'The whole thing was a discovery for me': Alan Doyle tackles touring Canada in 2nd book

An old hand at touring but a self-described "novice" in publishing, Doyle learned more about both Canada and home as a musician on the road.

A Newfoundlander in Canada is one of 4 books selected for NL Reads

Alan Doyle's book A Newfoundlander in Canada is part of the inaugural NL Reads event.

Singer-songwriter Alan Doyle is already well known as a musician in Newfoundland and Labrador, both for his work with Great Big Sea and for his solo recordings. But Doyle, whose second book A Newfoundlander in Canada: Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home is part of NL Reads, still considers himself a literary newbie.

"I feel particularly grateful that this book, and the last book for that matter, get included," Doyle said of his selection for the inaugural year of NL Reads. "It's nice to be a part of it, to be honest, and I still consider myself quite a novice."

His modesty may be misplaced. Doyle's first book, Where I Belong, earned positive reviews across the country and was a Globe and Mail bestseller.

His followup memoir A Newfoundlander in Canada, published by Doubleday Canada in 2017, picks up where his debut left off, covering his first experiences touring the country with Great Big Sea. 

"The whole thing was a discovery for me," Doyle said of those early touring experiences.

"You need to remember, of course, that it was in the early '90s. It was before the internet world and it was still difficult, compared to today, to find out things like what cities looked like. There was a little more mystery to it than there is these days."

Fittingly, Doyle spoke from the road while in Portland, Ore., where he would play a solo show with his touring band later that night.

The Newfoundland/Saskatchewan connection

Criss-crossing a chunk of land as large as Canada naturally highlighted some of what was different about Newfoundland compared to other parts of the country.

Natural features like the mountains or the prairies stood out, Doyle said, because they themselves are so singular. And huge places like Toronto or Vancouver "might as well be Mars," compared with his hometown of Petty Harbour.

A Newfoundlander in Canada, the cover of which is seen here, is the second memoir by Alan Doyle and was released in 2017 by Doubleday Canada. (Doubleday Canada)

But what Doyle found even more surprising as he toured the country were the ways the rest of it was similar to home — and to him, Saskatchewan was the most like us of all, despite the obvious geographic differences.

"I kind of assumed that we would have nothing in common, and they wouldn't go for sea-shanty music. But as it turns out the people with the mindset closest to Newfoundlanders in the country seem to be in Saskatchewan," Doyle said.

"They have this survivalist mentality of no one's coming to fix this for us, whatever's wrong we have to fix it ourselves. They have this community-minded nature and the same kind of little-brother attitude that we have in Newfoundland."

A changing view of the province

Newfoundland and Labrador's profile has risen across Canada and around the world in recent years thanks to politicians like former premier Danny Williams, authors like Michael Crummey and Joel Thomas Hynes, and the Broadway hit Come From Away. 

Doyle watched those changes in real time over the years, as he toured with both Great Big Sea and solo.

From left, Darrell Power, Séan McCann, Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett are the original members of Great Big Sea. (Rolling Stone )

During the time period in which A Newfoundlander in Canada is set, Doyle heard very little about his home province when he was on the road.

"We were so often the first thing people ever knew about Newfoundland," he said of Great Big Sea. "The only thing, really, most Canadians knew about Newfoundland were Newfie joke books and that the fishery was bad."

But over the last decade, things began to shift. The Williams years led to a higher national profile for the province, and a new focus began on selling the province as a tourist destination.

Newfoundland and Labrador artists, Doyle and Great Big Sea included, earned greater recognition away from home. More recently, Come From Away is bringing a uniquely Newfoundland story to an international audience.

"It feels like with the combination of various factors, I think people have a genuine curiosity about the totality of the place, rather than a singular view or no view at all," Doyle said.

'We think that's normal, and it's not'

As much as Doyle said he sees Newfoundland in new ways every time he returns home, he acknowledged that we can never see home the same way that an outsider might. 

The fact Newfoundland is an island is key to our culture and our understanding of it, Doyle said.

"We don't often think about ourselves as an island because our island is so big, but we are one," Doyle said. "You go look at the grocery store shelves over Christmas and you'll know what I mean."

Doyle's book addresses the particular difficulties of being a touring musician from Newfoundland, because of the geographic reality of our remoteness. 

"We think that's normal, and it's not, because island cultures need to convince themselves that it's not that far from the next place," Doyle said.

"Simple things like that, it's just impossible to have an accurate view of because you kind of need to tell yourself it's something that it isn't."

The panel discussion for NL Reads will be held at the A.C. Hunter Library, on the third floor, in St. John's on Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. Readers can also vote online for their favourite of the four selected books.