A few weeks ago, I had the chance to speak with Canadian folk singer/songwriter Donovan Woods. We talked about Woods' fantastic new album, Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled, which is officially out today. We also spoke, in detail, about songwriting, co-writing, the idea of capturing a dichotomy of ideas in a single song, American country music, and Donovan's experiences writing songs for Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley.
Yeah, I guess two weeks! The 26th, so what's that? Yeah, two weeks.
Anything planned for the day of the release?
I'm going to be on a tour, so I'll be playing in Winnipeg on that night. So it'll just be a show day and then back on the bus, but after this tour is over there'll be a big release party, probably in Toronto, in March I think.
Are you on a solo tour or are you touring with someone right now?
I'm opening for a fellow named Matt Anderson who's a blues artist from Canada. Haven't started yet, starting on Monday going all the way from BC to Halifax in Canada.
In the past few years your songs have appeared on albums by Tim McGraw and then the new one by Charles Kelley. Who else have you written for or written with?
I wrote a song that's on Billy Curington's record, he's a country guy. A bunch of Canadian artists. I written with a lot of Canadian country artists. People that aren't quite famous south of the (Canadian) border, but people that do well on the radio up here. And now I'm starting to write with all types of Nashville artists as well, but nothing...you don't want to talk too much about it, because you never know if the song is going to make the record and you're sort of just waiting in the wings. But all types of people, big and small, which is very lucky.
So how does the experience of writing for other people--and especially since you've been writing with more Nashville artists recently--how did that influence the music that you were making for this new record?
Well this is my first record that's ever had co-writes on it. All three of my other records I wrote entirely by myself. I wrote these songs--five of these songs I wrote by myself and five of them I wrote with other people. So I've never had that before. I never recorded a song under my own name that I recorded with someone else. So that's a new experience. I don't know that two years ago I would have ever said I would have done that, but eventually you find the right people to write with, and then before you know it, you're leaving the room with a song that you might love and you might put on a record. Once you're writing with good people, you end up with good songs. Not surprising! So once that sort of changed, yeah, it was easy to see myself putting a co-written song on a record. And maybe that makes the songs a little bit more...impersonal? I don't know that it does. I'm not sure that it does. I'm not sure what it changes. I think that the best part about co-writing is you get a point of view that you don't have on your own. I don't know, are you a musician?
So you know how it is. You sort of play the same thing on the guitar, you sort of do what you do. You have your tricks, and it's really hard to break out of that. You're kind of trained, in a lot of ways. It's hard to break out of your patterns. And lyrically, I'm sure that you know it's kind of the same way: it's hard to break out of the phrasing that you use, and it's nice having another person there to get you outside of that. Then you can make something that's actually new and exciting. Hopefully!
Yeah, definitely! Yeah, when I go to write songs it's always usually like, I start with the same chords and I find myself writing similar melodies so, I can definitely picture--I've never written with another person, at least not yet--but I can imagine.
Yeah, before I done a bit of it, I thought...I couldn't imagine it. It seemed so, like such a crazy idea to me. It's fun now to be a lot more comfortable with it and, yeah, I don't have that problem anymore where I sit down and I play something that's the same when I write with somebody else. The other function of it is that it just gives you an appointment to go do it. But I'm old, I have a whole bunch of responsibilities, so I really need to structure my time in writing. Because if I don't...I have all types of cool stuff in my house! (Laughs) Like, I would go watch TV, you know? I would almost rather do anything, because writing songs is...it's pretty hard! So having a writing appointment is pretty convenient once you're an old dude. I'm not that old, but you know, once you have a whole bunch of responsibilities.
When you sit down to write a song, do you say to yourself "I'm going to look to have this cut by someone else" or do you say "This one's for me," or do you just write the song and see where it goes?
You just write. I mean, the funny part is that any time I've ever sat down thinking "I want to try to write a song for X artist," it never works. It's just...I don't know, you are usually not rewarded by the songwriting gods for doing that, and deservedly so. It just seems to me that sitting down with a good idea and sitting down with someone to try to get that idea to the best place, try to tell a story in the best way you can, try to represent an idea in the best way to can, or like map out a feeling, or...trying to do that accurately is always more rewarding to yourself, at the end of the day, and always more rewarding in that people want to cut it. And the ones that I've had cut we didn't think anybody was going to cut. When we were writing that "Portland, Maine" song that Tim McGraw cut, we didn't think anybody was going to record that. It was too sad! We were like "No one's ever going to like this." We turned it into the publishers, they were like "No one's ever going to cut this." And it made sense, because it was too sad, it was too...sort of a tiny little story, a tiny little narrative. You know, it's not what's on country radio, it's not what country artists are doing right now.
