Folk Fest: Jackie Leven’s inspiring story

By Emily Senger

The large, middle-aged man with shaggy hair, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing with a lilting Scottish accent on a Calgary Folk Festival side-stage doesn’t look like the frontman of the British punk rock group Doll by Doll. Nor does he look like a recovered heroin addict, or the benefactor of a holistic medicine addictions treatment centre. But, in a musical career spanning three and a half decades, Scottish-born musician Jackie Leven has been all these things and more.

After a career in the ’70s and ’80s at the height of the British punk rock movement Leven’s band, Doll by Doll, split. After the break up Leven decided to try it solo but was nearly killed in an unprovoked attack while walking down a London street. His larynx was injured, halting any singing for two years. During his down time Leven turned to heroin to cope. Eventually, he got clean, and founded the CORE Trust to reach out to other addicts.

“The CORE Trust is a holistic approach to addiction using holistic and psychic healing,” Leven explains. “We have tremendous success rates. I’ve stopped being hands on. My girlfriend and I started it and we had to do everything. Now I’m the benefactor. Now I just go in and meet the staff.”

Despite this amazing life story, which Leven artfully draws from in his deep and moving Celtic folk music, the trip to the Calgary Folk Festival is Leven’s first time on Canadian soil.

“Les [Siemieniuk], the festival director saw me play in Glasgow a couple of years ago,” relates Leven on how he ended up in Calgary for one weekend only. “When my agent sent me the e-mail I thought, this isn’t right.”

No stranger to the folk circuit, Leven tours Europe frequently and extensively, but had yet to make the trip across the Atlantic to Canada. Despite his initial trepidations about the long journey from Beirut, Lebanon, where he was finishing his album Elegy for Johnny Cash, to be released in Canada in February 2006. Leven was pleasantly surprised by the Calgary Folk Festival.

“In Europe, the workshop element is entirely different–it’s kind of tagged on,” he explains. “When I was trying to glean what it was about, at home in the UK, I thought ‘what the hell, this is going to be weird,’ but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ve been really impressed with the workshops.”

In a unique workshop on Sat., July 23, Leven paired with Canadian legend Ron Sexsmith, Danish “Nordick Folkbeat” group Instinkt, and Newfoundland folk singer Ron Hayes. This diverse line up delighted in sharing two continents worth of musical style and experience, resulting in one of the highlights of the festival.

“Ron [Sexsmith] and I have toured together in England, we get on very well,” Leven says. “It’s a good opportunity to have a fleeting transpersonal commitment. The idea is more important than the music.”

In addition to playing several crowd-pleasing sets during the Calgary Folk Fest, Leven had the opportunity to meet several amazing Canadian artists and fans. All of which has lead him to hope his first Canadian trip won’t be his last.

“I thought [my Canadian fan-base] was dead but, it’s clear to me that I can build on it,” he remarks enthusiastically.

Assuming he does come back, perhaps Canada can provide Leven with even more fodder in his already amazing life.

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