The Anxious, Liminal Life on the Road: An Interview with Donovan Woods

Donovan Woods © Matt Barnes
Singer/songwriter Donovan Woods discusses the hardship of life on the road in his poignant “Go to Her,” a heartfelt ballad full of struggle, strife, love, and connection.
for fans of Matt Pond, John Mayer, Iron & Wine
Stream: “Go to Her” – Donovan Woods


If I made my mind up a thousand times, I know when, I know why, I know how.

The touring musician is a centuries old profession, dating back to times of traveling minstrels and royal court performers. While so much has changed about this job — which is seldom actually called a “job” — certain aspects are the same today as they were in the 1960s and the 1600s. Being “on the road” inherently means a significant chunk of your time is spent away from loved ones – your family and friends. Today’s touring artist spends their days in transit, at press events, and in rehearsal, and their evenings on the stage. At the end of the night, it’s back into the car, van, or plane, and onto the next destination. It’s a life of perceived luxury, always on the move and spent in constant flux. No wonder touring is notorious for destroying people.

Both Ways - Donovan Woods

Both Ways – Donovan Woods

Fresh off the success of his fifth album Both Ways, singer/songwriter Donovan Woods recently found inspiration in the anxiety and pain of the troubadour lifestyle: The dark side of touring, if you will. Released February 1, Woods’ heartfelt ballad “Go to Her” captures the hardship of life on the road in a raw tale of inner struggle, loss, love, and connection.

She took a train to see him
How very European
And bought a little gift on the way
It took a lot of debating
I couldn’t really take it
So I flew to Nashville in the rain

“Very often in the moments of touring, you feel the anxiety that might lead people to self-medicate or just take the edge off themselves a little bit, because you feel so liminal and out-of-place sometimes,” Woods explains. “You can feel the urges that lead toward somebody doing that, and then it unfurls like a book: You see why so many country musicians died in the back of cars, etc.”

Donovan Woods © Danielle Holbert

Donovan Woods © Danielle Holbert

Woods contends that no one really understands exactly what it’s like to be on tour, until they’ve done it for themselves.

“Suddenly, you’re in the position and you go, ‘I see why!’ Everything snaps into focus, and the way people act in that situation starts to make a lot more sense.”

Intimacy breeds familiarity and knowledge, and Woods is no stranger to this world. The Canadian-born artist got his start over a decade ago, releasing his debut album The Hold Up in 2007. The past four years have seen his career takeoff: He signed to Warner/Chappell Nashville in 2016 and subsequently released his acclaimed fourth album Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, later winning that year’s Canadian Folk Music award for English Songwriter of the Year. He now splits what time he has between two homes in Nashville and Toronto, and most of his schedule is built around that primary concern.

“It’s frustrating, but you hope that your career improves your life enough such that it’s worth it. And that’s started to happen, so it’s started to feel like it’s all been worth it!”

Go to Her - Donovan Woods

Go to Her – Donovan Woods single art

But are you still in the hotel baby?
Are you still in the hotel room?
No one I can get on the phone is really quite sure
Are you still in the hotel babe?
Are you still in the hotel room?
Go to her… Go to her
If I made my mind up a thousand times
I know when, I know why, I know how
Or should I set off straight for the pearly gates
From this Motel 8 right now
Or go to her, go to her…

Written during the sessions for 2018’s Both Ways, “Go to Her” serves as a powerful standalone single. The bittersweet song tells an obscure, yet stirring tale from the eyes of a struggling artist  on the road. Anxiety resonates in the lines, “But are you still in the hotel baby? Are you still in the hotel room? No one I can get on the phone is really quite sure.” Such fear comes from real life moments of worry: That inability to connect with the one you love, mixed with the knowledge that you’re physically too far away to do anything but text or call again.

This helplessness elevates as Woods croons his sweet, sobering chorus – a dark, yet resound recognition of the touring artist’s struggle. “If I made my mind up a thousand times, I know when, I know why, I know how.” The options in this scenario are to “set off straight for the pearly gates,” or to “go to her.”

Let’s hope he chose the latter.

If I made my mind up a thousand times
I know when, I know why, I know how
Or should I set off straight for the pearly gates
From this Motel 8 right now
And I’m honestly sorry it got this way
I made good mistakes but I found
That guys like me checking out early
It oughta make more sense to you now
Go to her

A heartfelt ballad depicting the depth of real human strife, “Go to Her” is emblematic of Donovan Woods’ talent at bringing worlds of emotion to life through music. He’s done it throughout his career — in the likes of 2016’s hit single “Portland, Maine,” Both Ways’ single “Another Way,” and so on — constantly capturing an audience’s heart and mind, through song and story.

