Okay, it’s still a few weeks until Royal Wood takes the stage at the National Arts Centre. But the Juno-nominated singer-songwriter made a brief pit stop in our city this week, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat with him about all sorts of stuff — like his most recent album We Were Born to Glory, his marriage to fellow Canadian musician Sarah Slean, and his recent endeavours in the world of wine-tasting. (When he’s not dominating the CBC airwaves, Wood’s taking sommelier courses, haven’t you heard.)
What follows is a condensed version of our conversation — held at the Raw Sugar Cafe, if you couldn’t tell from the gaudy sofa and pastel-coloured wall in the above photo. But if you want to hear the whole thing, it’s pretty easy: just tune in to our Wednesday night radio show on CHUO 89.1 FM over the next two weeks. We’re airing part one tonight, and part two next week. The show gets underway at 9 p.m.
And finally, we have two pairs of tickets to give away to Wood’s upcoming show. Click here for details. (UPDATE: We have our winners! Thanks to all who entered.)
I want to start by asking: do you ever find people mistakenly think “Royal Wood” is the name of a band?
Yeah. I get a few answers — that I’m a band, that I’m a DJ, occasionally a golf course. I know it’s an interesting name, and an unusual one. I was named after my great-grandfather, and he passed away just before I was born. And he was musical, and he lived in the Chatham, Ontario area. I’ve actually stood on his grave. My parents just wanted to keep his name going. It’s actually more common than you think — I get a lot of emails now, and messages and stuff [from] people all over the world named Royal.
Are you the only Royal in your family?
Yes, since my great-grandfather died. I’m the last. I’ll keep it going if I have kids.
I want to talk a bit about your album We Were Born to Glory, which came out this year. Tell me about the title – what does “glory” mean to you?
Well, “glory” [doesn’t have] a religious connotation. A spiritual one, yes. But it’s not religious. Being born to glory, to me, is just being present in the now, you know? It’s actually being mindful of the preciousness of life that we have, and how we have a real potential to do something great, something meaningful and worthwhile. Because I don’t think we’re coming back. Obviously, our energy gets used again, whether you’re a tree or a rock or a cloud or the next baby. But the essence that is me, the soul that is me —whatever makes me that consciousness — is not. It’s gone. I just don’t believe that continues.
And so, [life] is a gift. It’s so precious. And I want to do my utmost with it, and I want people, humanity, to do something with it. We’ve gone to the moon, we’ve cured polio, we’ve done things when [we’ve been challenged]. And then, at the same time, I see us floundering with KFCs and mass-produced, horrible quote-unquote music and the arts. And just things that are so saccharine and nutrasweet. We can do something great and leave a legacy for every generation.
That’s a very thoughtful answer. Where does that philosophy come from, for you?
One, I was born and raised on a bunch of farmland. So I definitely have a connection to understanding that I am nature, and that life is everything that is around us. But it’s also being in my thirties. My twenties were a blur of making music, having fun, meeting girls, whatever else is involved. And in my thirties, I got married, I’ve watched my siblings have kids, and I buried my grandparents on both sides. It’s just my one grandfather left. And my parents are getting older. You start taking stock of everything, and see just how precious and how much of a cycle everyone is tied into, and you all play a role in it. And I want to do something useful. I don’t want to throw it away. And I think marriage is one of the biggest things that taught me that.
The album was top 25 in Canada. The first single, “I Want Your Love,” spent three weeks at number one on CBC Radio Two. What do you take away from that success?
Well, it’s nice when you pull your head out of the sand and someone has actually paid attention. But I, myself, and the artists that I want to emulate and follow after, I don’t think they went into the studio to make something that was going to be quote-unquote popular or anything like that.
Like, I wanted to be fulfilled and excited, and get my band excited, and [I wanted] Dean [Drouillard] and I — who were producing it together — to just be trying new things, and push ourselves, be exhausted. And then, when you’re all done, you have this creation, and then you put it out there. And the fact that it’s doing well — and the fact that I get to have a career, and this is all I do — it’s amazing. I’m fortunate as hell. There are so many artists that have to have some terrible day job, or rely on some grant or someting to live, you know?
You’re not working as a barista at Starbucks, is what you’re saying.
No, I haven’t been in a bookstore as a cashier in a long time. Which is good.
Amazing. That kind of recognition means a great deal to me. And that it [was for] songwriter. It’s one thing for an album or a single or something, but songwriter means everything. It [covers] everything you do and put out there. To be recognized by my peers and CARAS was huge. It means as much as if I were to have won it, for me, just being nominated. Because I was up there with Sarah McLachlan, Drake was in that [category], and my friend Hannah [Georgas]. We were just a bunch of excited artists, going “recognition is here.”
How does your marriage to Sarah Slean influence you creatively?
Well, you can’t help but have it influence you. I think I greatly influence her, and vice versa. But life influences us — it’s everything we read, and discuss, and we watch in terms of film. Even this conversation you and I are having now might force me to think about something longer than I would have, had we not had it. So [marriage] has its effect, but we greatly admire and respect each other and leave each other alone.
I think that’s part of the attraction: artistically, we know you have to be fulfilled, and you have your own views, and you can’t filter it for your partner. And you can’t filter it for fans or industry. You just have to make what genuinely [you have] that burning desire to make. And I think that’s what it’s like with Sarah — she just gets it. No one else got that before. That’s always been a problem. And I think it was the same for her.
Have you ever thought of recording together?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve produced stuff with Sarah for her last record. I did stuff on Land & Sea. And I played some instruments, sang, that kind of stuff. But in terms of writing, that’s a really holy, sacred thing for both of us. We’ve never thought about, you know, forming a band or anything like that. That seems kind of “entertainerish.” We just want to be artists.
But in terms of touring together — we’ve turned down a lot of things. But we’ve done some things recently. We both performed with the symphony orchestra in Niagara, in Ontario, recently. Which was amazing, because I arrange for strings and she arranges for strings. It was just the perfect kind of concert to do. Our fans, I think, overlap a lot. So one day, I think we might do that kind of tour. But for now, our careers are bouncing us all over the place, and we’re just trying to hang on.
I hear you’re taking sommelier courses.
Yeah, at George Brown.
What inspired that?
A lifelong passion in wine and food and culture. I’ve always loved wine. And I’ve always done reading, and tried to understand what I was doing, but I quickly realized that I needed a real education if I was going to understand what it is I liked and what I didn’t. It was just natural. I mean, I actually went to an LCBO to try to take a course, and it was all booked up. And then I started doing a little research and realized there was a [course at] George Brown, which was right around the corner from me at the time. And it fit within the touring schedule. I couldn’t believe it.
I have to do a lot of correspondence — a lot of tasting and discipline on my own to do it. But I don’t know, I got an A on my exam. So I guess I’m doing okay.
If one were to pair a wine with your most recent album, what would you suggest?
I’ll give you just a good region: I would say probably the Bordeaux region [of France]. But the right bank, not the left bank. The right bank is more Merlot-based. Because I feel like there’s a little sweeter side to this record than I’ve ever had before. My previous ones are a little more sombre, a little more morose. And that wine is not.
If you’ve made it this far, congrats! You’ve reached the part where you can win stuff — namely, a pair of tickets to Wood’s Jan. 12 show at the NAC. The perfect Christmas gift? It just might be. To win, send us an email to apartment613 [at] gmail [dot] com with the answer to this skill-testing question: in which country was the video for “I Want Your Love” shot? The first two people to respond correctly win two tickets apiece.
Royal Wood plays the National Arts Centre on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets available online or at the NAC box office, starting at $29.