But the ones that you write and feel passionate about tend to be the ones that other people feel passionate about too, so I try to not prescribe anything and just sit down and try to write a good idea. To write a song that I can be proud of and don't have to be ashamed of. Because I've certainly written a lot, and there are songs on the radio in Canada that I'm ashamed of. (Laughs) And the feeling of someone like Charles cutting a song like "Leaving Nashville" and the response that that gets from people is infinitely more rewarding than making some money off a song that you want to blow your brains out when you hear it.
Last year we got two one-off singles from you: we got "Portland, Maine," your version of it, and we got "That Hotel." And neither of those are on this album.
Yeah, well "Portland, Maine" will be like a bonus track: you'll get it when you get the record I guess.
Yeah, I saw that on the iTunes version.
But it's not a real...not really on the record.
Yeah, not on the vinyl.
Oh yeah, that's right.
Was there a specific reason that you decided to leave those two off?
Well, I felt that "That Hotel" was a bit more...I mean, this record is...it wasn't really about me, and I think the ones on this record are...to me, they're about me. And it felt like those two were a little bit not about me. Although, "That Hotel" is...I mean, at the moment, it's becoming more and more about me, but... (Laughs) I also just thought that the mood of it didn't really suit this record. And I like it as a standalone song. I like that it was released as just one sad as hell song. (Laughs) So I didn't want to mess with that. I just thought I would leave it alone and let people enjoy it for what it is.
So speaking of "Leaving Nashville," that song is sort of fascinating to me, because it provides this very sobering view of Nashville—and sort of by extension, a sobering view of the American Dream. What inspired you to write that song? And was it coming from a cynical place or was it more like, this is just how life in this city and trying to be a professional songwriter is?
Yeah, I think that one of the things I'm always trying to do with records and songs is get that dichotomy of experience accurately, just in terms of how bad things can feel good and good things can feel bad. Something can be awful and feel fine at the same time. Both of those thoughts can be present and true simultaneously. So I think that loathing a place and loving a place is an idea that was interesting to me, and that's sort of what I was trying to represent.
I think that, like a lot of places, it was an idea that I'd had for a really long time, and I had pitched it at a couple other writers, and they didn't want to write it with me because they didn't quite understand it. So I took it to Abe [Stoklasa], and Abe understood it immediately. We wrote it in about 30 or 40 minutes. So it resonated with him.
I think the idea, to me, I didn't want it to be cynical. I didn't want to be, like, shitting on Nashville. I think that there's something about that place, and a lot of places in America, that there isn't in Canada. Like, we don't have towns like that in Canada, where it's ruthless and it's like a hustle to get to the top, but that can reward you in such a fantastic way. It can be simultaneously depressing, the bottom of the barrel of these people trying to make money on songs. But at the same time, there's just this fantastic hope, this crackling energy of possibility. And New York is like that. Los Angeles is like that. These towns that can be loathed and loved at the exact same time.
I think that certainly is what Nashville represents to me. There's just so many people there doing exactly what I want to do. Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to go there and write songs, and the first thing I Googled when I got the internet was Warner Capitol, because I heard that that was a company that paid songwriters just to write songs. So I think there's something about it that I love, and I was just to represent that dichotomy of feeling about that place. Sorry, that's a very long answer!
No, that's great! That's sort of what I got from it, is the dichotomy, so it's cool to hear you explain that.
Yeah, it just felt like it was a good way to represent the feelings of it, you know? Just to list a bunch of really sort of on-the-line can-be-awful things, and then saying it's doesn't matter: you're still never leaving. Ironic for me, because I don't even live there and I leave all the time. (Laughs) It's kind of ironic when all you do is leave!
Yeah, and speaking of irony, that song is also the closer on that Charles Kelley record. Is it ironic to you that this song, where it's like "if it ain't a single it don't me nothing," this was one of the ones that you wrote that another artist ended up picking up and recording?
