In The Know...Interview with Royal Wood

>> Monday, 18 October 2010

(Photo: Royal Wood in the Green Room at the West End)

On his latest album, The Waiting, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Royal Wood makes his presence felt amongst the elite balladeers in Canada.

The record is simply replete with delicately arranged, heartfelt ballads that are sometimes joyous, other times heartbreaking, and consistently gorgeous and inviting.

Saturday afternoon, I caught up with the songsmith in the green room at the West End Cultural Centre, a few hours before Wood and his band were scheduled to play to a sold out house.

We talked in length about many things: his reaction to being compared to Ron Sexsmith and Rufus Wainwright; the experience of working alongside a producer for the first time; and his trip to Iceland to shoot the video for “Do You Recall?”

PoS: Several articles I’ve read have compared you with Canadian luminaries Ron Sexsmith and Rufus Wainwright. What is your reaction to these comparisons?

RW: My reaction is, obviously, I’m flattered. When you start cutting your teeth in the Canadian industry, they are the ones you want to be compared with. They are Canadian royalty, so I am flattered. I think occasionally you need a place holder when someone’s new, and sometimes a reviewer goes, “well a sensitive singer-songwriter, that’s Ron Sexsmith.” I personally don’t hear it, but I do think I’m an emotionally-driven singer-songwriter, so it does makes sense to me.

PoS: Shifting to the new record, The Waiting. On your website you state the album is about the duality of life and how at times you’re waiting for mirrored experiences to return. Did you begin writing and recording with this specific overarching idea in mind, or did this central theme emerge through the process?

RW: No, well, this is kind of a two fold answer. You know songs come. You channel them. You write. Things come out that are cathartic and need to be written. As you map the song base, sometimes you have to step back, and when I stepped back, it was quite evident to me what had gone on in my life the past 18 months, over the course of writing all that record. And how everything interwove, and why it all made sense. It just seemed like the perfect concept. From there I just pulled the songs that really showcased that, then put them in order and went in and recorded. But I knew before we were going to record what the theme of this record would be.

PoS: Has your approach to songwriting changed since your debut, especially knowing now that you have a large, expectant audience awaiting your next release?

RW: No, thankfully my process hasn’t changed. It’s kind of what Leonard Cohen said, “if you knew where all the great songs came from, you’d go there more often.” You don’t know when inspiration will strike, and it seems to come in waves and all this stuff will flow out. And then I’ll go months without writing anything because of touring and other things. But the process remains the same. Sometimes it’s melodies. Sometimes it’s using lyrics that are pulled from my journal. It’s almost stream of consciousness: the melody, the lyrics, it just lays itself out and that process thankfully has still continued.

PoS: On previous albums you self-produced and recorded the majority of the instruments. Why did you decide to let others take part this time, particularly producer Pierre Marchand?

RW: I felt like I reached the end of my own production language. I could hear what it is what I wanted, but technically I felt I hit a wall. I wanted to expand. And I wanted to be uncomfortable. When I made that last EP, I realized it was too comfortable. It’s incredibly easy when the inspiration and ideas all are coming from the one person at the helm, and you’re dictating everything. I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to be challenged. The only way to be truly pushed is to bring someone else in. And I wanted a producer whose body of work I really respected and has  a sound I wanted to capture but I had no way of doing. Pierre Marchand was definitely the best one.

PoS: On your tour blog, you explain the creative inspiration behind each track on The Waiting. I’m curious about one track, in particular, the stirring, poignant “Lady In White.” You note how it’s about a friend’s seemingly healthy grandfather slipping away shortly after his wife died. I heard somewhere that the song was years in the making. Why did the song take so long to record, and what was your friend’s reaction to the song?

RW: She was grateful and thankful that I wrote something down in memory of her grandparents - it was something that was really for her, and I was inspired by what I witnessed and what I felt. I just kind of put it to bed. But, then I started performing it at shows, and it just became greater than I had ever intended. It became how I ended every show, and I did it for years, starting in 2005 or 2006. People would always come up at the end of the show and go, “Which record is that on?” But I really just performed it live, and I always brought the audience in to sing that line “if we sing for our ladies in white.” I didn’t really know how to capture that feeling, that energy of the room onto a record, so I kind of put it on the back burner. When it got time to recording (The Waiting), I felt like we had it at the end.

PoS: This is your first headlining tour with a full band. Has having a full band in tow changed your set list?

RW: Definitely! There are songs I don’t do as a solo performer or as a duo. When I was on the David Gray tour, I really wanted to do a lot of songs off the new record. Without the power of the band there’s no way to get to that height. There’s a song called “Waiting” ,off The Waiting, and it has such a build. I’m so proud of that song, but there’s no way to perform it as a duo. It doesn’t fly. When I wrote it, I heard what it was going to sound like and just because I hear it and feel it doesn’t mean an audience member will.

PoS: Since your songs are so heartfelt and personal, it is ever a challenge to tap into that specific headspace each night?

RW: No. I’ve talked about this with other performers, actually. You get thrust back into it and even if you didn’t want to, you’re still going to feel it. I still feel the emotion I did when I wrote it and why I wrote it, and I think that’s why it’s cathartic. It drains that out and you don’t have to think about it afterward. It definitely drains you, whether it’s a joyful explosion or quite melancholy. It still brings you back.

PoS: I wanted to ask you about your recent trip to Iceland. Was that your first trip there?

RW: Yeah, first time. Hopefully not the last! Everything about that place is magical. Not just the landscape; not just the feel of this other world. The people themselves were so unlike any other culture I’ve ever had the pleasure of being thrown into. And they were so kind and so proud of their country. Not just proud, but knowledgeable. No matter who you talked to, they knew the history. They knew who the early settlers were. I mean I thought I was a proud Canadian, but I realized I’m a proud Canadian at heart. I can’t even tell you which Prime Minister was before Trudeau…

PoS: What made you choose to go there and shoot a video?

RW: For the song “Do You Recall?”, I was discussing my treatment and what I wanted with the director, and it met his vision. He had some connection in Iceland with the film community; he shot there before. I wanted the video to be dreamlike. I wanted it to be that I basically wake up and there’s no way for me to really know where I am or what had transpired. Iceland provided that backdrop.

PoS: When can we expect it?

RW: It’s getting delivered to Much Music on Monday, apparently!

PoS: One last question. You live in Toronto. Are you as surprised as the rest of Canada that the Leafs are 4-0 to start the season?

RW: *laughs* Am I surprised? You know, I love sports. I love the competitive aspect; I love the camaraderie. But I haven’t followed hockey in years. Nor football. There was a time in my life that I did. I remember watching Buffalo Bills every week when they had Doug Flutie. I don’t have time. It’s odd because when you tour, though, some of the guys do. Our bass player Steve watches every sport possible. I still have some idea what’s going on, but I’m not following any particular team.

PoS: It’s their best start in years.

RW: Let’s not jinx it!

Editor’s note: As of this post, the Leafs are currently tied and headed to overtime.


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