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Donovan Woods On New Music, Neil Young And Paul Simon And The Funniest Songwriters

You can keep all your streaming service algorithms. For me, the best way to discover new artists has always been, and always will be, the word of a trusted friend. Very simply, when you meet someone you vibe with on music and they turn you onto something new that is my most trusted source of new music.

So when my journalist friend Rebecca Aaron, an incredibly gifted singer/songwriter in her own right, raved to me about Toronto-based troubadour Donovan Woods and how her favorite song was Woods’ “Put On, Cologne” I immediately checked him out. And right around this time Woods released a new EP, Big Hurt Boy, a superb six-song collection that is powerful, heartfelt and musically and lyrically literate and thought provoking.

“There are songs on this EP that remind me of some older songs, like ‘No Time Soon’ reminds me of ‘Next Year’ and ‘Leave Before You Go’ reminds me of ‘Another Way,’ maybe it’s just the guitar at the beginning,” Aaron says of the new songs. “But when I listen to them, I’m taken back to the first time I heard some of [his] other songs, and I feel like they kind of echo each other. A lot of these songs kind of reminded me of very specific songs in his past albums.”

As it turns out Aaron’s analysis is very astute. Woods explained when we spoke via Zoom that he does have a recurring theme in his music, namely the language of relationships and domesticity.

That is just one of the topics we touched on. We also discussed new music, his fandom of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, the movies that capture love language best and why songwriters are always funny, which led to the idea for the new greatest streaming series ever — songwriters doing stand up.

Steve Baltin: I love the line in, “I Hope You Change Your Mind,” where you say, “I’m not saying that I’m like your soulmate/Or some bulls**t movie line.” Give me a couple of examples of movies where they actually get the dialogue right.

Donovan Woods: What I would say is those movies, the Paris ones [Before Sunrise trilogy] where Ethan Hawke just walks around with that woman Julie Delpy. That feels very real, that movie. Also I would say The Notebook, where he goes “It isn’t over or it wasn’t over.” And then he goes, “It’s still not over.” That s**t is real. I just like Ryan Gosling. We’re from the same part of the world, he and I.

Baltin: I think a lot of people during the pandemic found themselves getting more nostalgic because they had time to slow down and look back. Did you find that to be the case for you?

Woods: Yeah. I think that I’m a nostalgic person. I’m interested like everybody in just like the lie of memory, I’m really interested in what you construct in your head to tell yourself a narrative that reinforces your view of yourself and how that affects your memory and what your memory really is like. Basically all the research about memory that happens is really only teaching us that we’re terrible at it. You remember a lot of things that you think you remember from your childhood, but what you’re doing is just recalling pictures and then filling in details. So I think there is something very special about finding a picture. As you get older, as you move into your 30s, there are pictures of me in my ’20s that I don’t remember being taken, which isn’t really an experience that you have until a certain level of your life. I just don’t remember these things, and they were only like eight years ago.

Baltin: There’s a Jackson Browne song, “Fountain of Sorrow,” which starts, “Looking through some photographs that I found inside a drawer, I was taken by a photograph of you.” What is it about photos that are so artistically inspiring?

Woods: I think of this song by Guy Clark called “My Favorite Picture of You,” that is like the auditory equivalent of someone pulling pictures out of a…When you used to get your pictures back from the developer and like that f**king envelope. And like somebody taking those pictures out and just stacking them up in front of you and just like image, image, image, and, to me, a really good song, it’s that same feeling. It’s just like a depiction over and over again, and then you take those images and you make the story out of them. So yeah, I think there’s something about still life that’s just romantic. Like when you look at pictures of people with their kids it makes parenting look really fun, because it looks really still. It looks like kids sit still, and you’ll learn when you have them that they don’t at all. So I think just like the lie of that stuff is really interesting to me.

Baltin: You mentioned the Guy Clark song, what are a couple of other songs that you think of that do that very well? Instantly I go to Joni Mitchell with Blue.

Woods: Yeah, that’s right. She’s the high water mark for me in most instances. I think she’s the best of all time. But yeah, a woman that I love, who is a friend of mine now, Lori McKenna is a really great songwriter. She’s from Boston, and her songs do that at a very interesting pace, just sort of like give you images to take in. And then the stories there. I really love Alice Monroe, the writer, Alice Monroe, she’s Canadian writer. She is sort of the literary equivalent of that to me. I love the pace of her stories. You never feel like you’re being shoved through it. They’re just happening, you know, and I feel the momentum is there. It feels like unstoppable, but it’s never pushed or something. I don’t know how to explain it.

Baltin: I also think Joni’s the benchmark for evolution. Neil Young, another Canadian one, is also at that sort of pinnacle doing what he wants. I’m also a big Dallas Green fan. I think you guys are just cooler in Canada.

Woods: Yeah, I know Dallas a little bit. I’m a fan of Dallas too. I’m amazed he’s done two full careers with a band, and it’s like they don’t really let very many people do that. So it’s pretty special, yeah.

Baltin: So who are the artists that you admire for the way that they’ve been able to evolve and grow in their career?

