“So what do you want people to take away from the show tonight?” I asked Donovan Woods as we sat on the back patio at his gig last night at the Heartwood Hall. It was an unusually warm October evening and Donovan had just finished his sound check.
Joey Landreth, the opener and Juno winner in his own right, had already finished his when I arrived to interview Woods and as I sat down and listened to the band warming up, I heard guitarist John Dinsmore ask Nathan, the sound engineer, to ‘make it sound smooth.’
The sound was definitely smooth last night – the guitars were coming through sublimely behind Woods’ distinct vocals. He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night. Woods has described himself as ‘Canada’s Paul Simon but taller and not as good’. You can take what you want from that statement, but it’ll definitely give you a smile, and that’s what Donovan Woods wants from you. To cry at his songs, and laugh at his jokes.
He has been on the road promoting two new albums: a full length LP Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled and a new EP They Are Going Away and his set last night consisted largely of selections from those two albums. He only played two off his 2013 Don’t Get Too Grand and one of 2011’s The Widowmaker.
The great thing about a Donovan Woods show is that you get to find out the stories behind all your favourite songs. And he tells ‘em honestly. Like the fact that many lines in Put On, Cologne are plagiarized from an email his friend sent him from Europe as he was going through a breakup. Woods justifies it by analogizing that when you give a bunch of two-by-fours to a carpenter, the carpenter’s going to build something out of them. Well said, sir.
He later told us that Your Daughter, John is about long-time friend, Steve, who works at Beaver Lumber. Steve asked Donovan to stop using his full name in shows, but Donovan refused, because it wouldn’t be true if he just made up a name. And the story behind the lamenting Portland, Maine is not what you would expect, but I guess getting texts from an unknown person can be song-writing impetus. He wrote that one with a member of the country group, Lady Antebellum, and it was later covered by Tim McGraw. Woods chuckles to the audience at one point that “I write songs for good looking guys down South”.
So when I asked him what he wanted people to get out of his show, he turns to me and says: “Emotion. Lots of good emotion in the songs and funny times. I just try not to be an asshole.” And he laughs a full, infectious laugh. He’s a likable guy – a guy that doesn’t take himself all that seriously. But he’ll be the first to tell you that his songs are sad folk songs that may not make for a lively Saturday night, but it definitely makes for an entertaining one. His philosophy is that his dialogue should be fun, since his material is so sombre.
The following interview has been shortened from its original length.
So your main goal for a show is emotion?
I try not have my head up my ass, not paying attention to the vibe of the room. Make sure it stays fun. An hour and a half is a long time to play.
But you’re getting to that point where you can easily play an hour and a half. You got a lot of material with the new EP and all.
I think we’re just right there. We’re just at an hour and a half. And I talk a lot, but if it was no talking we’d be tough for an hour and a half. It could be two hours if we played a lot of shit I don’t want to play.
Can I ask you what the shit is you don’t want to play?
Just the old stuff I wrote when I was twenty three.
Like older than Widowmaker?
Ya, before that. There are songs on the first record that I’m fairly embarrassed to play. I was like a kid when I wrote those, you know, I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Well, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists in his live show purposely plays the worst song he ever wrote just to give the audience a balance and so he plays that Dracula song he wrote when he was like 18 and it’s horrible. So you can always just throw it out there. But it seems like you have a lot of fun on stage. I’ve seen you play like three times now and it seems you really enjoy it – is the performance aspect something you like more than the studio stuff? Does the live stuff drive you?
I don’t like any of it. [laughs] I’m pretty miserable. [laughs again] I like it all a bit. I like it all equally a bit. There’s just so many variables in a live show that can make it wonderful or make it a drag. It’s always stressful but I have as much fun as I can, but I think the key to it….is that it feels easy to watch me. I feel like the songs are so sad that the person delivering them needs to be relaxed. And… I like the studio. I love sitting and listening to the other musicians play their parts. It’s mega fun for me. It’s the best part. The scheduling and logistics – I hate that shit. I’ll happily pay someone to do that. [laughs]
It sounds like you’ve really stayed grounded. You’ve mentioned that your songs are of the style that you wouldn’t put anything in a song that you wouldn’t have in a conversation.
Ya, I think that’s kind of like the goal. I really just try to avoid poetry and that’s not to deride poetry because I love it, but what I mean is the singer-songwriter language, which is like [hums and sings some poetic ditties]. This stuff sounds like it has a poetic bent, but when you examine it, it’s just like that stuff’s not poetic at all, it’s just fucking nonsense. I just try to avoid trope-y stuff like that.
I love some of your lines [such as “you’re gonna get some stupid European boyfriend”] It’s something I would say, so it’s relatable.
Thank you. I think that’s the thing that resonates the best with me, especially a singer/songwriter when they say something that you have literally said. That the thing that’s expressed is the thing you’ve felt. If you can stumble upon those things, it’s super-exciting. [side note: I realized after that I think I have actually said those exact words about a ‘stupid European boyfriend’ when a girl in my early twenties left me to travel the world]
And it seems for me, like when I heard your song ‘Put On, Cologne’ on CBC, I was like ‘shit that’s a good song!’
Hey thanks man.
