Interview: Donovan Woods on why “Things Were Never Good If They’re Not Good Now”

Credit: Brittany Farhat.

Why some fans were disappointed his father was still alive.

Donovan Woods is a Canadian Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter whose songs have been covered by artists ranging from Tim McGraw to Barenaked Ladies, and who has also established his own dedicated fanbase who seem to hang on his every word. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Donovan Woods at his Toronto home over Zoom to discuss his seventh album, ‘Things Were Never Good If They’re Not Good Now’, and what his approach to songwriting is. His songs are classic story songs that explore the human condition and it comes as a bit of a surprise that Donovan Woods admits he finds it difficult to express his own emotions. He also laments using his own name for his career as too often his fans assume his songs are really all about him personally which is not necessarily the case. So much so that some fans had assumed his own father was dead because he had covered a father’s death in some of his songs. Finally, he admits to being an anglophile who supports LIVERPOOL FC, though he hints he may yet change his allegiance to Brighton & Hove Albion.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m at home in Toronto, and feeling good even though we are having a cold snap. I’m also a bit of a Liverpool fan, I’m just beginning my journey in that realm and I really like Mo Salah. I watched a game yesterday and I really enjoyed it. It’s very sad about Jurgen, I wonder how they will weather that.

Your career broke through in 2020 with ‘Without People’ – do you know why that was and what it meant to you?

I don’t really know, I try not to think of them being so different, but that does seem to be the one people return to and want to talk about, and it has stayed in people’s collections the most, it seems like. I think of the one that stopped me from having to have a job as the one that is the most impactful of my life, and I don’t think I will shift from that. There was something about ‘Without People’ that resonated with the moment, and I think it was right for that moment.

Your new album ‘Things Were Never Good If They’re Not Good Now’ has a big title – why call the album that?

It is just an affirmation. I think of all the time in my therapy journey in the last year and trying to say my feelings more, of which I have a really hard time with and the way I was instructed by my therapist to practise saying my feelings was to start saying the good things, to say things like I’m really enjoying this pizza, or this is a good movie. It sounds like something you would say to an alien who has just moved to Earth, but I really had a hard time saying it and I think a lot of men do. So, it is something I said one time with a friend of mine when we were both practising our affirmations. We started by saying what a nice time we were having at this dinner, and then we went on and on and got more intense about how much we liked the dinner and I finally said, “Things were never good if they’re not good now”. It meant everything as a title, and sometimes you just stumble across a title and it is obvious something is a title. It is interesting how it happens, and you worry it is never going to happen. For a while, I was trying to call this album Get Loose with an exclamation mark, but I knew it wasn’t really the title, and my manager was upset with it, but I was just waiting for the real one to materialise.

I thought the album cover was eye-catching: what is behind the design?

That’s my wife’s birthday party, and I’m carrying the cake from the kitchen to the table. So it’s my wife’s doing all that decoration and the way it looks. She is also basically the art director for the album cover. It was her 40th birthday and we had a photographer friend taking pictures of the activities, and when I was taking the cake out I was watching them take pictures of me and I thought I bet that would be a good album cover. Then when I saw them I thought this is it.

You’ve mentioned you struggle to talk about your feelings but a lot of your songs appear to be very personal and cover your experiences. What does that mean for you as a person not just as an artist?

I think it’s interesting. Out of all the regrets I have about my career, and I have a few, I do have a regret about using my real name for the project. I get so tired of my name, and as a solo project, I wish I’d used a different name because it just separates you from it. I think all the songs are about me, I think they express things I would like to express, but I’m often doing it through a story I’ve heard or using a narrative to invoke a feeling I’m trying to get at. I’ve got lots of songs where a father dies, but my father is alive and well, but people are upset when they find that out. It is an interesting sort of gambit you run all the time, the conceit that all these emotions are yours, and you almost construct someone’s life with its own perspective, when in reality I have a hard time saying I enjoy something. There is a difference between your art and your person, of course, but it does feel like a bit of a scam in that the person in those songs is more in touch with themselves than I am.

You have several co-writes on the album – why do you enjoy collaborating?

I’ve always done that, I write for a lot of other artists as well, and I’ve written for a bunch of country artists as such, I like writing with other people a lot. It just gets you vibrating, I can write on my own and I like doing it, and when I come up with something that is uniquely and solely mine it is a really fascinating experience, but I do think there is something about writing with somebody else. You seem to be able to get to a place of clarity that you are not able to alone because you are sort of responsible for getting the other person to understand your point of view, the person you are writing with. So, you can’t hide it behind obtuse language or intense metaphor, you can’t hide and you have to admit what you want to say to the other person that’s in the room writing a song with you. I think I have a tendency to shy away from the directness of things that when you are writing with someone else you have to address. I really have enjoyed it, and  I like songwriters, and I’ve very rarely met a songwriter I don’t like, anybody who has the urge to do that is my kind of person, it looks like.

How disciplined are you as a songwriter, and how do you make it work for you?

The best feeling in the world is making something out of nothing, I’ve never built a deck or a patio but I would imagine people doing that find it really satisfying. I love the feeling more than ever, but the thing that is worse than that is good to me is the feeling of struggling at songwriting and not liking it, or when I feel I’m repeating myself, all my chords sound the same and everything I’m writing sounds the same, so you get in those funks. When I’m in those funks I don’t do it, I just avoid it. I will go weeks without touching a guitar, I have a lot of friends who say they have to write every day but I can’t do that. I don’t write when I feel bad because it is really the only good feeling outside of love and acceptance that I unabashedly enjoy. So, I’m really protective of it and I don’t write when it feels bad. When you write with someone and it doesn’t go well, then I tend not to do it again because I don’t like the feeling of knocking my head against the wall like I’m not creative.