Woods: Neil, of course, I admire Neil for in the f**k you department. Neil is like the ultimate, the watermark of f**k you-ness. When he said that thing about Spotify and everyone goes, “Oh, I bet Spotify is really nervous. They’re gonna pull Neil Young’s music.” But then Daniel Ek walks at out and he starts addressing it. You don’t want to be in a fight with Neil Young. I think that’s the bottom line because probably you’re on the wrong end of it in all likelihood. He’s a really moral person. I still really look forward to Paul Simon records, and I don’t know whether he is gonna anymore now, but even in his 70s, there’s a record called Surprise that came out not that long ago. There’s always still vital exciting stuff on it that he’s writing in his 70s, which is like to me almost unbelievable, and so that’s my guy for sure.

Baltin: What is the one Paul Simon song you wish you could have written and why?

Woods: Any of them. If I’m like being mugged, and there’s a gun to my head about what my favorite song of all time is, it’s probably “Obvious Child.” There’s something about that song. that just feels like, in the very broadest terms, what it feels like to be alive. And I think that’s always what I’m trying to do. That’s one of the mantles that I hold up for sure, is that song

Baltin: As you look at “Obvious Child” or painting the pictures like Joni Mitchell does, are there songs on the EP where you feel like you’re getting closer to those benchmarks?

Woods: I’m always getting close. I think the thing that’s frustrating about me to me is that I’m so obsessed with domesticity in relationships. I don’t know what it is, [but] when I am writing about that the language just appears. I have something that I want to say about that, and I don’t quite know what it is yet. But I think I’m getting closer and closer. Definitely on this new record, I think that “I Hope You Change Your Mind” is a good example of a song where I’m almost getting at the complexity of being in a relationship with another human being that you can never truly know. That feeling like you look at your partner all the time, and you go, “I don’t really know this person” [laughter]. There are parts of me they don’t know, and there are parts of them that I will never know, and they won’t share with me. I think that song is getting there. But I’m trying to also communicate what it is about being a man that is so frustratingly stupid and so irritating. What your testosterone and anger does to you and getting older and realizing how futile and stupid anger is. There are so many things I want to get at. And I think I’m getting closer and closer, but I don’t think I ever really get there. And sometimes I wonder how much longer I can sing about relationships before someone goes, “Okay, please stop.” [laughter]

Baltin: Do you feel compelled to know why you return to relationships again?

Woods: I think that is an interesting conversation. We’re so obsessed with when we sell a product, we have to have a narrative for why the person does it. It’s like, why did Monet paint the lily pads for four f**king years or something? It’s like, why did he do that? He’s like, “I don’t know, I was just into it. I was just into it. Leave me alone. There doesn’t have to be a big story.” I wonder if we’re doing a disservice to it in always being like, I was compelled to do this because of this, rather than just accepting an artist being like, I have literally no idea, that’s how I feel. I feel like when I talk about relationships, language appears in my head. That’s the only reason I do it. I didn’t have a bad family life that I’m trying to work out, it’s just like I’m doing it ’cause I do it. If it’s a good song, you don’t know what it’s about while you’re writing it. I think generally, that has been my truth for sure.

Baltin: Do you have a perspective then on what these songs are about or too soon?

Woods: I released a record 10 years ago that I think I understand now. I think I understand what my problem was then now, like what the f**k I was dealing with, I think. Yeah, and then they change when you play them live and then you hear what they mean to other people. It’s definitely years. It’s definitely years to me you know what I mean? You never really know.

Baltin: You are big into collaborating as well, correct?

Woods: Oh God, it’s the funnest. I love songwriters, I love just chatting with songwriters. And they’re always funny. You never meet a good songwriter who’s not funny. I don’t know why that is. But it’s like just so rarely are they not a funny person who can’t see the sort of absurdity and the sadness of life. I just love chatting with songwriters. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Even if we don’t write a song, I don’t give a s**t, it’s just a nice afternoon. You know what I mean?

Baltin: There’s no TV show I ever want to see more in the history of the world than songwriters doing stand-up comedy. You have just created my dream.

Woods: I wonder if Don Henley’s funny. And I don’t think Bruce Springsteen is funny. Did you see that Broadway show? Was he funny?

Baltin: I did see the Bruce show and he is very funny. You know who’s funny? Tom Waits.

Woods: Yes, well, and he’s a good actor though, too.

Baltin: You know who I just saw the other night? Kacey Musgraves. She was funny.

Woods: Yeah, she’s hilarious.

Baltin: I think Damien Rice is one of the great songwriters of the last 20 years. I don’t see Damien Rice being funny though.

Woods: Here’s what I’m saying, I bet he probably is pretty funny.

Baltin: Songwriters at the Improv is now my new dream show to happen.

Woods: Well, songwriters are obsessed with stand-up comedians because we watch one of them play like Madison Square Garden with just a microphone as overhead, and we go, “Oh my God, imagine the tickets. Imagine the door. Imagine how much money these people are making.”

Baltin: Who is the funniest songwriter that you’ve met?

Woods: Oh, that’s a lot of pressure. Well, I will say that, although she writes about very sad stuff all the time, Lori McKenna is a very funny person. Listening to her talk about her kids is f**king hysterical. I write a lot with Ed Robertson, who’s the singer of the Barenaked Ladies. And Ed is never not making jokes. Only wants to get up and make jokes and he’s very funny.

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