuine charm (and, frankly, boyish good looks) on his side, there’s no question that Donovan could travel far and wide.
But that’s not exactly what he wants to do. Again, he’s doing this on his terms.
His friend Michael Wooten, a drummer who’s played and toured with Carole King and traveled for several years with Leftover Salmon, gave Donovan a tip he holds dear:
“He says, ‘Don’t spend your life on a bus. Don’t spend your life waiting in a small airplane cabin to get to the next place. Be with the people you love, be doing the things that you love right now.’”
Other artists have told Donovan that touring is the only way, and he knows they’re giving him the best advice they’ve got. But he believes there’s another way, a way that lets him do what he loves… right now.
“I’m not going to spend 200, 300 days a year on the road. I want to be here. I want to be with my community. I want to be building that sense of unity.”
ON THE BILL: Kyle Donovan, ‘Then and Now’ album release — with Bonnie & the Clydes. 7 p.m.Thursday, Aug. 29, eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St., Boulder. Tickets are $22, etown.org