Yeah, I think it's funny. I don't think it'll be a single! (Laughs) I still don't think it'll be a single. But we also tried to make the song--like, it says "pour out your heart in 3:20"--we also tried to make the song exactly three minutes and 20 seconds. I don't think Charles' version is that exact length. But you know, I think that's part of the appeal of it. I mean, to hear Charles sing "your friends are friends with country stars," to have a country star singing that is...you know, there's something really interesting about it. And it's got layers to it that you can think about. I think that's why it's resonating with people. That's why we liked it when we wrote it. We just thought "Wow, there's a lot of shit in here. There's a lot of stuff going on in this song." I don't think there's much...I don't want to, you know...I love Nashville, but there's not a lot of stuff like that coming out of Nashville. Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton. And Jason Isbell, you could say, is part of Nashville, but in a way he's not. But, there just aren't very many songs that you can live inside. But that's not...not all songs have to be like that, you know? Like, there's value in Luke Bryan. He's really great. Those guys are amazing at what they do. But I love a song that you can get lost in.
Yes. Absolutely. I agree. So, when these artists like Tim and Charles cut your songs, do you meet with them or speak with them? Or do you just get a call from your publisher and it's like "Hey, someone wants this song"? I've always been curious about how that works.
Sometimes it's either one. I mean, the one with Tim, neither of us know--Abe Stoklasa and I wrote that "Portland, Maine" song too--neither of us know Tim. So, yeah, that one was just our publisher calling and saying "He likes it." And I never spoke him at all about it, until briefly later. But it was just that: he said he was gonna cut it, and then we waited around to hear it. And I didn't even hear it until the record came out. And I bought the record the day it came out, went looking for it.
So sometimes it's like that. And other times it's like...Abe knows Charles and has written for him before. Abe wrote a song on Lady Antebellum's last record. The best song on the record. So Abe knew Charles and had a relationship with Charles, and we sent him the work tape of the song. And we never demoed the song, he just cut it off the work tape. So then we were in communication with him about whether he was going to use it and whether he liked it, so we knew he was thinking of putting it on the record. Eventually I heard the studio version, but I heard that a long while ago, before it came out. And I've since written with Charles on a bunch of other songs.
So yeah, it's either/or, and sometimes it's both, you know? A lot of times, cuts in Nashville come from personal relationships with artists, though. The Tim McGraw one, with him completely not knowing us, is pretty rares. It's also pretty rare for him to pick a song from two writers who had never had a cut before. But it happens in all different ways and that's what's so fun about it.
Yeah, that's great. So there's a song in the middle of this record that, when you said "a song you can live inside," it made me think of this. Because this song kind of reminded me of Jason Isbell, actually. But it's "They Don't Make Anything in That Town." And it's really desolate and heartbreaking and pretty much made me stop what I was doing and pay attention because it's that kind of song. What inspired that for you? Is that autobiographical.
Yeah. Thanks, I'm glad that you like that song! Those are stories from my hometown. I don't have that negative feeling of my hometown. I go there pretty frequently. But I feel like it could be pretty hard for some people. But that's sort of just a pastiche of things that I heard about happening in the town, but things that didn't happen to me. But just sort of trying to add up to something that's indicative of a bigger story. That's all I'm trying to do. Pretty depressing, though, that song. Pretty depressing. (Laughs)
Yeah, it's a tough one. (Laughs) I was actually sort of surprised that that one didn't end the record, but then I remembered that "Leaving Nashville" was on here.
Yeah, that was the big argument. I kind of wanted "They Don't Make Anything in That Town" to end the record, but I kind of let my producers...I like to let my producers have a big fan track order, because they've listened to it more than anybody. I just feel like they need a say. I don't know, I feel like every song I've ever written is probably a "last song on the record," to be honest with you, so it never surprises me whichever one gets picked.
Just a lot of sad. Yeah, you gotta end the record sad.
Yeah, I don't know what... (Laughs) Why is that true? I wonder why that's try that it's always sad at the end of the record.
I think it comes from wanting to end on a ballad, and then a lot of ballads are sad.
Yeah, I guess. So many times though, when somebody cuts one of my songs and I see the tracklisting, it's like number 11 or number 10. And then you know, you know they're never singling it. (Laughs)
I mean, with Charles at least, that song was...it wasn't a pre-release thing, but he did the one mic, one take video, so...
Yeah, he did the video for it and all that. Yeah, that song, people will know enough about that song to sort of reach out to hear it, and all the reviews are about it. But you know, you get to wanting to hear yourself...like, I wanna hear my songs on American country radio. I've heard myself in Canada. I've just dreamed of having a song [on American radio]. I think I will eventually, but I don't know if it's that song. That song is pretty sad for the radio.
Yeah, I think if there would be one on hear that I would call a "radio song" for country, it would probably be "The First Time," because that one has a theme that a lot of people can relate to, I think.
