Michigan Heritage: Ann Arbor folk singer-songwriter Kitty Donohoe celebrates 50 Years in music with show at The Ark


Kitty Donohoe wears a denim shirt and clasps her hands together.

Ann Arbor folk singer-songwriter Kitty Donohoe. Photo courtesy of Kitty Donohoe.

Kitty Donohoe is celebrating 50 years of writing and performing a timeless mix of original and traditional folk music, including Celtic, Maritime, Canadian, and other sounds from the British Isles.

“It’s almost crept up on me—50 years down the line from my beginning," said the Ann Arbor multi-instrumentalist. "It’s actually been 52 years, but I’m ignoring those two fruitless COVID years. I’ve performed in so many wonderful spots around the country.”

In the ‘80s, Donohoe ventured east to Cambridge, Massachusetts to perform at Club Passim and The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. But one of her most memorable live shows occurred in Arlington, Virginia on September 11, 2008.

“I sang ‘There Are No Words’ at the Pentagon for the dedication of their 9/11 Memorial,” said Donohoe, who penned the track on the day of the attacks.

“That was almost surreal to be surrounded by then-President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and others from the cabinet and to be looking out at a sea of regular people who were personally impacted by 9/11. That was a profound experience—I doubt I could top that.”

Another special night will be Donohoe’s May 19 show at The Ark, which will spotlight her professional milestone with a special performance featuring several friends and the acceptance of the 2024 Michigan Heritage Award. The honor recognizes her 30-plus years of entertaining audiences with her original songs about Michigan.

To learn more, I spoke to Donohoe about her music career ahead of her show at The Ark.

Q: As a longtime songwriter, how do you keep finding new sources of creative inspiration?
A: I’m often inspired by very small, almost inconsequential things. I was thinking about that the other day, and I think we are sponges. We absorb what’s around us and internalize it, and we may not even realize we’re doing that.

Many times, I’ve been on an elevator or in the waiting room, and I hear a bit of the Muzak that’s being played, and I think, “Oh, that’s an interesting series of chords there. Maybe I can reuse that.” I also enjoy reading, watching TV, and walking in the woods near me. I’ve never been able to nail down the source for me or others that turns into something. I’ve been always inspired by something someone is doing, and there’s an amazing array of great artists in this area!

Q: How did your musical journey start while growing up in Metro Detroit? How did playing the piano, guitar, and cittern help shape you as a songwriter and musician and lead you to perform at open mics and local coffeehouses?
A: We lived in Royal Oak—there were eight kids in the family—and at some point when I was about eight or 10, our father decided we were acting like cartoons, and he got rid of the TV. We were horrified—of course—but we were already big readers then, and we got everything we could get our hands on. We’d walk en masse to the Royal Oak Public Library, lug home the maximum number of books we were allowed to have, read them through, and then trudge back and get more. Reading was one avenue to creativity for my siblings and me.

Also, my mother was in college studying to be a concert pianist when she met my dad and started a family, so the only time she could play the piano was when we were all in bed. I remember laying for hours in the dark listening to the magical sounds of Schubert, Mozart, and others flow over me. I’m pretty sure that exposure had a lot to do with my sense of melody. I’m often told it’s a bit nonconformist or unusual, though I’m not sure what that means! I started getting out and performing to some degree when I was just out of high school and even did a couple of talent shows in school, so it seems to be a part of what drives me.

Kitty Donohoe stands and holds an acoustic guitar.

Kitty Donohoe at the start of her music career. Photo courtesy of Kitty Donohoe.

Q: How did spending time in Nova Scotia and living in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood help bring about an interest in Celtic, Maritime, Canadian, and other traditional music from the British Isles? How did that music inspire you to integrate traditional instruments into your own songs?
A: When I was in high school, the music world was changing quickly, and it went from doo-wop-centered songs to embracing lots of different styles—Donovan, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins. Those artists were doing old traditional songs and they were getting radio play. And then came the folk-rock bands, such as Pentangle, Steeleye Span, and the like, and I gravitated to them right away. I loved the combination of old traditional lyrics and instruments with percussion and edgier guitar parts.

I left home at 19, went to Nova Scotia, where I heard more of that, and [later lived] in Corktown. I was one block from the Gaelic League of Detroit, an Irish-American Club, and it’s still there 100 years later. They had live music six nights a week, so my friends and I were there pretty much every night. The bands were great, and they were playing the Irish playlist from that time, so it was pretty well-integrated by then—my love of fiddles and accordions.

