Three Great Things: Donovan Woods

The Canadian singer-songwriter talks shoes, longs walks, and Rufus Wainwright.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To celebrate his new album Without Peopleout today — the singer-songwriter told us what’s been keeping him occupied during this trying year.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. Shoes

It’s not rational to own 200 pairs of shoes, and it’s not something I’m enormously proud of. I mean, it’s downright gluttonous, but Nike really did a number on me when I was 14. And now, with the way they periodically re-release things from our youth, and the nostalgia that wells up in me, I feel as though I am required to buy these shoes. I’ve been a chubby guy my whole life and I’ve always liked fashion and design — I had a subscription to Wallpaper magazine when I was 15 —  but the clothes all the cool guys were wearing never fit me right. Pants that fit my waist were too long in the legs. Shirtsleeves had to be rolled up. T-shirts didn’t hang well off my shoulders. Something always wasn’t quite right. Shoes though, they always fit, and they always looked right. The coolest guy in my school had white Jordan 5s with the silver tongue and I had never seen anything as beautiful as those shoes. My mother, incredulous that a shoe could cost $125, must’ve somehow seen the desperation in my eyes and, when I needed new shoes, she bought me Jordan 6s. I slept with them on a stool beside my bed. It was like waking up in a dream. So, I know it’s not the greatest hobby and it says a little too much about the ruinousness of capitalism, but Jordan 5s always still fit me right. And now my feet don’t grow.

 2. Walking

I recently rented my own studio space, and I don’t know how I did my job without it. I’ve been working on my production skills during the pandemic and I can lose myself in it in a way I haven’t experienced since playing EA Sports NHL ’94. Finding sounds and building big vocal stacks is all I want to do right now. But it’s all sitting. My phone reminds me to stand up but I often ignore it. I remember a couple years ago I saw an article saying that “sitting is the new sugar,” and I thought, well I’m done. I love to sit, It’s my favorite way to be. A nice chair, having a good chat with a pal, wow. What a life. So to counteract all this sitting I do at the studio. I try to take a one-hour walk in the evening. It’s great, it makes me feel sane, and I can do all my music listening. My own mixes, things that have been recommended to me. A musician can never listen to enough music, and I forget that sometimes. When I hear great things while I’m walking, I can actually take them in. I’m more present, I don’t look at my phone, I meet my neighbors, I saw a coyote last week, it’s all positive. 

3. Rufus Wainwright

Once I was at a party and I met his husband (whose stubble appears to have been airbrushed by a skilled painter) and I said, “I love your husband’s music.” He said, “He’s right over there, go tell him.” I didn’t go, I don’t want to meet him. I’d like to be an anonymous admirer. The first time I heard his music was in my friend Ryan’s basement. Ryan was one of the best hockey players in our school, he was not in the drama club. I have no idea what led him to buy Rufus Wainwright’s debut album the week it came out, but he did. I have asked him now, as adults, how that happened and he doesn’t remember.  I heard “April Fools” first. It felt like an old song. A melody so unique and pleasing that certainly it must’ve already existed. I’ve been devoted ever since. He’s a constant reminder to not think small, to not let melodies just fall out, but to give them intention and ambition. During the pandemic, I bought most of his records on vinyl and I’ve been enjoying digging back into them. The gentle opening melody in “Barcelona,” the octave jump in “Imaginary Love,” the wistful resignation of “Poses,” as though even he’s tired of how talented he is. There are so many songs to love. He’s been a constant point of reference for me. My melodies are rarely worthy of being compared to his, but I’ll keep trying. 

(Photo Credit: Maya Fuhr)

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.For an album made so piecemeal,  Without People (out November 6 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.

(Photo Credit: Maya Fuhr)