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Interview: Donovan Woods on Clean Slate, songwriting and new music

The singer-songwriter released his latest single earlier this month.

Donovan Woods
Credit: Justin Broadbent

Whilst Donovan Woods may be a new name to many UK country fans, he’s been a star in his native Canada for well over a decade.

He released his debut album, The Hold Up, back in 2007, and has since racked up 265 million streams and 1.5 million monthly listeners, whilst his songs have been recorded by artists including Billy Currington, Tim McGraw and Lady A’s Charles Kelley. His most recent album is 2019’s The Other Way, which features acoustic versions of songs from his Juno Award-winning record Both Ways.

I recently spoke to Donovan about his latest single Clean Slate, his plans for new music, how he approaches his songwriting, his involvement with a new recording of Lean On Me for the Red Cross, working with artists including Tenille Townes and Logan Mize, how he’s been keeping busy during quarantine and much more.

How would you describe your music?

Well it’s like folk music but a little catchier than folk music. It sort of leans singer-songwriter music but it pushes towards pop, probably, I would say.

You’ve just released your new single Clean Slate – can you tell us more about that?

Well you know, that’s the first single off of a record that’s coming up and it’s about that feeling, that first initial feeling of falling in love – that sort of sky high feeling when you feel like you maybe have an opportunity to become a brand new person before you realise that that’s impossible. It’s that little tiny moment of real clarity.

It’s a slightly different sound from your previous records. Is this something that’s typical of the new music you’re working on?

Well the new music is kind of like that one. It’s a little bit more pushed in the pop direction and the rest of the record is a little bit more hushed. This is the most emphatic one of the bunch. But most of my songs are this mix of acoustic guitar with some digital instruments and some big drums, that type of thing.

Is that mix of more traditional and digital sounds something that’s quite important to you?

Yeah, I love folk music, I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and these things that my parents showed to me, so I have such a love for that type of music. But I do really feel compelled to be of the time that I exist in and I want it to sound like 2020. I don’t want it to sound like 1965.

It’s been a couple of years now since your last album. Do you feel that your approach to music has evolved since then?

Yeah, I think the evolution that it’s done – I was gonna say evolvement but that’s not a word [laughs] – the evolution that it’s gone through has really been a product of how much time I’ve had to make it. I used to have to make it in the middle of the night because I still had to work a day job, and now I have time to focus and make bigger records and songs and have more musicians involved and I can hire a quartet if I want to. There’s just those possibilities and that changes the way you wanna write music. Plus the spaces you get to play concerts in. We started out playing really tiny little clubs and now we’re playing to hundreds of people, and you have to fill those spaces. So all those things go into the way your records sound.

What have you learnt from touring and being on the road?

I think the most interesting and fun lesson you learn from touring, over and over again, is that people love music in a way that you can never quantify accurately. Just meeting people at the merch table after the show or signing things for people, people really, really love music. And I love it. I love it a lot, but every day on tour I meet someone who likes it way more than I do. And it just seems to be this never-ending, unfolding gift that you get to share with people, because people really, really need music and use it in such a positive way. It really is like a joy every day to be able to meet people who care about what you do. It’s such a gift.

You’ve been over to the UK previously. Has there been anything about audiences here in particular that’s surprised you in any way?

I mean this is gonna sound like sucking up but this is probably what most North American musicians say to you – that UK audiences, if you’re a folk musician or someone who’s lyric-centric the way I am, there is no better audiences really in the world. They really are wonderfully attentive. They sing along in a sweet way. Last time we played was the Borderline in London in 2018 and it was the best show of the tour. Everybody sang every word. The things that they yelled out weren’t just to get attention, they were like… I don’t know man. UK people, you guys are better at being in crowds. I don’t know why that is. You’re just good at being in crowds.

I also wanted to ask about how you approach your songwriting. Do you have a typical songwriting process or does it vary?

I try to make sure that… of course it varies with who you’re working with and you just want to make everybody feel comfortable. So you sort of do the thing that makes everybody feel the most calm and comfortable. And I guess my process is that I just try really hard to not have a process – just to let anything happen and anything that could possibly turn into a song, just let it turn into a song. When I’m alone I try to approach something without any form and just let go of any notion of what it will be and just push it forward until it’s something. I think having a process, it would make me feel like it would be something that I could lose. I work really hard to let it happen in any way it can possibly happen. Because it’s so hard. It’s just so hard to come up with anything good. Just any way it can happen, I’m into it.

Do you ever get writer’s block? And if so how do you deal with that?

I don’t know that I’ve had writer’s block but I’ve had times where I just don’t care that much. I just avoid it. Recently at the beginning of this pandemic as things went into lockdown I just didn’t have anything to say [laughs]. Nothing was coming to mind. But I don’t feel worried about it. I just wait around until it goes away. So eventually I’ll find something to write about.

You’ve mentioned previously that you plan to use your new music to support Black and Indigenous-owned businesses and independent record stores. Could you tell us why you felt that was particularly important for you to do?

Sure. I think anybody that’s making art, art is a reflection of the time in which it was made and ignoring the context that we’re in is detrimental to the art that you’re putting out. So I think approaching a record release within the context of probably the biggest human rights movement of my lifetime and inside of a pandemic when so many people have financial uncertainty in their lives, I think it’s just recognising that in the process of releasing a record and acknowledging it and making sure that you’re contributing to making that situation easier for somebody is a big part of releasing a record. I just think it would be such a strange thing to do to just release your record right now without acknowledging that we’re in very uncertain and in some ways drastically changed times. So I think we’re just trying to find ways to contribute and trying to find ways to make sure that the context of this moment is included in the record and in the release plans so that it really is a product of 2020.