Q: What was the first gig you ever played? How did that initial show help set the tone for your musical career after that?
A: My first “official” gig, I got paid $50 for it. I think it was in Grand Rapids at The Intersection. Back then, I wasn’t doing shows per se. I was just getting on stage by myself for a few hours, and I was doing mostly covers of other artists of that era and sliding in some of my songs. When I began to get requests for those songs, I started thinking, “Huh, maybe I’m a songwriter.”

Q: To date, you’ve released six albums throughout your career. What’s it like to look back at those albums and listen to them now? Collectively, how do they reflect your evolution as a songwriter?
A: As I’m getting ready for The Ark show, I’m relooking at some of my older songs, and they all have a place in my life for where I was at that time, personally and artistically. I don’t have a favorite among them as they’re all special to me in different ways. I think I was a bit more traditional-based in my songs at the beginning and started branching out over the years and thinking in new ways. But I still love the traditional stuff as well as other styles and genres.

Q: You’re celebrating 50 years of songwriting and performing with a May 19 show at The Ark. What do you have planned for your set? What will David Mosher, Carol Palms, The Yellow Room Gang, Mike Ball, Neil Woodward, and other friends help bring to the show that night?
A: All of these good friends and musicians have shared something musically with me. I’m kind of planning on a chronological track—though not totally—of the songs and I’m thrilled to have them all there. There’s something special about getting on a stage and having others to play along with me or vice versa. I have an immense number of really amazing musician friends—it’s magical.

Q: You’ll also be receiving the 2024 Michigan Heritage Award at the show that night. The award from MSU’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program recognizes your 30-plus years of entertaining audiences with your original songs about Michigan. How were you nominated for the award? When did you learn that you’d be receiving it this year?
A: I learned about the award a couple of months ago and I was nominated by a friend who felt I should be recognized for my mostly original Michigan songs that I wrote when we were celebrating our 150th birthday.

Q: What’s special to you about receiving the 2024 Michigan Heritage Award? How has celebrating Michigan’s history and culture through your music, live performances, and educational presentations been inspirational to you personally and professionally?
A: I love that there’s a Michigan Traditional Arts program at MSU, and it recognizes contributions artists make to our culture. Not just musicians but so many others—weavers, woodworkers, and storytellers—and in general, the way they teach what they do to others is not by an official program or a class, but by showing and explaining to those in their communities who are interested. That’s the way traditional arts have been passed on for hundreds of years.

When I started to come up with the Michigan songs, it was because I had started doing some music in elementary schools and decided to put together a program for the sesquicentennial year. That led to researching all sorts of elements of our state that I hadn’t thought about much, like lumbering, mining, and the Great Lakes, which led to the songs I came up with and have become a huge part of my past work. I had no idea back then that some of these songs would outlive me, but I think they will. I love having now-adults who saw me in their school when they were kids tell me that they still remember how long and how high the Mackinac Bridge is because of my simple song. That’s pretty special for a songwriter!

Q: How and when did you start doing the Inishfree Irish Music Tours? How have those tours helped broaden your knowledge of and appreciation for Irish music? How did those tours lead to adding ones to Scotland as well?
A: I’ve been doing the Inishfree Music Tours since 2015, and the Scotland tours are a deliberate spin-off of them. What they offer that many tours I don’t hear of is that they’re small—no Megabuses allowed. You stay in the same town for about three nights so you can relax, and best of all is that almost every night we hear traditional music from that region. Sometimes we have reserved seats at a concert or a pub, and sometimes they bring the musicians to us, but they’re always amazing. And I like, for the most part, how many of these artists don’t have a YouTube or Spotify presence. They have normal day jobs and then play at night as they’ve done all their lives. It’s a cool peek into what they do, and it goes back historically.

Q: You’re releasing an all-instrumental project soon. What is the project called, and what’s the status of it? What type of sound will it have, and who are you collaborating with on it?
A: The all-instrumental project is just about done, and other than one fairly newish piece, all the other tracks were previously recorded on other albums. I wanted to isolate that part of my work for those who are interested in that and pitch them to music buyers for films. I’m still looking for the right name, and it will be available within a couple of weeks.

Q: You’re also working on a new album. What can you share about it at this point? When do you anticipate releasing it?
A: This will be my first songwriter project in a while without a particular theme other than the fact that I’ll be incorporating my usual array of traditional instruments like fiddles, pipes, whistles, and so on into the mix. I like putting unusual older sounds together with new songs that work. I’ll be working on it this summer, so fall is most likely [when I'll release it].

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.

Kitty Donohoe performs May 19 with special guests at The Ark, 316 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor. For tickets, visit The Ark’s website.

"Kitty Donahoe celebrates 'The Irishman's Daughter' at Conor O'Neill's" [Pulp, April 28, 2017]