A music streaming enthusiast tweeted out his 2020 listening habits this week. “I really did listen to 96 hours of @DonovanWoods this year,” wrote a man named Reid.
Canadian singer-songwriter Donovan Woods, a genial and witty presence on social media, replied back to the fan: “I appreciate you, and I am sorry about your breakup.”
Reid (Twitter handle, @reiderfever) hadn’t mentioned any breakup. The wry assumption on the part of Woods was that anybody who listened to his music for the equivalent of four days must be suffering a broken heart and that the melodic empathy of Woods was consoling.
Woods and his sensitive, tuneful countryfolk balladry have stuck a chord with listeners who find wisdom in his words and pacification in his soft, husky voice. He just released his seventh album, Without People, and recently signed a creative deal with Nashville-based Concord Music Publishing.
Woods has a growing foothold in the country music capital, placing his songs on albums by Tim McGraw and Lady A’s Charles Kelley among others.
Originally, I wanted to write about Woods’s female audience, a legion who connect to his gentle desperation, heartbreak narratives and relatable emotions on songs such as Last Time I Saw You, Seeing Other People and the McGraw-recorded Portland, Maine.
Here is a burly, bearded, tuque-wearing, 40-year-old father in a committed relationship, whose female fans express their deep appreciation on social media and tattoo his lyrics onto their skin. In any conversation about Canada’s latest heartthrob musician, don’t underestimate the rumpled, plaid-wearing native of Sarnia, Ont.
Turns out Canada’s love affair with Woods is universal. There are just as many Reids out there as Ritas.
“There’s this perception that all my fans are women, but the data doesn’t bear that out,” says Woods, calling from his home in Toronto.
According to Woods’s team, the troubadour’s fan base skews only 10 per cent in favour of women. Men, then, are responding to Woods’s unguarded feelings in big numbers; his catalogue has surpassed more than 200 million streams.
“I get a lot messages from men who say my music has helped them sort out an internal life for themselves,” Woods says. “They tell me that my lyrics are echoing what they’re feeling, but can’t put into words.”
If Woods’s audience isn’t predominately female, his team and family influences are. He prefers working with female songwriters – “the willingness to emote is there” – and his manager is Michelle Szeto, with Paquin Entertainment.
He’s a feminist who takes after his mother. “Our thinking is aligned in such a strange way,” he says. He grew up admiring his older sister. “She’s been my introduction to everything cool in my life.”
On the song new song We Used To, there’s a lyric that’s left unfinished: “You see, I come from a long line of....” I ask Woods, a long line of what? “A long line of nice guys who don’t get what they want, because they’re nice,” he answers, quickly.
A male artist showing their sensitive side is rarely out of fashion, but Woods displays his with more sophistication and less emotional manipulation than, say, Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes. Holding back a little, Woods believes, makes for better songwriting.
“The language of a male narrator feeling vulnerability, but at the same time restraining themselves to try to still have some masculine facade, there’s something in that tension that creates good lyrics. I walk that line all the time.”
Those who know Woods describe him as a funny, thoughtful and, surprisingly given his affable stage banter, an introvert.
“He was a very shy kid,” says Kathy Woods, his mother. “But he learned to be a comedian quite early at school.”
Woods picked up his mother’s old Yamaha classical guitar and took to it immediately as a young teenager. After graduating from the University of Guelph, he pursued an acting career in Toronto. When that didn’t work out, he turned to songwriting.
“He’s a very sensitive man,” his mother continues. “He’s a fair person who wants the world to be a lot fairer than what it is now. I think it’s valuable what he’s writing about. He’s emoting about all the things we all care about most. People want to talk about these things, but they don’t know how.”
Brad Kennard, senior vice president of artists and repertoire at Concord Music Publishing, chased Woods for a few years before signing him. “There are thousands of songwriters who work daily to find that song that’s going to grant them success,” Kennard says. “It’s a repetitive process and the problem is that the grind wears down their creativity. And in their exhaustion, they lose sight of the heart of the point of what they’re trying to do.
“Donovan is an artist in every sense of the word, though. He puts his heart into the songwriting process, and I just can’t get enough of it.”
He’s not alone. A month ago, an Italian fan, Antonia Mariani, tweeted a photo to Woods. She had tattooed the musical staff to Portland, Maine on her forearm. She wrote that the song had saved her life.
The adoration isn’t always easy to deal with. “I’ve met people who believe I’m in possession of some great wisdom, but I’m certainly not,” Woods says. “I’m more afraid of being vulnerable in my real life than I am in my lyrics.
“The lyrics are a safe space for me – they’re a goal. The real me is not quite that wonderful.”
Self-deprecation. Some people find that sexy.
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