Well maybe! Who knows? That one's pretty depressing too, though. (Laughs)
Yeah, but it's depressing in a different way, I guess.
Would you say that working with Nashville artists pushed you toward a more American country sound for this record? Because it sort of feels more Americana to me than your past ones.
Yeah, I always wanted to have those instruments. If I could have afforded them on the last record, I probably would of had them. But having pedal steel and having all different types of players is primarily a function of having a bigger budget for this record. But yeah, I think certainly in the last four years that I've been writing in Nashville, I've come to appreciate country music more than I did. And I always did appreciate it. I grew up in a town where everyone likes country music, so, I was never...I always liked it. But, I think that's probably fair to say.
When you write a song and someone else records it for their record, is there a feeling of awkwardness when you decide to put it on your record too?
Yeah, I don't know. That "Leaving Nashville" song, I just loved it. I think if I didn't know Charles, I would have...I think kind of the courtesy that you're giving another artist is to let them release it first. And that's sort of part of the deal. I wouldn't have released it before him, that's for sure. But to say that is also silly, because my reach is so incredibly small in comparison to him. So if I release it, nobody's going to hear it and if he releases it, everybody's going to hear it. Part of it is just the attention. I wanted to make sure that he was able to release it first and that he got most of the attention for it. But that's a song I love and I definitely want to have it on my record. Charles knows that I'm an artist and he has my records. So there was no weird discussion about it. I said "I'd like to record it too, for my record" and he said "Of course." It's kind of a pretty normal thing in Nashville, so there doesn't have to be too much awkwardness about it.
I think Chris Stapleton said something about it, because he...that "Whiskey and You" song on Traveller, that was a Tim McGraw recording too, back in 2008 or something. And he's like "It's a great song, anyone can record it and it's gonna be new anyway because it's a different interpretation."
That's part of it. That's written in the DNA of Nashville is that a song is a song and you can't keep anybody from cutting it. We've sort of fallen off that in the music industry in that, now we seem to think that everybody should write their own songs. But we used to know that not everybody is capable or even really wants to. But there's really something to be said for amazing song interpreters. But the idea now is that, if you're singing it, you should have written it, which is kind of a new idea, and we're a little bit silly to hold it so dear, you know?
Yeah, definitely. Sort of among the elitists that view country music as "the mainstream stuff" and "everyone else," it's like, "well these guys aren't writing their songs, so is there artistic integrity to that?" But it is kind of a pointless argument, I realize, because most people aren't even going to know.
Most people don't know, and nobody's...it's not a lie, it's not a fraud or anything. I mean, Frank Sinatra didn't write his songs, and everybody likes him. Elvis didn't write all those songs. Even the Beatles sang other peoples' songs early on. But, you know, ever since the Beatles and ever since Bob Dylan, there's sort of a "real artists write and perform their own songs" [belief], and I don't if that's necessarily true. I think we can do ourselves a bit of a disservice. Nobody gives pop people a hard time for doing it. But I think sort of the authenticity of country people is that they wrote these songs and went out and did it. But I don't know. Hearing Charles sing "Leaving Nashville," that's his song. That's his song, you know? There's no argument from about that. He sings it as well as anybody could sing that song. And even Tim singing "Portland, Maine," was like, "Of course he wanted to sing that song." There's a real ability in identifying those songs that you're going to sound good on, and following through with that, and that shouldn't be discounted. It's just bullshit: that's real talent.
And Charles, his version of "Leaving Nashville," he just does some different stuff with the vocals and phrasing, to the point where they're definitely different songs.
Well certainly from mine, they are definitely different songs. Mine is, I think, the saddest version.
Yep, yours is sadder.
But his is...yeah, his is almost defiant. But they're both great. When I heard his, I was over the moon because he really went for it. His felt important, and that's my favorite thing.
I read an interview that said you had the title for this record and you've had it for a bit, and I was wondering what the title means to you and why you decided to choose it.
I always have the title way before the rest of the record. I have the title for the next one all set up too, I think. But I don't know: it was two songs, "Hard Settle" and "Ain't Troubled" were two songs I was working on by myself but never really finished. They just weren't good enough to make it on the record. But to me, it pretty accurately described the first half and the second half. I tried to group the songs in such a way that the first half is "Hard Settle" and the second half is "Ain't Troubled." I just like the way those words sound. I like the dichotomy, that one sounds like a struggle and the other songs like everything's fine. I think, to me, that's the interesting part of life: that people will cope. And I think, to me, it's about coping and feeling like you're not bothered by the hustle, not bothered by the struggle.