Herald’s Q&A: Donovan Woods

Award-winning singer-songwriter Donovan Woods talks Atlantic love, Nashville and the Canadian songbook in an in-depth Q&A before he hits St. John’s


From Sarnia, Ontario to Nashville, Tennessee and everywhere in between, Donovan Woods is one of the more accomplished and in demand singer-songwriters in the market today.

Fresh off the release of his newest album Both Ways (Meant Well), the Juno and Polaris Music Prize nominee returns to St. John’s for a pair of solo shows at the Majestic Theatre on November 19th and 20th. 

Woods caught up with The Herald to discuss the changing landscape of the music business, Atlantic appreciation and contributing to the songbook of Canada. 

You’re returning to St. John’s for a pair of shows this November. You’re quite acquainted with Atlantic Canada at this stage of your career. 

The gigs I’ve played in Atlantic Canada are among the best shows and that seems to be how it is … When you meet somebody like Alan (Doyle) or a lot of Newfoundlanders like Tim Baker or Tom Power, just their appreciation … There’s a generation of kids growing up taught to revere a songwriter like Ron Hynes, who the appreciation for is all in the details, all in the fine little details of lyrics. It just tells you a lot about the place. These are young guys who will sit there and blab your ear off about a songwriter like that. It’s really indicative of a place where the culture is intact and the music culture is intact. 

More than anything I think I’m jealous that there is such a distinct culture – coming from a place like where I come from where the culture seems to be Costco. I think the performances there seem to be always a reflection of that.

You’ve garnered a reputation as quite the prolific songwriter. What is it about that medium of art that drew you in?

I guess I love stories. What I love is details about life. When I was a kid and I started to read books on my own that I had picked, I’d think the thing that I was so enamored with was when the feeling of being human is being explained to you in words that you were never able to explain them in.

I’m in love with that idea, having something explained efficiently and elegantly and having that feeling and I think the best songwriting does that. It gives you a mood and a feeling and tells you, not necessarily a full story, but hints and indicates a life. 

It says here’s a person living this life and here’s what they’re feeling and it leaves you to fill in the details. I think there’s something beautiful about that. I don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world, but I think it really helps people live and it has really helped me feel that life is worth it. I’m just trying to contribute to the songbook of Canada if I can do it, because it’s something I’m just so enamored with.

You’ve been a fairly big advocate of the streaming business model for music. Looking at things like vinyl, cds, etc, do you still think that’s a viable means of making money as a musician?

I think it depends. I think both still exist and I think it depends on what your business is and how it works. I think someone like Alan Doyle or Matt Anderson, I’ve watched them just plow through merchandise… Within that business model, yeah, merch is valuable and those things are always going to be valuable. Even printing cds for a small amount of money and you can sell them for $10. 

It really is a great business. I think there’s a lot of young artists, and I’m sort of half and half in each category and am sort of two minds about it, that are coming up that are not going to see the value of it. Even with this vinyl renaissance, have you ever tried to carry a box of vinyl around Europe? It’s heavy, that s**t is the worst. At a certain point it’s like I wish the renaissance would die out. 

I think whatever works for your business works and there are people who still want to buy those things. When we were in Europe and getting the audiences of kids who hear the album on Spotify, I don’t know if you’d be able to pay them to take a cd. People want vinyl, people want t-shirts, but not cds. Nobody wants that.

You’ve carved out a pretty strong niche as a songwriter in Nashville, with your songs used by the likes of Tim McGraw and Charles Kelley. What was it like breaking into one of the more competitive music scenes in the world?  

It felt so normal for me to go down there and just start writing … I went down with a really healthy respect for the genre and not just Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton, people who are easy to revere and everyone loves that music. It’s some of the best songwriting music to get into as a kid. I have a healthy respect for new country and country that’s on the radio and what that’s indicative of and what it means to make that style of music for people and why that music exists as it does now, because there’s so little rock music. Country sort of swooped in and filled that void and has mixed with hip hop in a way that’s probably appropriative, but is still interesting and fun to think about.

 I went down in not a cynical way. I think a lot of people go down there with cynicism thinking this is easy, these songs are dumb, these lyrics are not anything special. I don’t think that’s true at all, I think phrasing and making a cool sounding song is hard in any format. I love country music, I love hit music and songs on the radio and love what all those things mean. I think people reacted to that and nobody wanted me to leave the room, which is really it.

In terms of the live performance, what do you tend to bring to the stage? What can fans expect from these shows?

With me, my songs are not that long. It’s a lot of songs, and I’m going to try to play a lot of old stuff that hopefully people are still into. I talk alot about the songs and possibly talk too much, but it’s all fun. It’s an easy good time where you can sink into songs, and you don’t have to take it all too seriously in the middle. It’ll be fun, it’s going to be fun for sure. 

Donovan Woods performs on November 19th (sold out) and 20th at Club One in St. John’s. For more information visit sonicconcerts.com and donovanwoods.net

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