“The music industry is obsessed with youth,” Donovan Woods says with a slow exhale. “Listen to the radio for 10 seconds, it’s all about the first time.”
Woods’ latest record, Without People, offers a perspective from further on down the road. Out on November 6 via his Meant Well label, the 14-track collection examines life and love from the second or third time around.
“I find the nuanced experience of love more interesting — what’s it like to fall in love again, knowing how vulnerable you make yourself,” Woods says.
The singer-songwriter looks to a childhood hero, Paul Simon, who delivered core albums in the late 1980s like Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints from the perspective of a divorced dad. Meanwhile, Peter Gabriel was dominating the pop scene with a similar story to tell.
“These people were in their 30s and 40s making hit music. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Woods says. “So I wanted to open the scope. These songs are about empathizing with someone’s point of view, paying attention to how something feels when it happens.”
The album title epitomizes surviving solo. His first singles, “Grew Apart” (co-written with Travis Wood) and “Clean Slate,” are emphatic tracks on the record, diverging from subdued soundscapes to follow.
James Bunton and vocal producer Todd Clark mastered the album’s pop-leaning production. Woods’ intermittent high-tempo tracks display his dynamic climb to artistry.
Since 2007, Woods has forged a path as an honest storyteller. He started out as a folk musician. It was all he could afford. Since then, he has landed cuts for both the incoming class of Music City and the old guard. Woods sees little distance between his cohorts Tenille Townes and Tim McGraw, describing both as “song people.”
“I quickly learned that you’re good at what you’re good at, and that’s what you offer,” he says about his time around the writers’ table. “Some people here write radio bangers, and some people, like me, try to write meaningful songs. Every once in a while, they merge. When they do, it’s something special.”
While trying to write the most meaningful songs possible, he blurs the line between songwriter and artist. When a pitch sticks, it’s hard to give that song away. Without People encapsulates the ones he can’t stand to lose, pushing forward in a modern direction. Woods, emboldened by sonic experimentation, creates his own space between folk and country music, with plenty of room to grow.
“Grew Apart,” co-written with Logan Wall, points to romantic loss stemming from a broken relationship. Jeremy Spillman and Tucker Beathard helped impose the mid-life vantage point of falling in love. With their help, Woods emerges, laundered from burden with a bright, new perspective on “Clean Slate.” He faces the consequences of selfish behavior with the mournful “Seeing Other People.”
“Man Made Lake” places thematic absence within a familial context. With the help of Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson, Woods bares the fraught relationships men often have with their fathers.
“Many life challenges include coping without people. This album reckons with the feelings that stick around someone that you miss,” Woods says. “I’m at a point in my 30s with kids where I dream about being alone. Then when I am alone on tour, I’m just lonely.”
The dichotomy suggests this sought after place, alone and inspired, doesn’t exist.
Early in the recording process, Canada implemented stay-at-home orders in response to COVID-19. Woods and his team improvised from a distance. Without People captured the current context as a coincidence. It explores connectivity during an era of unprecedented isolation.
Though he is proud of his collection, Woods insists that he is “not interested in going back to business as usual.”
“If art is a reflection of the society in which it’s made, I want the release plan to address where we are right now. At the very least, we can acknowledge the state of things, making sure we’re contributing,” he adds.
He exemplifies the country music industry chugging along, releasing albums without context.
“That’s striking to me, I can’t fathom doing that,” Woods says. “When asking someone for attention during this moment, I want to make certain we acknowledge how important their other concerns are.”
The artist claims inadequacy in addressing the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, but he contributes confessional songs about love, drawing influence from protest songs speaking to power. Woods hopes to reveal humanity in this moment of polarization.
The Donovan Woods With People Project supports creators in marginalized communities during pandemic-driven unemployment. The project, in tandem with the release, adds artful interpretation from independent artists to each song via a dance, illustration/design or painting.
“I dove in deeper on this album than I ever have,” Woods says. “So if we are coming to the end of something, I can say that I tried my hardest to write truthfully about the people I’ve loved and the things I did wrong, and add my little verse to the story of what it feels like to be a person.”
Photo Credit: Maya Fuhr