Without People

Without People

The title of Donovan Woods’ seventh album feels very on-the-nose for a year defined by COVID-induced absence and isolation. But as the Toronto-based singer-songwriter tells it, he was already well familiar with the maddening effects of spending too much time inside cooped up with your family way before the pandemic forced everyone indoors. “Without People was on my list of titles before any of this happened,” Woods tells Apple Music. “I saw an old book called A Country Without People, and I took a picture of it, because ‘without people’ was such a loaded little phrase to me: I have many, many children, and I want to be alone so fucking bad. But then, when I am alone, I feel desperately lonely and guilty and irresponsible. I think adulthood is all about that feeling of: You can't be happy anywhere.” Woods and his crew enjoyed just one proper day in the studio in March 2020 before COVID shut everything down, so he had to complete the record remotely—no small feat, given that Without People is Woods’ most collaborative record to date. Woods has long supplemented his solo-career pursuits with professional songwriting stints for country stars like Tim McGraw and Lady A’s Charles Kelley, but on Without People, he took more of a Nashville approach to his own material, soliciting co-writes and guest spots from the likes of Barenaked Ladies' Ed Robertson, Ashley Monroe, Thomas Finchum, Katie Pruitt, and soulful British singer Rhys Lewis. And in addition to working with longtime producer Jamie Bunton, Woods enlisted Todd Clark—a vocal production expert who recently appeared on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia—to help him shake off his self-proclaimed “indie-ass instincts” and push him toward a more assertive singing style. “I had such a youthful attraction to that idea of Justin Vernon going into the cabin and coming out with a masterpiece,” Woods says. “But these days, I'm nothing like that—I'm gathering up the songs that I like best, regardless of who worked on them. Todd exists in the pop world, and I was so thrilled by the way he approaches vocals—he wants it to be clear, loud, and well-enunciated, and he forced me to do take after take after take to get it perfect.” But for all its studio-pro enhancements, Without People is as recognizably Donovan Woods as the silhouette logo of his bearded, baseball-capped visage that’s stamped on the album cover. Always heartfelt but never mawkishly sentimental, Woods has a special gift for framing universal themes through unique perspectives: On the fingerpicking lullaby “Man Made Lake,” the titular prefab body of water serves as a metaphor for realizing your father is not the infallible force of nature you grew up thinking he was, while the string-swept “Grew Apart” is a breakup song that focuses on the excuses men hide behind to avoid showing their vulnerability. (“I don’t tell them how you broke my heart,” Woods sings. “I just tell them that we grew apart.”) And just as Woods continues to find new ways to address age-old dilemmas, he’s broadening the sonic palette of the acoustic singer-songwriter record without losing its intimate essence. Without People may be rooted in a classic vernacular, but it still feels undeniably contemporary, with songs like “We Used To” adopting a percussive thrust and synth-washed atmosphere that suggest a familiarity with the modern-pop lexicon. “Every folk artist I know is always saying, ‘I'm really trying to build something rhythmic that still sounds organic and doesn't sound fake,’” Woods says. “And I think we did it on that song: It’s a singer-songwriter folk song that's definitely shoulders-shimmyable! The thing that disgusts me the most is anachronistic folk music where guys are dressing up in suspenders with hats and playing the banjo and doing a little pantomime of an old folk show and talking about 'laying down in the riverbed.' I want to make sure that the music sounds like it takes place in the time it was written.”

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