Is that approach something that you’d be keen to continue with any future releases after this next record?

Well we’ve always tried to find a charity that’s local, that we can communicate with and see if we can help out in some way. That’s something I’m always trying to do. When you’re somebody that has a little bit of notoriety you can raise money pretty easily. You can give away free Zoom concerts. You can write out handwritten lyrics and people are willing to donate for those types of things. And when you have the ability to do that I think you have to do that. I always will try to be contributing in the ways that I can contribute, for sure.

I also wanted to ask about the Lean On Me cover you took part in to raise money for the Red Cross recently. How did you get involved with that?

Well, yeah. I mean there’s some really famous people on there [laughs]. I was very surprised to be in a video with Justin Bieber in it. But one of the organisers called Tyler Shaw, who’s a Canadian artist and a fan of mine, asked if I wanted to do it. I said, ‘yeah, of course’, and then all of a sudden there’s all these other famous people involved, and it was a real thrill. And I think it’s doing the thing it’s supposed to be doing out there making money in the way that a song does. A lot of money’s going to a good cause. So yeah, it was really fun. It was really surreal to see myself in a video with Justin Bieber [laughs] but I was very thrilled.

You released your acoustic album The Other Way last year. What drew you to make an acoustic record?

Well there’s so much on the record and the real version of that record [2018’s Both Ways] was really pretty loud and bombastic. I was thinking about the tour we had planned for that record, which in Canada included 1,000-seat places, so we’re trying to fill up pretty big spaces with sound. And really the place I came from was a really tiny little acoustic guitar and a voice type of recording, so I thought it would be fun to just play those songs in another way. And I think we were lucky to be able to have a guy called Todd Lombardo who helped me play all the guitars. He just has such a beautiful way of playing guitar and I just thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up so we decided to make the whole thing again.

The Other Way also features a duet with you and Tenille Townes. How was it working with her on that?

She’s great, man. She’s amazing. Such a good singer and such a great writer. I was just so thrilled to be able to hear her voice. It’s really nice to have someone like that on the record. And she’s Canadian so it’s such a thrill she’s having great success and people in Nashville are paying attention to her there. It’s really nice to see. Couldn’t happen to a lovelier person.

As a Canadian artist who also works a lot in Nashville, how have you found coming from Canada and the Canadian music scene has impacted your own music?

Yeah. There’s a lot of Canadians down in Nashville sort of plugging away, but the interesting thing is a lot of country writers and country acts down in Nashville come from bigger cities than I grew up in [laughs]. You know, my parents both grew up on farms and I grew up in a fairly small town. Canadians get this reputation for being imposters from the country lifestyle and it couldn’t be further from the truth. More of us live in rural settings that most Americans do. So it’s an interesting place to be Canadian and it’s part of your job in Nashville to sort of dispel myths of Canadianism. I always have questions about our free healthcare – I’m sure that happens to you guys as well – but it’s an interesting place to navigate, especially as an outsider.

You also recently released a version of your song Grew Apart with Logan Mize. What was it about that song that made you want to do a version together?

Well I actually wrote a song with Logan called Better Off Gone that he just loved and he did so well with. I just loved what he did with that. I saw some videos of him playing that and big crowds singing along to it. He just made that song his own and it was so nice to see. And after we wrote this Grew Apart song – I wrote it with a couple of friends of mine – I just thought that he would like it, and I sent it to him right away. He said, ‘yeah, I’m doing it’. And I try to give songs away and be OK with it, but after a while I’m listening to it back and I’m thinking ‘oh I should record it too because I just like it so much’. I felt guilty but we called him and told him that I was also gonna do a version and he was more than OK with it. He was like, ‘Would you sing on mine?’ and I said yes. And his version is doing really well. It’s in the millions on the Hot Country playlist and it’s doing really well for him. He’s great. He deserves more attention than he gets, that’s for sure.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

You know what it is for me, the things that I’m most in awe of are the really simple songs that those really classy songwriter wrote in the 1940s and 50s. And a song like Moon River, I’m just enamoured by its simplicity and I am always in awe. Another song – I don’t even know who wrote it but Frank Sinatra sings it. It’s called I Concentrate On You. These songs like that that become standards, those are the things that as I get older and I get further on in my songwriting career I’m most impressed by. Writing a pop song is one thing but writing a song like that, that lives on like that and has a melody that everyone recognises all around the world… God, what an accomplishment for those people. So it’s probably a song like that. Probably Moon River, really, if I had to say.

How have you been keeping busy during quarantine?

Well the first part we were finishing this record, so all of March and April and May we were recording parts and finishing the record so I had lots to do. And then June I had to learn how to do nothing. But the record’s gonna come out at the end of this year, so we have lots of promotional stuff to do. There’s always work to do that way. But as far as concerts I don’t think I have anything scheduled until fall of next year. It’s hard to imagine right now but just putting this record out and then starting to work on the next record. Because we can’t tour I guess we’ll just keep putting out music as fast as we can.

Have you started thinking about the next record at all? Or is it still too early for that?

It’s still far off in the future just having finished this one. But you’re always putting away songs and thinking, ‘could this be part of the next one?’ There’s songs on this one that’s gonna come out next that were written before the last one came out. So you never really know what’s gonna end up on it. You’re just sort of always gathering songs, just always trying to find the next thing.

And lastly… when we can travel safely again, do you have any plans to come back to the UK?

Well we had a tentative plan to come in January or February of next year, but that’s got pushed back because nobody was scheduling anything and it’s so up in the air. But I would say hopefully in 2021 we’ll be able to do it. But I’ll do it as soon as I can. I love the UK, I’m a big London guy. I just love it so much so as soon as I can I’m gonna do it.

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