And so I’ve kind of followed you through from that album and I’ve noticed a theme of distance and place and leaving in your songs. Do you like being on the road? Is it something you enjoy or is it difficult?
I like it. I like being transient. I love when you go to a new place, even if it’s a cottage or something, by the third day you’re kind of like ‘this is our life now’. Especially if you stay long enough – the idea that you could have a completely brand new life, be a new fucking guy if you wanted. That feeling to me is addictive. I think I get off on expressing that in song. I love driving in cars a lot. It’s one of my favourite things.
It’s a time when you can think.
I think for a lot of people who have a family and work, I mean at work you don’t really think your own thoughts in a way. You do but they’re all bullshit. I think in a car is the only time you are left alone with your thoughts. And all shit happens in cars – you tend to make out with people in cars, break up with people in cars, whenever you’re going somewhere like university there’s a car involved.
And when you’re in a car, you almost don’t want it to end, because you know at the end of that car ride something is going to change. So there’s that time in the car when you know everything’s kind of…
You’re safe. It’s blissful. Being on the tour bus is like that. It’s really fun.
Well, I won’t take much more of your time
If you got more let’s keep going. I got nothing to do. I don’t know what time the show starts though.
I think it’s 830
Well let’s keep going
Okay great! Well, I did want to ask about an article I just read on NPR about a list of ten Canadian artists that Americans need to know about. You were on that list. So I want to ask you if there’s someone on your list that you think people need to know about?
You know who I love….well, he’s always touring and I was so surprised when I found that his record wasn’t…that people didn’t think it was the best record. It came out the same year that ‘Don’t Get Too Grand’ came out. His name’s Leif Vollebekk [see his link below]. He’s got an album called North Americana. It is fucking perfect from front to back. I love it. And I only bought it because it came out the same day as my record, and I’m like I should listen to this. I love that guy hugely.
Ya, sometimes it’s surprising – you’ll hear an album and think it will be huge and then no one knows about it. It’s strange.
Sometimes it has nothing to do with….well, sometimes the person doesn’t want to be. They’re just fine the way they are.
Like the lead guy [Mark Kozelek] from Sun Kil Moon or Elliot Smith, who said he could never be a famous musician. But you’re starting to get big in the States, you’re getting your songs covered by big musicians like Tim McGraw. Are you a bit scared you’re going to get big in the States and then it will be like a whole new machine?
No. [laughs]. Well that stuff all sounds really exciting but there really haven’t been that many people who have cut my songs for the amount of songs I’ve written down there. So it doesn’t feel like it’s been a wave of success or anything. It just feels really normal….I feel lucky to get to do this stuff [live shows] ‘cause a lot of people who write in Nashville, they don’t play shows. So they write these songs that are sometimes wonderful and no artist does them…and the song has no afterlife. So when I love a song, I put it in the set and I get to play it still. I feel lucky about that.
So, you live in Toronto and have a place in Nashville, but you were born in Sarnia. What kind of a show is that when you return?
It’s great. We had it sold out. But I haven’t done too many shows there. I thought it would be nerve-wracking, but it was pretty nice.
Are you upset that Gord Downie immortalized Sarnia [In Sarnia] before you were able to?
That’s interesting eh! I was so thrilled when I saw that. I was worried…that it would be a kind of a ‘fuck off ’ kind of thing, but I’m not sure what it was.
Ya, it seems like a love song.
I think it is a love song, but he’s so obtuse. You never know what he’s talking about, but believe me: everybody was really excited.
So was there any pressure growing up to get into the folk singer [Donovan’s] music and would you ever cover any of his stuff?
Oh Donovan? Ya, that’s who I was named after. But no, he’s got good songs but many of his songs are very folky. [he begins singing ‘Colour’s by Donovan]. It’s pretty folky stuff, but my Dad loved it. I’ve certainly heard it all. I went to see him one time too and he’s everything you’d expect him to be – like sitting cross-legged on a pillow with no shirt on. He’s a real hippy.
When did you know you were good? When did you know this was something you could do?
I feel like I still don’t know.
Well, I’ll tell you that you’re good, so we can get past that.
Thank you. Well, it was more recently than you would think. When I first signed with my agent, we just put on a show at the Drake Hotel in Toronto and we thought…well, in Toronto I was getting like 60 people [to shows] and that felt really great to me and we announced [the show] and I didn’t have an album out or anything on the radio. It was just the hangover from the Don’t Get Too Grand album and we had like 280 people or something. We were turning people away at the door. That was the first time I was like ‘oh maybe I can try hard here’ Because I was convinced I was a songwriter and that I shouldn’t be an artist, cause they don’t need another guy who looks like me – a bearded guy who’s got emotions and shit. It felt like that would be futile, that I should just be a writer. But you never feel like there’s like some rocket ship, it feels like a logical progression.
It’s not like in the movies where there is this epiphany or moment when it dawns on you like this is your destiny or your calling?
Well I would always think I could write songs for my whole life and when I got to do it for famous people, I thought ‘I’ll try really hard to do this, because I can tolerate this’ because I don’t want to have a boss or anything.
But this is all still a process of finding out if this is viable or not.
Interview conducted by Jesse Wilkinson
You can find Donovan Woods’ upcoming tour dates at: donovanwoods.net
You can find Lief Vollebekk’s site at: leifvollebekk.com