The name Blueberry Hill may strike a chord in the minds of St. Louisans as the beloved Delmar Loop eatery and concert venue, but for Saint Louis University graduate and Americana artist John Donovan, the name means something more.
On Oct. 15, Donovan will release “Wet Shoes,” his first album with Blueberry Hill Records. Blueberry Hill Records is an independent label based in Salem, Ore., who reached out to Donovan through his Bandcamp page after the release of his debut album “Bells Will Ring” in September of 2010.
Donovan had to adjust some of his creative methods after inking the deal with Blueberry Hill Records. While his first album was driven by the acoustic guitar and completely self-recorded in Donovan’s bedroom in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, parts of “Wet Shoes” were written in student housing at The Flats. Other parts of the album were recorded at R & R Music Labs and Utopia Studios in St. Louis.
For this album, Donovan said that he added a drummer, a bass player and a keyboardist because he wanted more rhythm. “Wet Shoes” is largely an exploration of the Americana genre. Americana is a fusion of roots and folk-style music that reflects upon tradition. While folk music aims to pass traditions along, Americana is more abstract.
“The mindset in general for most of the songs on [“Wet Shoes”] is kind of about loss of love and longing, but there are also shots of happiness and hope,” Donovan said.
The album artwork also reflects Donovan’s careful attention to detail. His grandfather gave him a number of his grandmother’s paintings shortly after she passed away, and her artwork was used to create the cover. Donovan’s album also features the talents of six other musicians, all of whom have graduated from or are pursuing a degree at SLU. A number of contributors were involved in the University’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts.
Artists such as Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens have inspired Donovan’s love and affinity for music. Donovan mentioned Bob Dylan in particular among his musical influences, and said that a tour with Dylan would be “a dream come true.”
“I’ve tried to listen to everything he’s put out, but I’m still working on it,” Donovan said.
Donovan graduated from SLU in May of 2011, majoring in music studies and minoring in theology. He kept himself busy with his involvement in on-campus groups, such as performing in Jazz and Classical Guitar ensembles. He was also one of the founding members of the Music Honors Society. Donovan credits Aaron Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, for teaching him music theory courses throughout his undergraduate studies.
First picking up the saxophone in fourth grade, Donovan started writing his own music in his early college days. He said he has become fluent in various instruments, including the guitar, the mandolin, the banjo and the bass clarinet.
“Ideally, I would like for my music to get big enough so I could to use it to support myself,” Donovan said. “That is tough for anyone to do, especially with the music industry in such shambles.”
As he spoke, his dedication to the art of music shone through, particularly as he spoke about his desire to teach music to others.
Donovan said the means in which the music industry functions today, though, upsets him. In the current digital era, CD sales have deteriorated as a main source of income for musicians. Musicians have initiated new marketing and promotional campaigns to attract more publicity and revenue. As an example, Donovan said he appreciated how Radiohead allowed their fans to buy the album “In Rainbows” for free or name their own price when the CD went on sale.
“That’s the future of the music industry,” Donovan said. “It’s just a matter of how long the rest of the industry takes to tank.”
Donovan said he is optimistic about his involvement in the local music scene. He met a fellow musician of the same energy named Andy Berkhout, who has so far introduced him to a number of local promoters and booking managers. Berkhout and Donovan are also members of a local folk band known as Trotting Bear.
A CD release party for “Wet Shoes” has been scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 15 at The Tavern of Fine Arts in the Central West End. The venue books primarily classical artists, and Donovan said he was grateful for the venue to make a special exception.
Donovan has already reached his pre-order sales goal for his new album through Kickstarter, an online pledge system for financially supporting creative ventures or projects.
“I’m already thinking about my next couple albums,” Donovan said.
He already has 12 songs on the table for production, and Donovan plans to soon revisit the heavy guitar influences that underlined his first album “Bells Will Ring.” Ideas for new material are always in the works because for some of them, Donovan is reluctant to have a pen and paper handy.