You worked again with James Bunton: what are the dynamics of that working relationship?

That relationship has evolved over time where I’m now starting the recordings on my own, and he’s coming in at certain times and helping me flesh out what it’s going to sound like. What it really is, is that I don’t understand drums. I really wish I’d taken drum lessons as a kid because I don’t really have any understanding of rhythm, I have it and I get it and James is a big thinker and a good perspective person, and he helps me see where songs can go. If I was left to my own devices I would write the same small thing and he helps me see a larger perspective. He also hits me with the truth if something isn’t as good as it could be. As we move along it is more advisory than anything else, and I’m starting to get all the sounds in my studio by myself.

What is the difference between the new album and ‘Without People’?

The way it happened for me was when we started to sell more tickets for people to come and watch the show I felt the urge to make songs and release songs that could fill up both sides of the rooms, that were loud enough to inspire a big concert hall. When you get to those big concert halls you realise that songs that still make the impact and hold the room tight are the tiny ones, and you wonder whether the big songs are only there to provide contrast or what the difference is. I think that as I got more people coming to see me I thought more about the concert when writing records than I ever had before, and I didn’t think about the concert at all when writing this one. I thought very plainly about exactly what I wanted to say, regardless of whether it was going to fill up a large space. Just chasing a feeling you are trying to capture as opposed to thinking about the form of a song or what type of song it might be. I like it the most, and I think it is the most pure expression of what I would like to be. Of course, I’m going to say that, every artist thinks the thing they did last is their best thing, and if you don’t think the last thing is the best thing you’ve done you’d better get out because you will struggle.

Your music is in that folk country space – do you agree with that, and who are your biggest influences?

My Holy Grail is Paul Simon, he’s my songwriting and career hero, I think. Of course, I love Bob Dylan like everybody, and I love Joni Mitchell, but I was also raised in the ‘90s and I listened in my teens and twenties to hip-hop. To think of myself as a country artist is funny, I don’t think that at all, though I did grow up more rurally than those famous country artists, I do know that. Both my parents were raised on farms, and I spent a lot of time on farms as a kid. I think it makes sense to call the music that, but I don’t really see myself as that kind of artist, but I don’t really know. Those words come to me in such strange things, like the word acoustic I don’t think we know what that means anymore, I don’t think we know what folk means anymore. To me, I do confessional songs with plain language.

Your songs have been covered by various artists – do you have a favourite cover?

I don’t think there is a higher compliment, honestly. The first cover I ever released is on this record, and it’s a Marc Cohen song, and I think of Marc Cohen as being one of the best American songwriters that’s ever lived. I think if you do another person’s song and you want to record it, it is a pretty high compliment. So, I’m always flattered and very rarely do I not like them, I always really like them. I think the most exciting one was when Tim McGraw did ‘Portland, Maine’ just because I’m so familiar with Tim McGraw’s voice because he was omnipresent in America when I was in my teens and twenties, just to hear him singing my phrasing in his voice was so funny to hear, it was such a thrill to hear it. There are a million ways to sing a song, and that’s why music is so wonderful and we don’t get tired of Christmas carols, why we don’t get tired of standards, because there are so many little ways to make songs different and make them your own. It is a real joy to hear what people do, and they don’t even know they are doing anything, it is just their vocal instincts based on artists they loved growing up. When I learned Paul Simon loved the Everly Brothers and then listening to the Everly Brothers I was like, he’s just doing an Everly Brothers impersonation, he is really just trying to write Everly Brothers’ songs. Someone else doing your lyrics is always a thrill because it includes little things you couldn’t possibly do on your own.

Are there any plans for you to come over to the UK and Europe?

I was just in London two or three weeks ago. I went to write for a week in London, and I love, love, the UK. An embarrassing amount that would irritate you, I love to get The Guardian, I love to walk around and wear a wool hat, I like it so much. So, yes, there are plans for the end of this year and next year for a tour, but any opportunities I have to come I will be coming, trust me. I will be really irritating and a real Anglophile.

You will have to justify supporting Liverpool.

Yeah, I really don’t understand the ins and outs of what that means about me, I also like Brighton and I’m still settling but I don’t really understand what it means to support Liverpool.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks, albums or artists on your playlists?

The thing I’m most thrilled about is a friend of mine who has just released a record, Madi Diaz, and she’s featured on one of the songs on my record, and not just to promote my own record but I think with the songs she’s writing she is getting to another plateau in her writing, and she is just the best thing going right now. She is just so good, and the record is called ‘Weird Faith’. I’ve really been enjoying this band Hovvdy, it is just two guys. There is something about what they sound like when somebody finds this new sound to express themselves with, and it sounds right all of a sudden. They are just one of those fun bands that show up, I remember Vampire Weekend were like that when they first arrived, OK, they speak another language and they’ve figured out this language and they know the whole book on this language, and they are communicating really clearly in this new way and it is really exciting to hear. Then there’s this songwriter called Adrianne Lenker who is sort of a folk singer-songwriter, and everything she is putting out right now is just incredible to me, just incredible, delicate, good songwriting. I just like songwriting, I love to hear songwriting pushed to use language really roughly rather than sweetly, and she’s certainly doing that.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I love playing there, I like how quiet everyone is, and the last time I did a tour in the UK and Europe was with Aoife O’Donovan and we did some churches and it is aggressively quiet in those venues, and it’s such a thrill to hold a tightly bound audience like that and gather everybody’s attention. It’s getting less and less common around the world, but it was still present over there last year. So, I’m always tipping my hat to anybody willing to come to a show and create an environment where really transcending things can occur. I hope everybody likes the new record to keep me out of a job.

Donovan Woods’ ‘Things Were Never Good If They’re Not Good Now’ is released on 12th July on End Times Music.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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