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Late at night, when a hush fell over the house after his kids went to bed, Donovan Woods got to work on his latest album, Without People.
In a makeshift recording studio at his Toronto home, the acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter tracked his vocals and guitar alone and then emailed files to producer James Bunton. As Woods’ new songs took shape, backing musicians sketched out their own parts in isolation from their respective homes.
This is not how Woods, winner of the 2019 Juno Award for contemporary roots album (for Both Ways) and whose global streams have surpassed 210 million, prefers to create music.
“So much of what I like about making records is the spontaneity of making music in a room together, and we missed that,” Woods says. “But we tried our best to re-create that feeling.”
For an album made so piecemeal, Without People (out now on Woods’ Meant Well label) has been acclaimed as “a nuanced experience” (American Songwriter), a thoughtful exploration of “fleeting interpersonal moments now under the microscope” (NPR/KUTX) and “various aspects of human connection” (Rolling Stone), and for striking “a gentle, poignant note” (Billboard).
So much of the album’s allure is rooted in how Woods connects with his collaborators and imparts the intimacy we all crave right now. You hear it in the way the harmonies pile up in gossamer layers on “Seeing Other People” and in the tenderness of “She Waits for Me to Come Back Down,” Woods’ evocative duet with rising singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt. On “Lonely People,” buzzed-about British singer Rhys Lewis delicately echoes Woods’ sentiments about wanting to be alone – until you’re suddenly lonely.
And now there’s even more to love about the album, which ranks as Woods’ most successful release ever, with more than 10 million streams and climbing. Coming out March 26, a new deluxe edition of Without People adds four bonus tracks (two new originals and two alternate mixes) at just the right time.
“This deluxe version is really in place of what live shows might’ve been like if the pandemic hadn’t happened,” Woods says. “Among my favorite parts of playing live are presenting songs in a different context and introducing new material, and this deluxe version is doing that type of work.”
A new piano rendition of “Grew Apart” cuts right to the bone, and an acoustic interpretation of “Whatever Keeps You Going” pairs Woods with the pure voices of the J.P. Music Project children’s choir at J.P. Robarts school in London, Ontario.
Fans who loved that mysterious snippet of a would-be country hit featured on “Interlude” will get a kick out of realizing Woods actually fleshed it out with a full-length version called “When the Party’s Over.” And speaking of country hits, “Break Somebody’s Heart” is Woods’ down-home salute to his signature topic: “the awful and seemingly unavoidable ways we harm each other.”
As an in-demand songwriter whose work has been recorded by the likes of Tim McGraw (“Portland, Maine”) and Lady A’s Charles Kelley (“Leaving Nashville”), Woods enlisted a who’s who of fellow songwriters for Without People: Ashley Monroe, Dustin Christensen, Femke Weidema, and Ed Robertson (of Barenaked Ladies), among others.
Equally at home in folk and country music, Woods mines small moments to find greater truths on his latest album: the fraught relationships men often have with their fathers (“Man Made Lake”); why we so often chase something we’re never going to get (“We Used To”); and the way we blur reality with fantasy when we remember a final encounter (“Last Time I Saw You”).
As the follow-up to The Other Way, Woods’ stark 2019 release that acoustically reimagined Both Ways (2018), Without People prompted Woods to reckon with why his songwriting has been so invested in the human condition throughout his decade-long career. The short answer? Relationships are what bind us, and what matters most is how we treat one another and whether we’re truly listening and trying to understand experiences distinct from our own.
“I dove in deeper on this album than I ever have,” Woods says, “and I can say that I tried my hardest to write truthfully about the people I’ve loved and the things I did wrong, and add my little verse to the story of what it feels like to be a person.”