Though he’s responsible for creating them, Donovan Woods says he doesn’t always agree with the characters in his songs. That holds true for the Canadian singer-songwriter’s latest release “Grew Apart,” a simmering break-up tune in which the narrator bitterly attempts to shrug off his pain by concocting his own more palatable version of the story.
“Whenever somebody says your name I don’t break, I just say/It’s for the best, it’s over now/It wasn’t anyone’s fault it didn’t work out,” he sings, having just spent a full verse listing off the various things he wasn’t going to tell his friends about what really happened.
“The character is definitely not how I would react to a breakup, but I know a lot of men who do react in this way. I see so many men going, ‘Yeah, it’s all good. You know, It wasn’t working,'” says the Toronto-based Woods, who earned a Juno award for his 2018 album Both Ways. “When I think they’d be so much better served in their lives by going, ‘I am very, very deeply upset and I am wondering what is wrong with me. Am I not able to love effectively or solve problems within a relationship?’ Having been through a divorce, that was something I had to come to terms with in a big way. This is a story of a guy not ready to come to terms with that.”
Opening with a short burst of stringed fanfare, “Grew Apart” quickly settles into a lightly funky drum pattern — inspired by the beat from Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” — that underpins a series of restless acoustic guitar arpeggios. The soft-voiced Woods renders the melodic choruses in a way that suggests his character is convinced he’s getting through it OK, when in fact his wounds are visible to everyone.
Woods, who has also penned songs recorded by mainstream Nashville artists including Tim McGraw (“Portland, Maine”), Charles Kelley (“Leaving Nashville”), and Logan Mize (“Better Off Gone”), says “Grew Apart” began life as an attempt to write a commercial country song, but then took a sharp detour during the writing session with Logan Wall and Travis Wood.
“We were trying to write a country song for the marketplace and when it started to present itself as something else, I took it over,” says Woods, who has also released the singles “Way Way Back” and “While All the While” in the last year. “I rewrote the bridge, because the bridge was a country bridge. It presented some new idea, some new perspective. I took that out and made it straight through. That helped it sound more like me.”
That’s reflective of Woods’ deliberate efforts to steer his new music away from the tidy resolutions often preferred by big-label Nashville releases, keeping them ambiguous in a way that fits his own sensibility. “Grew Apart” is a preview of what’s to come from a full-length follow-up to Both Ways.
“I’m trying now to pull the new songs back, including this one,” he says. “Every minute is everything that I want it to be. I’m not thinking about the marketplace in any way or thinking about what people have liked from me previously.”
Sometimes that means blocking out the idea of commercial potential and just being willing to satisfy one’s idiosyncratic creative urges with a song.
“I love commercial music — I’ve always loved it my whole life,” Woods adds. “So it’s hard for me to not feel like I want this to have the best shot to be listened to by everybody because I know what those parameters are because I write [in Nashville] for artists who are doing that all the time. So to remove myself from that is difficult, but I try my best to do it.”