The ultimate goal for any artist operating within the world of country music, no matter where you’re from, is to someday end up in the heart of it all: Nashville, Tennessee. When speaking to Donovan Woods, you get a sense of what this city means to him as both a second home and a place to evolve with a great community of songwriters and fellow musicians. “When I first went to Nashville I think I just realized how good these people were at songwriting,” Woods says over the phone with cars buzzing in the background. “It’s cool to see how many men and women are coming together to operate as a community. The music industry can be a cesspool of bullshit that’s hard to avoid, so having a strong community of writers who are constantly pushing themselves is really inspiring.”
Woods, who was born in Sarnia Ontario, began to slowly make a name for himself in Nashville in 2014 after the release of his third album Don’t Get Too Grand. Co-writing songs for the likes of Tim McGraw and others, Woods received praise for songs like “Portland Maine” and “Leaving Nashville,” an ode to his newfound love for a city that seems to challenge the spaces in which country/folk artists can occupy with their music. “In Nashville it feels like there’s a space that’s a bit more rebellious and progressive, which is funny because ‘progressive’ is not always the word you think about when you’re a country musician,” Woods says explaining the lack of representation in the genre. “Women like Brandi Carlile, who identify as queer, are occupying spaces within the Americana realm that feel vital to what’s going on right now. The music feels like it’s from 2018, not the 1950’s. Nashville is a place where there’s an understanding of what’s vital now and how far things can go.”
Even with an artist like Brandi Carlile, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who’s garnered critical acclaim and had several Billboard charting releases throughout her career, the country music landscape is still a plaid shirt-wearing, big-bearded boys club that’s rooted in a very narrow identity. “Folk and country music in Canada is the that thing you listen to on CBC when you’re drinking coffee or tea,” Woods says with a laugh. “Sometimes I think to myself how many more white guys with beards do you we need singing about their feelings?” After a turbulent few years, Woods has released his latest album Both Ways, a collection of heartfelt love songs that find his smooth Americana folk taking on greater instrumentation and a much larger sound.
On this last record, 2016’s Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, he was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize and won the award for English Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. With all that pressure on him, Woods explains the importance of making the songwriting process as honest and organic as possible. “I always know when it’s time to start making a record. Before I give anything to the producer, I look through my old voice memos and emails for those old songs I kept for myself. It’s really important for me to think about how I can make those ideas stronger as I move deeper into the recording process.” He adds that: “Everytime you write a record, you just have to go in there and make something great happen. In the last 2 years I got divorced, I fell in love again. All of that is on the record. I never put any pressure on my music being more than a representation of the 2 years it takes to create the record.”
Sometimes I think to myself how many more white guys with beards do you we need singing about their feelings?
Penning love and loss narratives throughout the album, Woods drew his inspiration from reading works from writers like Alice Munro, someone he says knows how to create “strikingly observable moods” within the first paragraph of her work. “When I love the air of a story, I wanna capture that in a song,” says Woods. “As you get older, less interesting things happen in your life. You’re not out getting stoned or meeting people all the time, so you have to find other ways to keep your creative juices flowing and find that inspiration. Reading is definitely it for me.” Being very vocal about the linear narratives within the Americana realm, Woods is always challenging its storytelling on Both Ways.
A great example of this would be the video for the song “Burn That Bridge.” He’d originally wrote this song with his friends Bria McKinnon and Dylan Guthro, known for their band Port Cities. After revisiting the song during the recording process for the album, Woods fell in love with the language surrounding the song, which helped inform the direction for the video. “To me, the story felt like two childhood friends falling in love and I thought it’d be fun to tell that story in the video,” Woods explains.
“When I started thinking about the video, I just seen a music video [“Virile”] by this French EDM dance group called The Blaze. It’s just a video of all these guys dancing together and smoking weed at the same time. I wanted to tell a similar love story, but make it really tiny and efficient in one apartment.” After talking to director Ryley Burghall, they eventually found a video of dancing couple Josh and Kavante, who star in the songs stunning visuals. Their love story is compelling and beautiful, subtly shifting between absolute bliss and complete sadness.
Told through a queer lens, Woods admits that he was very skeptical about telling a story that comes from a lived experience he doesn’t share, being that he doesn’t identify as queer himself. These days in music and pop culture, queer-baiting has become the normal occurrence, which is why he made sure to have the necessary conversations before moving forward with the video. “I’m grateful that I’ve always had a means of discussing topics about queerness and politics with the people in my life. I definitely talked to a lot of people about how this story would look on this platform,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t over-stepping my bounds. I would never try and tell a ‘coming-out’ story or something like that. That’s not my experience. I do know what it’s like to fall in love with someone that’s your friend who you didn’t expect to fall in love with. That’s the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to show people how the act of falling in love is kind of a surreal moment, no matter who you are or how you identify.” It’s odd to think that these types of stories still ruffle feathers within the country music community.
However, there’s still little to no representation for LGBTQ or POC performers. Woods sees his music as an opportunity to add more complexity to the narratives in music to help reach an audience that feels ostracized by the community. There’s still a lot of work to do, which he believes starts with the genre’s archaic ideas about who and what should have space within it. “I think also the biggest battle country music has been embroiled in for the longest time is the place of women in country music. This has always felt like a ridiculous joke to me because a women just simply singing country music is country music. Period.” He elaborates on this saying: “The idea that the radio would play less women than men is crazy because if you even look at the history of recorded music, country or not, it’s all women. Some of the highest selling and highly acclaimed songs of all time were done by women like Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Carrie Underwood, Beyoncé, Shania Twain, among others. The idea that we need to fight for representation for these people in music is just so strange because there entire movements in music built on ripping these people off.”
I want to make sure I’m making music that isn’t just the status quo or a tool for the oppressors.
Country music has always prioritized men, whiteness, and a narrow definition of masculinity that’s very harmful to its future. Woods admits he’s not perfect, but is doing everything in his power to open things up and redefine the frameworks that limit the potential within the genre. “Within my genre, I don’t get the opportunity to work with as many queer people or people of colour as I’d like, but I constantly try to fight for as much representation as possible. My biggest job right now is making sure that everyone has a story to connect with.” Donovan Woods has been fighting the good fight throughout his career, which is what’s made him one of the most honest, thoughtful songwriters working right now.
Both Ways is an album where he challenges himself to delve deeper and think about how he can be more impactful in the messages he shares with the world. “I do love America, but I don’t love their politicians or their politics”, Woods says. “I feel like with this record, especially as a grown person with kids, there’s no more time to fuck around. I want to make sure I’m making music that isn’t just the status quo or a tool for the oppressors because if you’re not careful, it can become that very easily.”