‘I just knew I had to get away and be quiet again. And when you do that, it’s amazing what comes to you.”
What came to Royal Wood was peace of mind and The Burning Bright, an impressive and expressive folk-pop album with his band that documents a marital breakup and a career contemplation. The balladeer lays some of it out on the song It’s Only Love, beginning with a rhyming couplet: “Got my ticket, scribbled note, seated on this plane / Fist on dollars, wine in throat, nothing feels the same.”
Wood was jetting to Ireland for a cottage that had no phone, television or Internet. His marriage to fellow Canadian singer Sarah Slean was done. His career was by no means in tatters, but the pressure to make music with an audience in mind (rather than music for the sake of music) was weighing him down. He had no real plan for the trip. “I didn’t even know I was going to come back with a record,” he says, sipping something warm at a coffee shop in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood, where he lives. “I needed to be alone, and I needed things to settle.”
It all sounds like a movie really – probably starring Hugh Grant, but let’s cast Edward Burns instead, given the look of the man. Well-bred, magazine-level good looks, Burns and Wood, with strong jaw lines, beard stubble and short hair. Dressed in a grey sweater and scarf, Wood looks like a gentleman farmer (which he sort of is, actually, but we’ll get to that later). “It really was very storybook,” says the photogenic native of Peterborough, Ont., describing the rolling fields, stone fences and ruined castles on the Irish countryside, near the town of Slane. Wood spent his days in isolation, sometimes going for walks or runs, or, if it rained, settling down with a book. Filling out the picture was a fireplace, a guitar and a piano.
In 2006, the singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman released the pastoral album Treeful of Starling. I spoke with Workman back then, about devolution as a reaction to life’s velocity. “We seem to only trumpet the virtues of progress, and that progress is the only way to mark the quality of our own existence,” Workman explained at the time. “It just seems to me that life moves too fast to even live it any more. That things are just too tense to even exist – to even breathe a full breath.”
Treeful of Starling came about after Workman took off alone for Joshua Tree, Calif., a remote spot. Wood and Workman know each other well, and when I bring up the idea of retreating, isolating and turning back clocks, Wood shakes his head in agreement. “My own trip was very much all of that,” he says. “I needed to find that current again, where art flows through you again. So, it was as an artist that I needed to do it, not just because of my relationship.”
The relationship was a public one. I had met Wood and Slean just once, on a Juno red carpet. Wood blames much of the breakdown of their four-year marriage on their careers as working musicians. “Relationships have never been easy for me. You try to make time, but you’re always on the road.”
The lyrics to The Burning Bright, his fifth album, are autobiographical and not light. “The telling of a chronicle, a wounded heart with a poison pill,” Wood croons on the album opener I Always Will. Bitter lines elsewhere about broken promises include “That’s an easy sell, you sugar coat it well, an angel is a demon if she stands around in hell” and “You fill the books upon your shelf, with endless words and reasons why, the love between us was a lie.”
I ask Wood about that line – love being a lie – in particular. “What do I say to that?” he replies, leaning back in his chair and stroking his stubble. I turn over a fresh page in my reporter’s notebook, with the hope that he wasn’t being rhetorical. “Let’s just say there are varying degrees of what love is, and what you do with it,” he says, rather diplomatically. “Listen, I love many people dearly. It doesn’t mean we’re supposed to spend our life together.”
Moving on, I ask Wood about the trip to Ireland and how he knew that after six weeks it was time to come home. It turns out the locals in Slane gradually took him in. Every Wednesday night, Wood made it to the pub to participate in what the called “the round,” which involved older musicians playing traditionals and original numbers casually, with the sessions lasting well into the night. Wood joined in, on banjo and guitar. It was the type of rustic roots music he had grown up on, and it informed the stylistic direction of The Burning Bright. “It’s a return to the way I used to make music,” he explains. I didn’t think about who was going to hear it.”
Once back from Ireland, another project demanded his attention. He had purchased the family farm in Peterborough from his parents, and it was a year long-process to find a group of organic farmers to work the land. He plans on building a studio there, and eventually hopes to move the farm off the grid.
“Things have fallen in place again,” says Wood, back in motion. He’s gigging currently, and pops down to Los Angeles every now again for writing sessions. But his place is quieter. “It was a long time coming,” he says. “But where I am now, it feels like it’s where I’m supposed to be.”