When Donovan Woods first began visiting Nashville from Toronto to write with some of the city's pro songwriters, he was attempting to write songs for the radio – he liked what country artists were doing, but no one seemed interested in his compositions. Instead, he found that when he wrote the kind of songs he wanted to record himself, people began paying attention. That happened with "Portland, Maine," a wrenching breakup song that Tim McGraw cut for his Sundown Heaven Town album.
"It was the first time I'd written something here where I thought, 'I don't care what happens to this – I am over the moon about this song and I'll record it,'" he says, over a late breakfast during a recent visit to Nashville.
Other artists came calling – Charles Kelley recorded Woods' "Leaving Nashville," Billy Currington got "Sweet Love" and Charlie Worsham took on "The Beginning of Things." So far none of them have been released to country radio, but they're the kind of album cuts that leave a lasting impression with their mix of insightful storytelling and highly emotional undercurrents. Woods has specialized in that approach when making his own albums, which have earned him a spot in Nashville's writers rooms, on Spotify playlists and at the Juno Awards, though his Nashville work hasn't yielded any country radio smashes just yet.
"I think if I lived here I'd be doing a lot better," he says. "But if I was doing better – if I had a Number One hit or something, I don't know that you'd be able to get me in a sprinter van to drive across Canada. I don't know if I'd do it if I had all of that money suddenly. I love music, but the drive to Victoria from Winnipeg – holy shit, you feel like you're gonna die every kilometer."
Woods addresses those long drives and the death-defying aspects of being a touring musician in "Truck Full of Money," a standout track from his new album Both Ways, out Friday. A sweeping, orchestral rocker that feels massive compared to some of the hushed folk-rock that put Woods on the map, it makes a compelling case that he – like the album title suggests – can be both a top-notch songwriter and performer, even if those long stretches away from home are often a dance with mortality.
"Sometimes you're in a hotel room and you did a show," he says. "[You] couldn't eat before the show because you're too anxious and you just don't want to be full onstage. By the time you're done loading out, it's like midnight so you eat a bunch of pizza at midnight and you go to a shitty hotel and lay there and you think, 'Oh yeah, I could easily die in here.'"
Both Ways captures Woods' growing artistic ambition with bigger production and an expanded palette of sounds, suggesting those songs can exist comfortably alongside his more delicate acoustic numbers. With the latter, he finds crushing heartbreak in the mundane, as the couple in "Good Lover" solemnly moves out of the house they shared, or in "Burn That Bridge" – the video for which depicted two men falling in and out of love – where two friends forsake the world for each other before imploding. In another case, Woods sadly recalls a grade-school friend who developed a reputation for being tough and later died under mysterious circumstances in "Our Friend Bobby."
"The more interesting thing to me was this growing up beside a person whose penchant for violence you benefited from when you were a kid, and then when you became older, [it was] 'I don't want anything to do with that,'" he says. "And he sort of languished. And those guys I grew up with who were so tough and popular in high school and elementary school, they're kind of untethered now."
Woods' experimentation with a variety of new sounds leads him down some interesting roads, whether it's the droning, swelling strings that underpin "Good Lover" or the melancholy synthesizer droplets on the workingman's anthem "Easy Street." As with the War on Drugs or Future Islands' revival of hazy Eighties sounds, Woods' deft touch and expert songwriting takes something that once sounded ultra-modern (then, later, cheesy) and turns it into aching melancholy.
"To me it's indicative of 'Born in the U.S.A.' – that era of Springsteen, and now to me it sounds like blue-collar," he says.
Both Ways concludes with "Next Year," a meditation on mortality and the tendency to put off the important things until it's too late. Woods recalls trying to channel the feeling of disappointing his son, who'd been carefully logging a list of things for them to do over the weekend when he had time.
"When Saturday came my son was like, we have to do that puzzle – he had checked off all the things I had put aside," says Woods. "It was impossible to do all those things. I watched him realize I was full of shit and I felt so bad."
It's not hard to close one's eyes and imagine a mainstream country performer claiming the song for his or her album. But Woods knows better than to try to aim for that outcome anymore – plus, it hardly matters when he does such a masterful job on his own, saving a little knife twist for the end that comes from a long tradition of tear-jerking country ballads.
"Third-verse death is the stock and trade of country music," he says. "If you can find a way to kill somebody in the third verse, you better fuckin' kill 'em. You might as well."