When you listen to Donovan Woods, you can hear the craft of songwriting being carried forward: Stripped down, but never simple; direct yet poetic; new and timeless. The music is delivered with confidence, and in an evocative voice that you wouldn’t expect from someone as young, approachable, or humorous as Woods.
His acclaimed fourth album Hard Settle, Ain’t Trouble received a 2016 Polaris Music Prize nomination. Three original songs intended for that project have now surfaced on a new digital EP, They Are Going Away. There’s a distinct sense of motion throughout the narratives. In “What They Mean,” Woods responds to a curious child in the backseat who is listening carefully to the car radio. “It’ll Work Itself Out” shows someone who is traveling furiously to outrun problems. “Drove Through Town” provides a backdrop for the big issues, from living up to expectations to escaping a dead-end relationship.
Woods, who is an exceptional acoustic guitarist in his own right, says these songs didn’t make the track listing for Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled because he didn’t want to rush the lyrics or force them to be finished. A fourth selection, “Empty Rooms,” is about moving on from a relationship—when that’s not such a bad thing. Although it’s new, Woods felt it was a comfortable fit.
“The songs are about coping with loss, and wholesale changes, that sort of thing,” he says. “The title I suppose is trying to get at the temporariness of everything. Time speeds up when you get older, that’s an observable fact. It starts to feel like you’re always chasing some ineffable thing. It’s why your dad often had a slightly bewildered look in his eyes.”
Woods was raised in the small city of Sarnia, Ontario, to the sounds of country music, with a healthy dose of folk and pop, a combination that instilled in him a strong belief in the power of a memorable melody, the importance of everyday language and the impact of a well-crafted song. While amassing a catalogue of rousing and well-received music of his own, he has worked with some of the top songwriters in North America to craft cuts for performers ranging from Alan Doyle to country stars Billy Currington and Tim McGraw.
It’s not that Woods makes music that is a product of both country and folk; it’s that his songwriting shows how distracting the line separating the two can be. Whether they’re written about big ideas or seemingly minor incidents, broken promises or the hint of romance, Woods’ stories affect listeners deeply. As he dissects the downward spiral of a small town (“They Don’t Make Anything in That Town”) you feel for the folks left behind. A subtle string arrangement adds a delicate layer that underscores the song’s spare tone and language.
The offbeat rhythm of “On the Nights You Stay Home” elicits the excitement of a hoped-for big-city quiet night in, while faced with the terrifying number of opportunities to inspire jealousy. Rewriting history to confront a breakup (“We Never Met”) is a new twist on telling the story of a relationship. And “What Kind Of Love Is That?” which topped the CBC Top 20 charts, shines a light on the complications of caring for someone in trouble.
Given Woods’ songwriting successes you can’t help but ascribe the dark vision of “Leaving Nashville” to an active imagination, but the details contained in the lyrics make you wonder about his source material. Woods wrote “Leaving Nashville” with aspiring Nashville songwriter Abe Stoklasa. Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley recorded it for a solo album. In time, their hard luck story of a hopeful but downtrodden talent in Music City helped Woods land a songwriting deal with a major publisher, Warner/Chappell.
Throughout Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled and its companion EP, They Are Going Away, what is clear is that Donovan Woods possesses a compelling voice made to tell stories – his stories, and ours. Although it gently rises just above a whisper, it cannot be ignored.