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Late at night, as the world felt upside down in quarantine and 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) with global streams surpassing 200 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.”
They succeeded. For an album made so piecemeal, Without People (out now on Woods’ Meant Well label) is alive with intimacy and connection at a surreal time when we’re all in desperate need of both. So much of its allure and power is rooted in how Woods connects with his collaborators.
You hear that in the snippets of warm chatter and lush strings of the opening title track. You feel 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.
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: 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, he writes about the first blush of budding love and how it makes us feel brand new (“Clean Slate”); the fraught relationships men often have with their fathers (“Man Made Lake”); the sad reality that sometimes romances are snuffed out simply because they don’t burn bright enough (“Grew Apart”); and why we so often chase something we’re never going to get (“We Used To”).
“This album made me think about how easy life would be without other people, and how useless it would be,” Woods says. “This is what my brain wants to write about, so I suppose my responsibility is to follow it further and further into the most fearsome feelings I’ve got.”
As the follow-up to The Other Way, Woods’ stark 2019 release [MS2] that acoustically reimagined Both Ways (2018) and exposed its maker’s craft at its most naked, Without People adds more color to his palette. With its sleek yet lustrous textures and Todd Clark’s vocal production, it’s a sly album, giving us little Easter eggs that we don’t discover until third and fourth listens.
He’s the first to admit that writing about the minutiae of interpersonal dynamics might feel at odds with a world engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic and an overdue uprising ignited by racial injustice and environmental destruction.
“Anything but protest music feels out of place right now,” Woods says. (To that end, he has vowed to be part of the solution by spotlighting and supporting Black- and Indigenous-owned businesses in the album’s promotion.)
These 14 new songs 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. “So if we are coming to the end of something, 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.”