Special Interview: Doug Levitt

Singer & Songwriter Doug Levitt catches up with Brian Peel from THEAUSSIEWORD.COM.

How and where did it all begin for you? What drew your interest to the music industry?

In terms of the origins of music for me, it has a few answers — from a few different time periods in my life.  From the earliest of ages, I sang in various choirs. concert choirs, chamber choirs, gospel choirs, even madrigals. And I’ll deny that I had to wear 17th century clothing in madrigals, but music was always an avenue for me where there was a a positive feedback loop and also an avenue for expression that really took on a different level of importance after I lost my father to suicide when I was 16 years old.

I began writing songs and playing guitar as well. And that provided an avenue for release in a sense that I couldn’t find elsewhere as I really couldn’t cry for many years. In terms of it being a career, I had to go through some other routes before that came to pass. Initially I had a career that I had built in as a foreign correspondent for American broadcast networks like CNN and ABC traveling places such as Iran and Rwanda, and had gotten to a point of enough promising success that I realized if I didn’t change gears then then I wasn’t going to change gears.

And I could tell from some of my internal structures beginning to crumble in a way that music was really going to be the only avenue of pursuit because I worried that if I didn’t follow my instincts, I would suffer the same kind of fate as my father. And so I left London where I had created a career and moved to Nashville and not long thereafter, found myself on a Greyhound with a six-week bus pass and an idea to write songs about fellow travelers. 

What motivates or influences you in your quest to make great music?

I would say what motivates me, in part, is the people whose stories find their way into songs that they’ve inspired and so wanting to make the most fitting expression to tell someone else’s story has a built in motivator because you want to get it right. And then if the song is drawing out of my own experience well there’s a different kind of motivator to also get that right. And to have it be as honest and hopefully in some ways as applicable to others as possible.

What are some of your biggest goals you hope to accomplish?

My biggest goals are also seemingly the seeminlgy ‘smallest’ goals, which is to say the goals that affect individuals while I of course hope to reach the broadest audience possible and to have a sustained career of decades playing music writing music and being able to perform both in venues large and small — and some that wouldn’t even seem to be venues at all like shelters and prisons, but places where people are in deep need music 

What can we expect from you in the coming months? Any plans to tour?

I will be touring in the United States and also in the UK in January and will be on a Greyhound tour being followed by the BBC. Prior to that the goal is to support efforts to reach listeners wherever they find themselves and to do other promotional tour support behind the record. 

Tell us a bit about your latest release and how would you best describe your music?

I would say that the music falls under the broader umbrella of Americana or folk, it is rooted and my journeys by Greyhound over more than 12 years and 120,000 bus miles along the way, writing songs about fellow travelers at the crossroads. The songs are tales of redemption, renewal, reflection and a restive spirit on the road to a greater sense of self. The record was recorded along the way and produced by legendary Trina Shoemaker behind multiple records by Brandi Carlile Josh Ritter. Tanya Tucker. Sheryl Crow, the Indigo Girls and many others. 

Give us an insight into your creative process. What gets you writing songs?

I would say that my songwriting is both kind of top down and bottom up. It is top down in the sense that the story defines the music and the ideas and the framing of a song.  It’s bottom up in the sense that both it connects with a personal experience or yearning or awareness. And that is one that is drawn from my own realities or my own emotional sphere or palette.

Is there a hidden meaning in any of your music? 

I wouldn’t say there’s a hidden meaning.  But I would say that I try not to be on the nose about it, that the meaning in my music is one of understanding and being brought into the story of strangers unlike ourselves.  So it’s not really hidden but it’s that the underlying goal is a broad brush understanding of common experience through individual progressions.   

Success, what is the secret to it?

Well, I would say success is appreciating where you are as much as where you are going and your accomplishments as much as your aims. And that can be different no matter who you are or where you find yourself at any moment. And so, for some people success is getting through the day without falling prey to ongoing addiction, success might be having surpassed that first climb on the road to healing or being able to express your own vulnerability. Success depends on the individual but it’s very much as true for those accolades that most people would describe as “success” and those every day personal battles that define success at any moment.  

What has been your biggest career highlight so far?

Includes things like being a surrogate performing on behalf of the then-Senator Barack Obama or playing with the late Richie Havens, and performing live on national television, as well as having a documentary set around my journeys broadcast internationally by the BBC.   

Which stars of the music industry do you find inspiring?

There are artists who lose brilliance has motivated me to make music. On my Greyhound journey, it goes back to being inspired by Depression-era projects of folks like Woody Guthrie. More recently the songs of Bruce Springsteen Jackson Browne, Emmylou, Harris, Steve Earle Brandi Carlile — people who can tells stories distinctly in melody and words. People like the late-Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch and Jason Isbell.  And there are people I’ve known for some time like Citizen Cope who was, as a kid, a good friend of my older sister and was the first recording artist I knew personally and his storytelling aboutthe roots of characters at the margins of society was very influential for me.

Are there any new projects in the pipeline? 

I have other journeys that I’m undertaking and that are being followed by the BBC, including one in December that will have me perform at prisons among other stops and will inspire new songs. I am sure and I will also be revisiting people who I have met along the way. The other thing is I’m working on a book about my journeys, which is a multimedia reflection of my journey. 

The music industry is constantly changing, where do you see yourself a few years?

I hope and expect that I will have a continuing and growing performing career and be able to continue recording albums and folding in other creative avenues into my work. 

What is your favourite and least favourite part about this line of work and why?

I would say my favorite part is that there’s no comparable realm of self expression that combines melody narrative and beauty into a collective whole. My least favorite part is probably the same as the most favorite in terms of where things are drawn from, which is that you have to be vulnerable and permeable in order to experience a song and be able to render it into being.  But because you as an artist are permeable you’re also a bit porous to experience and so can sometimes be swayed this way or that by an abundance of feeling.  

Name a few of your favourite Australian artists.

Vance Joy, Ben Lee, Xavier Rudd

The shape of the music industry has changed significantly over the years, including the use of social media, how do you feel about the industry as a whole and what does it mean to you in getting your records out into the public eye?

Social media is ultimately a direct and vital way to promote once wares.

How will you continue appealing to the international market?

I’m gonna utilize both touring and social media as well as press and ongoing documentary efforts with the BBC to continue growing in the with the international market.

Do you collaborate with others? Who is on your wish-list?

I do collaborate with other words but I have not I would say my wish list in terms of collaboration strangely includes the principal producing partner for this record, Trina Shoemaker because it is an auspicious endeavor that speaks to a sense of deep trust and respect and therefore makes me desire that continued collaboration, along with Brandi Carlile.    

What advice do you give for other artists wanting to follow in your footsteps? 

I would say to others wanting to follow in the footsteps of any singer songwriter. I would say listen to yourself and know that there is deep meaning in our truest desires.  

A message for your fans. How do you best interact and respond with your followers and fans? 

I would say I look forward to connecting online and off and everywhere in between and that your investing your ears — if one can do that — into this music is a true gift and I’m grateful that you’re listening.   

Any final words?

Thanks for listening to the music and to the hopes and stories reflected in this interview and in my music!