If you follow the folk scene, it’s likely you’ve heard of Donovan Woods. And if you haven’t, the time is now. The Toronto-Nashville based singer has had a busy year: playing shows across North America, penning multiple singles, and re-releasing his latest album entirely acoustic. His latest single “While All The While” is a portrayal of what Woods does best: writing an alluring song that captures a place or feeling wholeheartedly.
Anytime I shuffle Woods’ discography, I’m transported to another city, a past moment, or just a faraway feeling regardless of where I am. It a peculiar phenomenon, but I suspect this is why Woods’ music seems to resonate with so many. When we spoke last week, he was gearing up for the release of “While All The While” and a sold out show at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Fresh off the road as part of Ruston Kelly’s Brightly Burst Tour, we had a lot to chat about. Mostly, I wanted to delve into his beginnings as a songwriter, his musical style evolution, and what creative process leads to this captured emotion in his tracks.
Woods is refreshing in the sense that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Scroll through his Twitter page for example, you won't be disappointed. But on the other hand, he does take his music very seriously. “I wrote songs almost all my childhood. I didn’t like any of the songs I was writing. I was really into hip-hop and the music I was writing was just uncool.” By university, Wood discovered styles like Iron + Wine’s and by the time he was 25, he had written a few that he thought were okay. “The whole time I thought I wanted to be an actor in Toronto and I was in beer commercials and stuff. Then I met a real actor, who is still a friend of mine, and I was like ‘oh, no this guy is an actor,’” he tells me, laughing. “So then I just focused on music entirely.” With a few homemade demos to his name, Woods used connections of a Toronto studio worker to sneak him in after hours, recording songs between 10 pm and 3 am. This is how his debut album The Hold Up came into being. The 2007 release is a stirring mix of folksy instrumentals and honest lyrical life stories. “My Cousin Has A Grey Cup Ring” is a stand-out example. Turns out, honesty was likely a result of that recording time crunch. “A lot of the songs on that were literally made up on the spot,” Woods tells me. In the middle of the night, Woods started his career. “People still say they like [that album]. That’s unfathomable to me.”
I believe that feeling of being transported away through Woods' music boils down to his creative process and perspective. Take his tracks on specific locations: "Sask", "Portland, Maine", and "Leaving Nashville". "I'm always looking for a mood." He explains. "You may not even know what the song is yet or what any of the words are but you know what you want to capture. When you find those moods I find sometimes there is a place that makes sense for them. I've never been to Portland, Maine but it felt remote enough, faraway." Woods is a master at the craft of sculpting an emotion listeners can relate with. In "Portland, Maine", a breakup song, there's the simple chorus lyric "I don't know where that is". Melded with Woods' pensive vocals, it's hard not to be transported, listening to a song about the reality of a faraway place. "You always have to be making songs for you and not for anyone else," he tells me. In doing so, he has ironically written songs that many other people can relate to.
“While All The While” portrays Woods’ style shift since those stealthy studio nights long ago. The single undoubtedly still holds the same raw quality that exists in The Hold Up, but it incorporates bigger instrumentals. These elements appear in many of Woods’ more recent releases. Songs like “All Mine” and “Truck Full Of Money” intertwine synthesizers and strings for a more indie-rock sound. “While All The While” is a balance of the softer vocals Woods is known for and catchy instrumentals. Written with the acclaimed Americana and country singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, the song is about still having to maintain a routine while thinking about that one person or thing that remains in your thoughts, hour by hour. “It’s the idea that everyone is fighting a battle. Everything in the world is a real mess, but you still have to go to work.”
Over the course of our conversation, I'm happily reassured that the person behind the beautifully melancholy tracks is as authentic as his music. Hearing about Woods' journey and creative process I finally understand that his approach to writing and capturing experiences is what shares that faraway feeling with his listeners. "I think it's just a bunch of luck and coincidence" he tells me about his career, laughing. I have to say I disagree.
Photo credit: Danielle Holbert
View tour dates here.