Considering the stress of the troubadour life, it’s no surprise that The Beatles quit touring when they did. The more successful you become, the more shows you book: It’s an ever-increasing amount of life away from “home,” to the point where “home” may very well become your life on the road. For Woods, the remedy is to surround yourself with friends and loved ones: People who are there for you, and with you for the long haul.

Donovan Woods recently embarked on a largely sold-out North American tour throughout Canada and the Western US; click below for dates and info. Atwood Magazine spoke to the singer/songwriter about his breathtaking “Go to Her,” life on the road, famous people, and more.

Donovan Woods 2019 tour dates 
Stream: “Go to Her” – Donovan Woods

A CONVERSATION WITH DONOVAN WOODS

Atwood Magazine: Donovan, I want to start on the top of work and availability. This is often taken for granted, but when emergencies happen and someone needs to leave their work, they can likely tell their boss and go. That's not a luxury that the touring artist has. You make that very clear in “Go to Her.”

Donovan Woods: Yeah, the new song is kind of about that. Having to be somewhere and not being able to leave is very tough sometimes.

The life of a musician is one that requires you to be away from the ones you love for extended periods of time. Is this something you've thought about beforehand? You've been at it for about a decade now.

Woods: Yeah. Well, I’ve been at it for a decade, but it’s really only been three or four years of enough “achievement” that I can be away a lot; I didn’t have to be away a lot, before. To keep going at the rate we’re going, I do have to be away a lot now, so it is something I think about a lot. Most of my schedule is built around that concern primarily, and I really don’t do as much stuff as I probably should be doing. I always laugh to myself that every person in my life… I give everyone moderation, and I don’t satisfy anyone! The people that work with me, on my team and in my music career, are always frustrated by me — and my home life people are always kind of frustrated — so you just end up being sort of a liminal person who’s annoying for everybody. It’s frustrating, but you hope that your career improves your life enough such that it’s worth it. And that’s started to happen, so it’s started to feel like it’s all been worth it!

Donovan Woods © Danielle Holbert

Donovan Woods © Danielle Holbert

Going along those lines, I'd love to talk to you about the specific situation in “Go to Her.” Where did this song come from?

Woods: I think I was on tour at the time when I wrote it. There’s an interesting aspect of modern culture… My dad would go away for business, so we wouldn’t hear from him for days, and nobody cared or thought about it. I think there was probably not even a number at which to contact him – I think we would know the hotel, but we operated on “no news is good news.” Some of the impetus for this song was the idea that, that doesn’t really exist anymore. Good news is good news, and no news is unacceptable at this point, because our contact is constant! I think the phone call stuff, about wondering if someone’s at the hotel — that stuff all comes from real life moments of worry. The music felt so anxious and so panicked, that I dug into it more and more. You end up with a lot of moments like that on tour, where you just worry about your family and you don’t know what’s going on, and you wish you were more in touch with it… So I think that’s sort of the anxiety that “Go to Her” comes out of.

That, of course, opens up the doors to every other piece of anxiety, ever. Demonstratively, being a touring musician kills people. We have witnessed that over the course of popular music over the last 50-60 years: That’s what it tends to do.

Good news is good news, and no news is unacceptable at this point, because our contact is constant!

It's an abnormal way of life; it's a reversal to nomadic behavior.

Woods: Very often in the moments of touring, you feel the anxiety that might lead people to self-medicate or just take the edge off themselves a little bit, because you feel so liminal and out-of-place sometimes. You can feel the urges that lead toward somebody doing that, and then it unfurls like a book: You see why so many country musicians died in the back of cars, etc.

I certainly don’t see myself slipping down that slope, but I can feel the tug of it. It’s interesting – really interesting to feel the tug of it. It’s like anything, when you experience something for the first time… One of the most clear examples of that is just becoming an adult, and suddenly realizing why your parents acted the way they did all the time! Being a musician is the same way; suddenly, you’re in the position and you go, “I see why!” Suddenly everything snaps into focus, and the way people act in that situation starts to make a lot more sense.

Donovan Woods © Matt Barnes

Donovan Woods © Matt Barnes

You talk about being a liminal person, and I think about the idea of transience and being in-between worlds a lot.

Woods: Yeah, that’s very interesting to me too!

How do you deal with that? How do you balance that existence with also being a real, engaged human being?

