I don’t know how else to put this; Donovan Woods is the archetype Two Story Melody artist.
Let me explain.
When I first heard his music, I had just left my hometown at the end of the summer, driving back to Nashville for my sophomore year of college. I was feeling sentimental and sad, so I threw Discover Weekly on shuffle, hoping to break out of the nostalgia. “Portland, Maine” came on.
Thanks a lot, Spotify.
Instantly, I knew Donovan was an artist I needed to hear more of. For the next two hours, I listened through his music, expecting that – at some point – the next song would be inconsistent with the straight-forward, aching, drenched-in-candor lyricism of the one before it. Surely he couldn’t keep up with “Put On, Cologne” or “That Hotel” or “What Kind of Love Is That” again, right?
Nope. In fact, every song was the same way; simple arrangements and chords, familiar melodies that always pay off, lyrics as detailed as they are frank, and stories that give a full emotional picture.
But it wasn’t monotonous. It was life-giving, like the songs understood me, and I understood them.
And it doesn’t hurt that his voice is like butter.
At Two Story Melody, we’re a songwriting blog run by songwriters, and our hope is to better understand the stories within songs by asking about the stories behind them. And as we’ve dived into that mission, we’ve found that there are plenty of great melody writers, lyricists, and musicians out there who write really lame songs, simply because they’re putting their talent above the feeling, the meaning.
Donovan Woods is the archetype Two Story Melody artist because he does the opposite; he is blunt and simple in his lyricism, sparse on his production, and easy on his melodies in order to let feeling come first. He draws from specific storytelling and personal experience, but he never stays there, always offering meaning through relatability. He’s a pure songwriter, and he doesn’t care who knows it.
I’ve always thought the best songs are felt, not heard. That’s how Donovan Woods’s songs are, and from the second I heard him, I’ve been wanting to know how he writes them.
So finally, we got to talk to him. He released an acoustic sister album to 2018’s Both Ways today, entitled The Other Way. Get the story behind the record and the (incredible) song “Another Way” (he really likes ways, okay?) below.
Also, you should follow him on
to make sure you don’t miss anything. And here’s his website.
How’d you get into songwriting?
I always did it, as young as 9 or 10. My sister and I would form bands or singing groups and make up songs and record tapes to sell to our parent’s friends. We had a band called Colour II Color that did quite well. Kind of in the vein of Bell Biv Devoe or BoyZ 2 Men. Those were our big influences. Our songs were about social issues. We’d perform at our parent’s parties. I just kept doing it. Eventually I learned how to play the guitar.
Who are your influences?
Paul Simon is the first person I can remember wanting to sound like. I still want to. Then I loved Third Eye Blind, and Tori Amos, and all the Canadian East Coast bands like Sloan. Then Hayden. Then Jay-Z. Then Fred Eaglesmith. Then John Prine. So many.
What does your writing process usually look like? (Is it organic, laborious, or a mix?)
I don’t do anything laborious. If it feels hard, I usually stop and wait for it to come to me. I don’t often write lyrics with an instrument around. I’ll make the melodies up with an instrument, and then just sit there trying to write lyrics. Then I sing it in my head all day, trying to figure it out.
It often takes weeks. During a songwriting session, I obviously stay focused, but on my own, I don’t force anything. I try to let it all happen on its own.
Do you prefer co-writing or solo writing, and why?
I like both of them equally. I love to co-write because I love to talk about songs and what makes them great. I love talking about lyrics and getting very personal. Being alone is very freeing because you don’t have to explain any lyrics to anyone. You can just let it all happen. I mean, eventually people will tweet you questions about it, but you don’t have to answer them.
What’s the hardest part of songwriting, and how have you tried to overcome it?
For me it’s the limitations of guitar. My playing is not particularly advanced, and sometimes I feel like I’m repeating myself. So I try to record chord progressions, even just on my phone and then write melodies over top of that. It helps me get free from the strumming action of my right arm. Sometimes that arm-rhythm traps you into lyric phrasing that you’re better off avoiding.
What makes a song good?
Intention and attention to detail.
Your songs tend to reference specific places and people, and yet they’re as precise as they are relatable. How much of your writing actually draws from personal experience, and how much is just detailed storytelling?
I’d say it’s both. Feelings that I’ve had in my life inspire lyrics. I’m always trying to capture a feeling. The people I describe and write about aren’t always real people, and the events I describe didn’t always actually happen to me, but they help me tell a story that communicates something that I did actually feel. Something as simple as, say, feeling tired and happy at the same time.
On to The Other Way. Why make an acoustic record?
As I’ve started to play bigger concerts, there’s always this urge to make the songs sound big, because you can imagine them working in the context of a big concert. Bigger songs fill up the space and provide a great contrast to small songs. Both Ways has a number of small songs, too.
I love making big productions, with lots of exciting tracks, but I’ll always want to make to smaller songs. Folky songs. So this is an attempt to have it “both ways.” It was always the plan.
Did you have to change the songs around to make them fit the style?
No, not really. They were all written this way, so I knew they’d hold up to this kind of examination.
What was the recording process like?
Todd Lombardo is a great guitarist and musician who I asked to rearrange the songs in some ways. We talked and talked about it, and then he took free reign over re-creating the arrangements. When I loved them, I’d sing them, and then play some other small parts that I might be hearing. But the modus operandus was keeping things simple and small.
Let’s talk about “Another Way” for a second. First off, this was one of my favorite melodies of 2018. Did it come with the lyrics, or did you write them separately?
That melody came all at the same time as the lyrics. The verses came first and it took me a while to figure out what the chorus was gonna be. The first line I wrote was the first line. Then one day while I was playing the verses, the melody just happened. I just started singing it.
I’ve gotta ask about this song specifically; how personal is the story?
I was literally in a hotel room in Michigan, looking down at some women setting up for a wedding in the rain. Putting up bows and stuff while trying to stay dry under umbrellas. The whole thing struck me as sad and I sat there watching for a while.
I’ve never been a wedding guy. I was married briefly, and at the time I felt like I never wanted to be married again. So, I just imagined what it might be like to get married again, to be the type of guy who could be hopeful enough to do that again, and what it might feel like to be that guy. And then what the day after the wedding might feel like, driving home. Then eventually that chorus line fell out and made great sense to me, “someday I wanna be another way”.
I’d like to be a guy who can look at a wedding getting set up in the rain and think it’s romantic and lovely.
What advice do you have for other songwriters?
Write a lot of songs. Don’t get precious about any of them – sitting around trying to fix one or something. Just move on to the next one. I had a playwriting teacher in university tell me that “good lines are a dime a dozen”, so don’t get married to one idea. Just keeping thinking up more. Use it all up, and then keep thinking up more.