When Donovan Woods' new album, Without People, is released on 6 November, it's going to among the first wave of recordings captured during the pandemic era.
It is a period in which musicians had all the time in the world and not enough to do with it. As with anything, time has its way with music. Typically, because there isn't enough with it.
As Woods recalls, he had one day in the studio before he and his collaborators – producer James Bunton, vocal producer Todd Clark and others – were confined to the great indoors.
This is no big deal when it comes to logistics. Musicians are set up for this in the digital age. But it's a big deal when it comes to the mood, tone and feel of a recording. Studio time is funny, because it feels like no time at all, so at least in that respect Woods and his collaborators were liberated from the clock.
“Musicians had the time to cook up their own sounds, and I had the time to really consider them,“ he says. “it resulted in a record that has a collage feel. Lots of very different sounds.“
There's nothing like a pandemic to focus the mind on matters existential. In a world shorn of human interactions – the big, the small, the intimate – Woods was left to ask himself what that meant for his songwriting.
“Thematically, the pandemic and the resulting isolation made me think harder about if relationship songs still matter, about why we're (I'm) so obsessed with little moments of betrayal or lust,“ he says.
For what it's worth – and not much going by Woods' “urgh!“ at the thought of it – he is still “an acoustic guitar guy“ but not all songs on Without People have guitar. Woods will write on piano, too. The key is not to overwork the arrangements.
“Fewer parts with exactly the right sounds is the ideal,“ he explains. “When you say things like, 'I can imagine a harmony in there', doesn't that kind of mean it's already there? In my early days, it was a matter of removing stuff in mixing. Nowadays I just don't allow too much to be recorded.“
Live, Woods will use a 90s Gibson Hummingbird, which will go through an amp, and a 2016 Gibson American Eagle LG2 that gets sent direct to the desk. For songwriting, it's an acoustic with Depression-era stylings and tone, built by Bill Collings' Waterloo brand.
“I bought a Waterloo WL-14 (opens in new tab)at Carter Vintage in Nashville as a birthday present to myself and it basically erased other guitars from my mind,“ says Woods. “It feels and sounds exactly the way I want a guitar to feel when I'm writing on it. I want the chords to sound like almost nothing, if that makes sense.
“That guitar is stuck down south now, so I bought another one in Toronto. I also use a 1960s Harmony Patrician and a '57 Gibson LG-3, but not as much as I use the Waterloo.“
A Depression-era acoustic, built for folk pickin', country, vintage Americana... It's a great choice but feels so elemental and primeval when considered against Woods' first pick on 10 albums that changed his life.
But there's a throughline here as there so often is with these lists, and the artists that shaped Woods' style are all well-versed in how to put a verse together and tell a damn good story.
1. Jay-Z – Hard Knock Life Vol. 2 (1998)
“This is the first record I got obsessed with. We were all obsessed with it. I was in high school. Hip-hop was really my first true love because it’s aspirational and it’s so often about confidence. I needed confidence in high school.
“Jay-Z was a hero to me and still is. 'In a Ferrari or Jaguar, switching four lanes/with the top down screaming out, money ain’t a thang.” [from Jermaine Dupri's Money Ain't A Thing ft Jay-Z, a bonus track on Hard Knock Life Vol. 2] I mean, that’s perfect. Just say it out loud, you feel cooler.“
2. Oasis – (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
“This is music about confidence, too. To this day, when I think I’ve written a good melody, I compare it to Some Might Say. It’s just a massive record full infinitely likeable songs sung by a guy who didn’t give a fuck if you liked him.
“Liam Gallagher wearing some oversized army jacket leaning toward a microphone with his arms behind his back was, at the age of 13, literally the coolest thing I had ever seen.“
3. Paul Simon – Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)
”Like many people around my age, my dad was obsessed with Paul Simon. Graceland was what got played in the car, but I got into this one on my own. It begins with what I would say is my all-time favourite song if you asked me, and forced me to answer somehow, The Obvious Child.
”Also, it has Born At The Right Time. Our dads liked Paul Simon because it’s music for divorced dads feeling useless and slip-sliding into the void of middle age. So, as I get older, I like it even more.”
4. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga (2007)
“I was into Fever & Mirrors and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, but this one floored me harder. Four Winds is a masterpiece that feels alive in the way old Bob Dylan records feel.
“It occurred to me that this music was making me feel the way I wanted to make people feel. Thoughtful and inspired. Classic Cars is my favourite though. 'I made a new caste of the death mask that’s gonna cover my face', that shit fuckin’ rules.”
5. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free (2004)
“I love Mike Skinner in a way I can’t really explain. We don’t have much in common, but I feel a real kinship with his POV. This record is literally about daily minutiae. It elevates common frustrations to holiness. When I started to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it made me think of The Streets.
“Of everything on this list, I feel like this record influenced me the most. That may not be observable in my music but it’s true. It reassured me that there’s value in the specificity of my worldview.“
6. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
“For the same reasons as everyone else. The gold standard, in my opinion. In the conversation for the best singer/songwriter of all time. And she’s ours.“
7. Regina Spektor – Begin To Hope (2006)
“A woman I was in love with university sent me an MP3 of Samson and I couldn’t believe it. I was supposed to know what was cool and I had never heard of her. I’ve yet to meet a songwriter who doesn’t deeply admire Regina’s writing.
“She makes songwriting feel easy and fun, but the big secret is that she’s a genius. It won’t be so easy and fun for you or me. The first five songs on this album are as good as any first five songs on any album.“
8. Hayden – Everything I Long For (1995)
“Hayden got famous with this album in Canada when I was 16 and it was the first time I heard an acoustic guitar sound how I wanted it to sound. I immediately tried to sound like him in every way. He was only 4 years older than me and was on the TV singing songs as sad as I felt. He was exactly what I needed.“
9. N.E.R.D. – In Search Of... (2001)
“This blew my mind so hard when it first came out. There’s a spirit of chaotic energy and spontaneity in these songs that I have always aspired to but will never achieve. I want to be liked too desperately. An album by guys who already knew they were the dopest producers alive, and they were just daring you to figure it out, too.“
10. Beyoncé – Lemonade
”Here’s the thing about Beyoncé, she is elevated to such massive status and she still might be underrated. Everyone knows what this album is about. It’s rough and angry and forgiving and merciful and everything. There’s nobody else who can do what Beyoncé does with melody. Listen to All Night on this record.
“What she does with, 'So many people that I know they just trying to touch you/Kiss up and rub up and feel up/kiss up and rub up and feel up on you/give you some time to prove that I can trust you again…' The seeds of that melody don’t exist in my brain or body.“
- Donovan Woods' new album, Without People, is available to pre-order (opens in new tab) via Meant Well.