Donovan Woods is a Canadian singer-songwriter from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. Woods began playing guitar and writing songs in his teens and released his first album, The Hold Up, in 2007. He rose to fame as his songs were used in acclaimed movies, TV shows, and commercials. His songs have been recorded by Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum singer, Charles Kelley. He has won multiple awards, including English Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and and Contemporary Roots Album of the Year at the Juno Awards. His latest album, The Other Way, is out on all platforms and he is currently on tour in Canada.
What do you listen to that brings you back home, to yourself?
I love Paul Simon. I can listen to him any time, any day. He’s still putting out records that capture me and he’s 78 or something. Although I’m often very inspired by what Hip Hop is doing right now. I like to go onto Spotify and listen to brand new Hip Hop. I’m just always inspired by what young people are doing. What twenty-year-olds are sounding like makes me feel inspired to do new stuff. And Bon Iver. Any time I hear a new Bon Iver record come out, I’m just on it for weeks - I love the newest one, i,i. Just seeing how brave he is with his experimentation and how many wild things he tries and gets away with. It’s always inspiring to hear.
How did you get into the music journey?
I had always been writing songs since I was thirteen or fourteen, but I didn’t know I was good enough. And when I got to 23 or 24 and I’d written a couple that I thought were good. I knew that the ones before that weren’t any good, I’m such a music fan that I knew they weren’t that good. And when I was in my early twenties, I started to write songs that made me think, “Okay, somebody else might want to listen to this,” and then I just started and I didn’t really get anything going until I was 28. It takes a long time. I wish I started even sooner and got better sooner, but that’s the way it is. Everyone has their own journey and I guess that everyone wishes they started earlier.
Along your journey, what are some of the struggles you’ve faced to get to where you are now?
There are so many “singer-songwriter” guys and white guys with beards who look like me, who want to be emotional. It makes me think - how many of that do we really need in the world? Even I know there’s too much of it, and it’s hard to not feel like you’re just contributing to the onslaught of folk music. I try to write lyrics that people aren't going to get anywhere else, and avoid “song-writerly” language. I think you should try to differentiate yourself with your unique point of view. Make sure you are the only person who offers that product. That’s a matter of really trying to be yourself, the whole time.
And the honesty in your music is something I really respect, because I see how hard it is to get to that place of being honest through your music.
I appreciate that. I do think there are times I play songs for my partner or friends and they wrinkle their noses and go “is that something you really want to say?” You know, it’s not free. I’ve lost friends with how they’ve been portrayed in the song. So it’s not free and it’s not easy. I’m glad that you recognise and say that.
Was there a moment when you realised that your music is actually moving people emotionally?
There’s a moment when the conversations after shows change from “hey you did really well,” - which was just encouragement early on - to people telling you the story of how they discovered the song or what it meant to them. That happened about five years ago. I could tell that people were finding the songs useful which is the highest compliment to me. I’ve listened to music my whole life obsessively. I love leaving some place on a song that’s perfect for the mood on your walk home. When songs are really useful like that, it’s the highest compliment to me so I’m truly gratified when people find my songs useful.
Do you have a process when you write?
Sort of. I have tricks that I use, although the songs are always different. Sometimes it takes a really long time, sometimes it doesn't. The one thing that is uniform is I can tell when I’m going to be able to write something good and when I am, I have to do it immediately. It doesn’t happen very often for me, but I can recognise it coming.
Is it ever triggered by anything?
Sometimes it’s reading. Reading really helps. Mostly it’s language. When I hear the way somebody uses language in a fun way, or in a normal everyday phrase but it’s really pithy in the context, that’s really exciting to me. Sometimes just reading a book, the way a sentence falls out of a character’s mouth in a book and suddenly you say, “Oh, there’s something in that.” Quite often it’s the mood of something that somebody says and you think, “Oh, there’s something in that, but I don’t know what it is. If I can dig around in how that language feels then I’ll probably find something of value in the feeling.”
Do you have any tools to help get emotion out in your songs?
Well, my tricks are normally about melody. Melody isn’t my strong suit, so a lot of my tricks have got to do with tricking myself into writing interesting melodies. With lyrics, anytime I hear or see a phrase that strikes me, I’ll take pictures of signs with words on them that are interesting to me. Anytime something in a book strikes me as something good to say or language feels good in my mouth I’ll write it down in a memo on my phone and I’ll go back and dig through those things all the time.
The real trick to me is when you’re describing an emotional scene, the value is normally in mudanity. The things people tend to fall in love with in a song often start out as being pretty mundane, and they may seem quite boring when you’re writing them, but when you set them in the right context it becomes profound. Don’t be scared to be boring at the beginning.
What would your advice be to yourself, when you were starting out with writing?
I think I would tell myself to write more. I just wish I wrote more songs to get in the habit of forcing myself to do it. I feel like I’ve been pretty true to myself and haven’t compromised too much. I was so old when things happened to me in music. I was never really taken advantage of because I was pretty much grown up. The younger self was a 28 year old guy so I pretty much had it sorted out.
If you went back to your 14 year old self, what advice would you give yourself?
“You’re not as chubby as you think you are.”
When you first started listening to music, what caught your ear and made you start writing in this particular genre?
The singer-songwriter genre came just out of necessity because all I had was a guitar. I was really a big fan of Hip Hop my whole life, I just didn’t have the tools to do it and I think I would have been terrible at it.
Would you still consider trying it?
No, I think I’m too out of touch at this point.
No the things I love are just lyrics. My dad is so impressed by good lyrics and loves the poetry of songs. He loves Emmylou Harris and Paul Simon. I wanted to be the type of person he admired.
Did you succeed?
Yeah, I think I did. He’s a pretty big fan!
Do you produce your songs as well? Do you think about the arrangement even when writing with guitar and voice?
Yes, I do. I’m not listed as a producer on any of my tracks, but it’s certainly part of the process now that I’ve worked in the studio so much. I’m always thinking about that but I also think when you’re brave enough to collaborate, really exciting things tend to happen. I think we all get so caught up in the romanticism of people like Prince and how he was a control freak and did everything himself. I think most people can't do that. I’m not good enough to do that so I love collaboration, getting a point of view from the outside.
Have there been any golden moments when you’ve been in the studio in collaboration with somebody?
Yes. There was a song one record ago called ‘Burn That Bridge.’ We had this drum beat we fooled around with for weeks. We just couldn’t get it to fit right. Suddenly, we removed half the drum beat and put it in half time and then stared at each other and said, “There it is, that’s perfect.” It’s always the simple stuff, but when it happens it’s a relief because the song snaps into focus and feels right.
How do you take that creative energy to live performance?
It gets hard for me sometimes. I was never a huge live music fan so the hard part for me was figuring out what the show was going to be like, especially when we started to play bigger places like in Canada. I don’t have those role models whose shows I loved so much that I just want to copy it. I just try to be myself and speak honestly about the songs. It’s funny, there’s a lot of talking. It’s something I struggle with.
How do you #getinthegroove?
I read a lot. A mostly read poetry and I try to pay a lot of attention to language. Just reading other people’s lyrics, and understanding how they work, what I love about them and what makes them so wonderful. Reading does it for me. If I don’t have time to do it, I have to make time because sometimes it seems so futile, but it’s really the crux of everything I do. I realise it time and time again.
Could give me three of your favourite tracks right now?