Canadian singer-songwriter Donovan Woods is celebrating the release of his stunning new album, Without People, which is out today, Friday, November 6. It’s a deeply personal, searingly honest piece of work that features Donovan’s trademark intricate, beautifully observed lyrical examinations of aspects of human experience, with a strong focus on love and relationships.
The songs may be personal to him, but they will resonate with everyone who hears them. Poetry set to music is possibly an over-used phrase, but in the case of Without People, it feels apt.
Donovan’s co-writers on the record include the likes of Tucker Beathard, Ashley Monroe, Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies, Thomas Finchum, and Katie Pruitt.
The lyrical beauty of the 14 songs featured here is enhanced by the sparse but devastatingly effective musical arrangements, that act like precise punctuation, as well as Donovan’s achingly honest and deeply moving vocals, made all the more effective by the addition of Dua Lipa’s vocal producer Todd Clark.
If you’re looking for a way to treat yourself today, maybe even lift your spirits in a brief aural oasis of peace, tranquillity, and reflection in a tumultuous world, I recommend you turn out the lights, find the most relaxing spot you can, maybe open a bottle of something nice, or make yourself a cup of tea, and just bathe in the experience of listening to 14 sublime tracks from beginning to end.
The album title, Without People, has several different meanings, but also doubtless reflects the circumstances in which it was recorded. Speaking on the phone to Donovan, he told me that while the songs had actually been written over the past couple of years, the recording process took place almost entirely under lockdown.
“Most of my work deals with really tiny moments in relationships. Little tiny examinations of the things we do to each other, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. It’s all really trying to explore those feelings, those tiny little feelings that we may not even register, and how we label those feelings. Most of my writing has to do with that. And yeah, these ones that are coming out were written over the last year and gathered up, and then recorded mostly at the beginning of quarantine, working back and forth with musicians and sending things back and forth to each other over email, and piecing a record together in that way.”
What was it like recording under such conditions?
“It was interesting, and fun. I love being in the studio with friends, and making something out of nothing, but it was an interesting way to do it, explaining through emails, and text messages, and phone calls what you wanted to hear. And then they would send back a bunch of options, and you’d sift through it, and piece together the thing you wanted. It was definitely a new way. But most musicians are so set up in their house in that regard these days, that it really isn’t that much of a stretch that most people could flip over to that mode pretty easily.”
These are certainly strange times for any artist to be releasing new music, times when much more has to be considered other than the usual promo, and I asked Donovan about something he’d tweeted prior to the release of current single Clean Slate, where he addressed such concerns.
“I think putting out a record, putting out any art at any time, it has to include the context of the time it’s coming out, if art is a reflection of humans and their society at the time it was made. I think I just felt pretty strongly that we had to acknowledge the context. And because I think asking people to spend money on something at a time like this is inherently problematic. So I think there has to be at the very least an acknowledgement that we’re living in the midst of the most significant human rights movement of our lifetime, and then also, at a time when people are very uncertain about their financial future and about their employment future. So I think just having an acknowledgement of that was important, rather than diving right back into the usual promotion stuff.”
Tell me about the single, Clean Slate. It sounds like it’s about people having the courage to take the plunge of falling in love again.
“Yeah, that first feeling of falling in love, the early moments of being in love, are kind of like that sky-high feeling that erases your old notions of yourself, and you feel like maybe you can start again. And I think it’s fitting for the time that we’re in, because it feels like some massive change is afoot, hopefully. Just the sometimes overidealistic idea that you might be able to change that’s at the beginning of every relationship. And of course, most of the time you realise that you’re not going to be able to change (he laughs), and that it’s going to be much more difficult than it seemed to be. But yeah, it’s about those first, sky-high moments of feeling like everything’s brand new.
It’s a nice change to actually hear something so deeply personal in the current climate.
“Yeah. I think that’s right. It’s hard to release a record, or even a song, that’s about interpersonal relationships. But I do think it’s still relevant. But at times I do feel like, God, more songs about love, is that all that comes out of my brain?
We always need more songs about love!
You were mentioning the lyrics, and you do have this amazing sort of forensic, really in-depth, observational style. What were your influences in terms of that sort of style?
“I love Bob Dylan, and my dad got me into Paul Simon really early on. And then I was a teenager at the right time to be completely immersed in hip-hop, and Eminem, and Jay-Z, and the detail in those guys’ writing really is something I aspire to. And I do think it’s detail work. That’s the part that brings me the most joy, for sure. There’s so many hip-hop artists that are so incredible. Ghostface Killah is an amazing sort of detailed writer, that’s just such a strange skill for someone to have. So yeah, it’s a mix of all that stuff.
“And I was so obsessed with Mike Skinner and the Streets. When A Grand Don’t Come for Free came out, those sort of records are full of everyday minutiae, being described in a way that makes it all feel kind of holy. Those little tiny moments between friends that shape a day. He’s really great at that, and that’s the kind of work that I endeavour to, for sure.”
Next I asked Donovan about the last time he played music in the UK, back in 2018 when he played at London’s Borderline venue.
“We just had the best time. This is going to sound like me just sucking up, but there’s something about the British audiences. You guys are just really good at being in a crowd. I don’t know whether it’s just like years of football fandom or whatever it is. Everybody sang louder than anywhere else, and would talk back in ways that were funny, and contributed, and yelled things out that contributed to the mood of the show, rather than tried to steal attention from it. We had such a fun time. It was just the best night of the tour, really.
As far as a return to the UK is concerned, of course all touring plans are still up in the air at the moment.
“Yeah, we had a tentative date of January, February of 2021 to do it. But we can’t. Obviously nobody’s able to predict it enough to be able to do it now. But we have to do it soon, so I’m hoping next year at some point.”
Finally, I asked Donovan if he had a message for our readers.
“Oh, man, just thank you for liking folk music so much, and for caring about it.”
By Maura Sutton