Woods: By having people who are your friends on tour with you is the best way to do it. I’m very close with my band members and my tour manager, and we try to make life on tour as civil and as normal as possible… We tend to try to go to as many art galleries as we can go to; we try to make it productive and fun in-between the shows! The time in-between can really be a killer, and that feeling is like…

I love it all: I love to be onstage, and I love to do it! And I’m not even a person who minds traveling. But the feeling of it is interesting, because the people who come out to see you, they know the projection of you and the sort of person that you are onstage. They don’t really know the real person, and so it’s easy to feel trapped between yourself when you’re on tour. When you come back… I mean, I hear that Bono stays in a hotel for two weeks when he comes back from a world tour. [laughs] That seems like a good idea… It just makes sense. If you’re not careful, you can be acting as a different version of yourself. It’s easy to act as a different version of yourself to guard yourself from the trappings of touring.

We watch these pop stars self-destruct and we go, “Oh well!” All we did was hand them all the tools to self-destruct, and when they did, we were like, “Wow!” It’s a difficult life, and if you don’t have some people who are telling you, “Don’t worry: It’s okay that you find this difficult,” then it can be even more difficult.

“Go to Her” finds you dropping out of one world cold turkey. I hear that as a recognition of priorities, and what matters most.

Woods: Yeah, I think that’s right… It’s about what it does to you, and what you end up doing to other people when you’re under stress. I dunno! Either I’m trying to find a mood and I end up digging into an idea… Hopefully if you do your job right as a songwriter, it’s all there: The whole conversation, rather than one little story or whatever. I think that [song] communicates the right mood I was getting at, so I like it. I think that probably is in there, too.

Hopefully if you do your job right as a songwriter, it’s all there: The whole conversation, rather than one little story.

Obviously there's a lot to say! What I've noticed, going through your catalog, is how much you've grown to embrace other instruments and other sounds. Both Ways and “Go to Her” are sonically similar, but going back a few years... you really broke out of the traditional folk/pop realm. Can you talk about the spark that lit this current fire?

Woods: Well, so much of the growth is budgetary constraints! I’m lucky that my musical urges are more mainstream-leaning, meaning I love pop music… I love the pop music I liked growing up; I like popular things! I’m not one of those sort of indie people who… I don’t love difficult music; I love things that are easy!

I know what you mean; you're not going to hate something because it's “cool” to hate it.

Woods: Yeah, I don’t have that urge to be difficult or to be contrary or anything. So much of it, as a folk artist, that’s what was cool at the time and that’s the only way I knew how to make music! I had people that I played with as a band, but I didn’t love playing with them, because I just hadn’t found people who understood what I was trying to do yet. Over time, you just sort of gather up people who get what you’re doing. The growth is just… I want to make bigger and bigger things! I’ve toured so much on my own, just standing there, and you just feel like you want to make a show! When more people start to come out and it starts to be more expensive to see you, you feel like, “God, there’s got to be more to it than just me up here talking!” It all kind of grows hand-in-hand, and hopefully the challenge is just getting it to go in the right direction, where you don’t lose the thing that attracted people to you in the first place, but you don’t just repeat yourself over and over again, which is a challenge. Yet, some bands just do repeat themselves, and it’s also awesome – so I don’t know the secret recipe!

“Go to Her” is a quick follow-up to your last album; does it come from a similar period of time?

Woods: This was in that batch of songs for the record, and it was one of the ones for the record. We just hadn’t really figured out what it was supposed to be; we had a demo of it, just guitar and vocals that I did as a voice memo. I liked it; we just didn’t know what it was, and it sort of came together too late to be on the record. I don’t know that it would have worked in the flow of that record; when I think about the track listing, I don’t know where I would’ve even put it, because it would be such an outlier. It would’ve worked on the record before — but it seemed to me to be a standalone thing, and I love putting new things out! That’s the most exciting thing to me, so we held onto it and decided to put it out on its own, which seemed like the right thing to do.

I think it's deserving of standing alone, too.

Woods: Well, thank you; I hope so!

You're welcome. With this out in the world now, and it being your first release of the new year: Where do we find you, Donovan Woods, in 2019? It's almost too perfect that you're putting out this song, and then going on tour.

Woods: Yeah, it’s good timing that way. We’re finishing up the touring of this last record, and we’ve got festivals in the summer, but I’m already I’m about four songs into the next thing. I’m sort of gathering that up, and trying to figure out what it’s going to be, and what a title of the record might be, and what it’s going to sound like. That’s the funnest thing for me, so I think after this tour and into the summer and fall, I’m excited to be gathering up ideas of what the next one is going to be, and keeping an eye on it. We have some more unreleased stuff that’s going to come out — a few other standalone songs that we’re working on.

