Tuesday 12 December 2017

'I had to get sober first of all' - Musician Keith Donald on how becoming a single parent changed his perspective

Musician Keith Donald and his DJ daughter Alex have a great relationship, but he had to quit the booze first to raise her alone

Keith Donald and his daughter Alex are very close and creative. Photo: David Conachy
Keith Donald and his daughter Alex are very close and creative. Photo: David Conachy
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

By the time his daughter Alex came into his life, musician Keith Donald realised he had to make some major personal decisions.

"I had to get sober first of all, and that was a process that took a few years," he says. "By the time Alex was in her early teens, I achieved sobriety. I was a single parent with her for many years, and it was a joyous experience, despite me being a recovering alcoholic and her going through adolescence. We managed to soldier through those things and we remain fantastic friends."

Keith, 72, is best known for his sublime saxophone and clarinet-playing, and for being a founder member of folk rock band Moving Hearts. He was born in Belfast and has an older brother, Philip, but his parents, Raymond and Denise, passed when he was in his 20s. "I was unbelievably shy and a total loner as a child, but I'm a lot more sociable now," he says.

Keith's father played the banjo, his mother was a piano teacher and he played ukulele, recorder, clarinet and saxophone. He was playing professionally and earning "good money" by the time he was 15. He came to Dublin in 1963 to study classics at Trinity College, and worked with the Real McCoy showband through college. "I would do gigs in Donegal, sleep for a few hours and then be at a lecture in Trinity for 9am," he recalls. "Looking back, I have no idea how I managed to do two full-time things."

Keith went on to study social science at UCD, psychology at the University of Minnesota and music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Moving Hearts was formed in 1981 and became hugely popular. Its founder members included Keith, Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Declan Sinnott, Eoghan O'Neill, Brian Calnan and Davy Spillane.

Alex, 40, was born while Keith was married to her mum, but the relationship ended when she was a baby. She lived between her mum and dad for a few years, and with her grandmother Mimi from the age of six to 12. Mimi and her husband Frank have now passed.

"We had an amazing relationship and my gran was an incredible woman," she says. "I went to live with my dad up in the Dublin mountains from 12 until I moved out at 21. Dad and I are very close and have always loved going on holidays together, and we still do it now."

Alex did a degree in media production and management, and worked with St Patrick's Festival for three years. She was a singer for many years, and at 28, her then boyfriend taught her the art of DJing. They lived in London for a couple of years and came home in 2007 and Alex has been DJing professionally since 2011. She has a weekly residency in Whelan's but also does fashion shows and launches, and has DJed in London and Dubai (See www.alexdonald.wordpress.com)

Alex has just finished writing a novel about three generations of women in an Irish family in which there's a history of the mothers leaving their children. She is looking for a publisher and her proud dad says she's a really good writer and it's a fantastic read. "Alex always tells me the truth and that's fabulous because you know where you are with her," he says. "One of my lifetime highs was the first gig of a little jazz group that she and I had together. I went home that night sober, yet very high."

Keith became sober in 1991, and says it's the second best thing he has ever done, after Alex. He drank for 30 years and knew he had to quit, but it took a long time to find the right mechanism. "It was messing with my relationships, work and health," he says. "It took a lot of work and sessions with counsellors to become sober, but it was a really worthwhile journey. I have a lovely life now and great friends and there's a calmness that I never thought I would have."

Father and daughter are both currently single, and Alex appreciates the turnaround Keith made in his life to be a single parent to her. "Single parent families are usually mothers and their kids, so he didn't have many precedents to learn from," she says. "Writing is a solitary occupation, but Dad is a great cheerleader if I'm struggling or feel lost because he's so creative himself. We speak every day on the phone and share a lot of the same interests in terms of books, film and cinema, so we always have lots to talk about."

Keith, who is chairman of IMRO, has written a musical memoir called NewBliss, which he will perform soon at the National Concert Hall.

It tells the story in verse, prose and music of his journey from a troubled and talented child and touring musician who was an alcoholic, to finding his redemption and becoming sober. It's an inspirational story, complete with both laughter and lessons, and it has received a great reaction with standing ovations when he played it in a few festivals and theatres on both sides of the Border and in Brussels. "I've had an interesting life, and have been on the edge of an earthquake, an avalanche and a hurricane," he says. "I was in two of the worst car accidents that you can possibly imagine and was actually dead for two minutes and 10 seconds at one point.

Alex says: "I was really proud of Dad when I saw the show. "To do something new like this is amazing. That's the kind of 72-year-old I want to be - someone who takes chances and risks and pushes themselves."

NewBliss is in the John Field Room of the National Concert Hall on February 28 at 8pm. www.keithdonald.com

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