ALBUM REVIEW: Donovan Woods – ‘Without People’

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We had the pleasure of chatting with Donovan Woods 4 months ago, shortly after the release of ‘Clean Slate’, the lead track from his 7th album and the follow-up to the critically acclaimed ‘The Other Way’, which further enhanced the reputation of the Toronto based singer songwriter.

This latest project began in February. The Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to peak, and lockdowns began. Not the ideal time to begin working on a new album. Social distancing meant that ‘studio’ time consisted of Woods working from home.

Producer James Bunton collaborated online, and the input from other musicians, including Nashville-based Katie Pruitt and UK-based Rhus Lewis, was similarly remote.

‘Without People’ was always the intended title for the album. The circumstances prevailing fitted the narrative. The project has also developed into a fund-raising effort, supporting out-of-work artists and dancers who are encouraged under the ‘With People Project’ to create works based upon the songs from the album.

Woods categorises himself as a folk singer from Toronto. His musical influences include Oasis and The Streets, and although his songs are coveted in Nashville and recorded by A-Listers, he hasn’t delivered a straight-up country album. His early albums had an acoustic backdrop, whereas the instrumentals on this body of work extend his brand of folk into so-far uncharted areas.

As a prime example, the rhythm backing on ‘We Used To’ could have feasibly emanated from a Sheeran beatbox, such is the commercial appeal.

Music City however features heavily on the credit lists. Tucker Beathard helped out on song writing duties on ‘Clean Slate’, and Ashley Monroe on ‘High Season’.

Bare Naked Ladies’ Ed Robertson was involved on ‘Man Made Lake’ and ‘God Forbid’, a song that developed from a conversation discussing the expression used by those who have no belief in a higher power.

Woods hasn’t forsaken his knack of writing and performing relationship songs. The album at heart expresses emotions that extend across the full spectrum. Love, Father and Son interaction, and what life is actually like without companionship. Woods has always had the storytelling talent in spades.

‘Seeing Other People’, another track that was pre-released as a standalone, is a song that has a sentiment that initially elicits sadness and sympathy. The realisation that someone you love has decided to move on, but ultimately the overriding and lasting emotion is that you also have to move on and be happy for them. The ultimate songwriters reward; a sad subject that ultimately leaves the listener with a positive emotion.

Woods himself has expressed the view that he feels that he is discovering under-developed nuances of relationships that provide song writing opportunities as he matures as an artist.

His collaborations on ‘Without People’ are inspired and uplifting. Woods has created the canvas for their collective talents to shine. Logan Mize had more than a passing hand in ‘Grew Apart’ . He shared vocals and appeared in the video for the break-up song that deals with the way some avoid dealing with the pain by inventing a false narrative. Woods has commented that he was trying to write a song for the Nashville commercial market, but it took a swerve away and now has an ambiguity that was clearly intentional.

UK musician Rhys Lewis collaborated on ‘Lonely People’, a song that seems like an anthem for a world in lockdown. A song that speaks to those who are yearning for a return to what we had and now miss.

The third duet on the project is one of the album’s many highlights. ‘She Waits For Me To Back Down’ features Nashville-based artist Katie Pruitt, who also co-wrote the song and provided the idea. A love song for her girlfriend. They have already performed it together on tour last year, and the reaction made it essential for inclusion on the album.

‘Without People’ is a record for right now. It comes from an artist with a strong pedigree; his ‘Both Ways’ album won the Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in 2019.

We will hopefully look back on 2020 with a detached viewpoint. The year which presented many unique challenges and adversaries, yet also the year when songwriters were able to adapt and create projects that inspired and moved their listeners. Donovan Woods is that songwriter.

Graham Wharton

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