I also don’t know about the album! I don’t know about albums anymore. I’ve never been a huge album guy; I don’t have that thing, where I feel like it’s sanctified to me or something. So we’ll see how it shakes out, but just thinking about the next thing, is the most exciting thing for me.

Donovan Woods © Danielle Holbert

Donovan Woods © Danielle Holbert

You mentioned how you never know how you grow, and that you don't know that secret recipe. How do you feel you're growing, comparing the music you're making now and what you made two years ago?

Woods: What’s the difference musically, or what’s the difference in the inspiration?

Ooh! I don't know which one to ask first.

Woods: [laughs] I think I can answer both. I don’t really notice the difference until I listen back. When I listen to those first records, I’m really shocked at how little there is. It’s always surprising to listen back; it’s a really stark contrast when I think about a song like “Go to Her” versus those early ones.

Part of my other job is that I write songs with other artists; I write songs with country artists, and as I move along in that yard, I start to meet more and more famous people. I’m really interested in famous people – so I think, whereas part of my subject matter is becoming more, I think, to seem like I’m referencing myself, I’m more interested in these people that I meet. I’m very interested in what it does to people, because it’s interesting to meet them and it’s interesting to hear their perspectives on things. They have a weird, unique perspective, and they’re the one person in the world who doesn’t really have a sense of how famous they are; everyone else knows exactly how famous they are. Everyone else knows exactly how famous Julia Roberts is, and she’s the only person in the world who doesn’t really have a sense of it, which is an interesting idea! I think my subject matter… I wrote about that a lot on this last record, and I’m still writing about it a little bit.

Most of the new songs coming out now seem to be about being a kid again; they seem to be about being a teenager, which is… I don’t know, maybe I’m having a midlife crisis or something. That seems to be what I’m writing about now. It all feels natural, and I hope that it does. I think there were a couple people, when the first single off the last record, “Burn That Bridge” came out, who were like, “I don’t like this new sound!” But I don’t think it should be all about pleasing people, and I also think if you’re not upsetting a few people, you’re not really doing anything, you know?

Well said! Well I don't really know what could upset people about “Go to Her.” Thank you for your time Donovan, and best wishes on tour!

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Go to Her - Donovan Woods

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:: Donovan Woods Tour ::

* Katie Pruitt || ^ Elise Davis
2.27 – Gravenhurst, ON – Gravenhurst Opera House*
2,28 – London, ON – London Music Hall (SOLD OUT)*
3.01 – Meaford, ON – Meaford Hall (SOLD OUT)*
3.02 – Sarnia, ON – Imperial Theatre (SOLD OUT)*
3.04 – Kitchener, ON – Centre in the Square (SOLD OUT)*
3.20 – Winnipeg, MB – Park Theatre (SOLD OUT)*
3.21 – Winnipeg, MB – Park Theatre (SOLD OUT)*
3.22 – Saskatoon, SK – Amigos*
3.23 – Calgary, AB – Bella Concert Hall (SOLD OUT)*
3.24 – Lethbridge, AB – Sterndale Bennett Theatre*
3.26 – Nelson, BC – Spirit Bar*
3.27 – Penticton, BC – Dream Café (SOLD OUT)*
3.28 – Vancouver, BC – Rio Theatre (SOLD OUT)*
3.29 – Whitehorse, YT – Yukon Arts Centre
3.30 – Seattle, WA – Clock-out Lounge^
3.31 – Portland, OR – The Old Church Concert Hall^
4.02 – San Francisco, CA – Cafe du Nord^
4.03 – Los Angeles, CA – Bootleg Bar^
4.05 – Salt Lake City, UT – Kilby Court^
4.06 – Denver, CO – Globe Hall^
tix & more info

Mitch Mosk

Mitch is the Editor-in-Chief of Atwood Magazine and a 2014 graduate from Tufts University, where he pursued his passions of music and psychology. He currently works at Universal Music Group in New York City. In his off hours, Mitch may be found songwriting, wandering about one of New York's many neighborhoods, or writing an article on your next favorite artist for Atwood. Mitch's words of wisdom to fellow musicians and music lovers are thus: Keep your eyes open and never stop exploring. No matter where you go, what you do or who you are with, you can always learn something new and inspire something amazing. Say hi here: mitch[at]atwoodmagazine[dot]com