“Drove Through Town” is a song from They Are Going Away, Donovan Woods‘ latest EP.
Appropriate, then, that our interview was conducted in cars. Both of us in the afternoon commute. A snail of two cities.
I had pulled into a Timmies as construction-season in Ottawa had made it impossible for me to be where I had planned for the interview.
Donovan, who jokingly describes himself on Twitter as “like Paul Simon except taller, and not as good”, will be returning to the NAC on October 20th with opening performer Joey Landreth. Much heralded for his songwriting and compelling vocal delivery, his acclaimed fourth album Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled received a 2016 Polaris Music Prize nomination. His cross-Canada tour begins at the Cultivate Festival in Port Hope at the end of September.
I try to leave the door open with the aim of writing a really great song.
After checking that we both could hear the other, we talked about the upcoming tour, songwriting, Kathleen Edwards, The Hip, and his career.
You said in a 2014 interview that you felt that at one point in your career you’ll have to decide to be a songwriter or a singer. Do you still feel that you’ll have to decide?
I think in the world of professional songwriting, you are viewed as a writer or as being someone who has ambitions of being an artist as well. They do try to force you into a box. I don’t think it’s as threatening as I once thought it was. But it certainly is hard to do both, and I think that at some point you do have to make a commitment. But then there are artists like Ron Sexsmith who can write and perform his own songs, and have others interested in recording his songs. I’m certainly not comparing myself to him. I’m just saying that if I can, I’d like to be able to occupy a similar sort of space.
Being able to write a quality song does not mean that you have the ability to perform the song. Songwriting and performing are two quite separate skills, aren’t they?
Writing a good song that anyone can sing is really hard. That’s why someone like Cole Porter is so lauded. That’s a difficult task. Standards endure for that reason. There are a lot of singer-songwriters whose voice is so much part of the presentation. Someone like Bon Iver, for instance. There’s a feeling there. There are dudes in Nashville who can write songs that anyone can sing. They’re incredible, but don’t quite have the voice to communicate. I’m really lucky to have an artist career in Canada because songs don’t go to waste. If I really like a song and no one wants to do it, I can record it myself. Which is great.
So when you write a song, do you have your voice in mind?
I try to not prescribe a song. I take an idea and try to write the best version of that idea. I try to leave the door open with the aim of writing a really great song. Don’t have preconceived ideas of what it will be. If you do that every time then you’ll come up with songs that you’ll love and that other people will love. If you can be open then you won’t get in your own way. And sometimes you don’t know what you’ve written about until weeks after you finish the song.
Is there anyone that you’d like to sing with?
Kathleen Edwards. I love her voice so much. It would be fantastic to sing with her.
I’d like to hear you sing with Feist.
I’m a big fan of hers. She’s as good as it gets in Canada. The high bar. And she is such a great player, as well. You hear all these riffs on her record, and she effortlessly does them in concert.
You’ve recently opened for Buffy Saint Marie.
I’ve known her for a bit now. She’s incredible. Her’s is a progressive show. She’s always challenging her audience. Some will come expecting the amazing folkie that she once was, but she’s surprising people. She’s a very formidable figure who never shies away from what she wants to say or do.
Another Canadian artist you respect highly is Gord Downie.
I watched the Hip’s Kingston concert on TV. It was a fantastic reminder of how awesome the band is. And it was a herculean effort to play for 3 hours. I know what it’s like to play for an hour and a half. Springsteen plays for 3 hours, but he’s lifting weights every day. It was sad to see Gord looking so tired. But I’m so glad that we all had the opportunity to share that evening.
By the time you get to Ottawa, your new EP will have been released. Three songs which weren’t quite ready for your album and a new song.
Three of the songs were kicking around when we were working on Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. When you’re working on an album, you gather up what you think are the best options for it. For whatever reasons, these weren’t quite there yet. So we went back, reworked them, and decided to release them. I always love when you’re into an artist and they release two things in an year. Like when Radiohead released the Airbag EP six months after releasing OK Computer. I loved that. I was thrilled. This is me trying to be thrilling. (laughs)
What can we expect when we see you in Ottawa?
Joey Landreth is opening, and he’s the dreamiest singer and player of all time. I always look forward to seeing him. I’ll have a drummer and bass player with me this time. And as it’s Ottawa, there will be people kicking around who may come up for guest spots. There will be lots of chatting and laughter. My songs are really sad, and the audience is owed some levity.
I’m looking forward to the tour. Its taken a really long time, but things are progressing. I remember every time I had to weasel my way into something so that I could play. I remember when I used to play at a Second Cup. I played Massey Hall when I opened for Matt Anderson not too long ago. It hasn’t been an overnight thing at all. I’ve been making up songs since i was 8 years old. That’s a lot of making up songs to get to the point where maybe ten of them are good. It all feels worth it.
Donovan Woods plays at the NAC on October 20th with guest Joey Landreth. Tickets are $25 and are available through the NAC website.