Passion, Ghosts and the Roots of Royal Wood
Where there is no vision, the people perish:
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
“To be honest, I can't remember a time where music wasn't my driving passion. Nor can I recall a moment in years gone by, where music didn't surround me at every turn,” said a reflective Royal Wood before a run of four shows over at Wakefield’s Blacksheep Inn.
“Everything about our background helps create our foreground.”
That background, for Wood, has included a lot of creative reinvention. The musician plays multiple instruments in a sound that seems to be constantly evolving, something he says is an organic process flowing wherever the music takes him. For a man who’s been putting out albums for 15 years, the road has often veered off into uncharted terrain, a path Wood feels pretty comfortable on despite the uncertainties on where it may lead him.
This time out, with his ninth release Ghost Light, he’s following his passion. Shutting out the business of making music, Wood wasn’t thinking about what song could be good for radio airplay or where the album might chart. He was just making art and the result was liberating.
“I hope I never lose that spark of creation,” he tells Ottawa Life adding that slipping back on the skin of a storyteller and songsmith in smaller venue shows like the ones at the Blacksheep has been something he’s been wanting to get back to for awhile.
Wood plays nearly everything you hear on Ghost Light, showcasing his ability to change instruments as effortlessly as a man trying on new suits. It’s all about finding something that fits and Wood has never shied away from making some changes to his style. To him, it was all about the feel not just in getting the tracks down the way he heard them but, also, to feel the music lead him to where it needed to be.
It’s a return to his roots for a man who finds his drive to create stems from the simple enjoyment of creating. Once a four-year-old kid learning to play piano by ear, Wood says he still has a lot of music in him and, with his output over the last fifteen years, he’s not only found the happiness but also the healing writing and performing provide. When his marriage to musician Sarah Slean ended he found himself in Ireland facing the walls of an isolated cabin. He had no phone. He wanted no conversation or companionship. What he kept were his instruments.
Before recording Ghost Light Wood spent a winter on the farm he purchased for his parents and, there, would discover himself letting go. The album title refers to the ghosts he was carrying inside and how, in switching off their light, he was able to be brightened by his own internal luminance.
Wood now feels he’s at a point in his career where he can continue to work off that glow more independently and roll with whatever creative spontaneity brings his way. Ottawa Life chatted with him about the new album, his creative process and why he’s looking forward to his shows at the Blacksheep as much as any on his current tour.
Ottawa Life: You grew up in the small town of Lakefield/Peterborough. What was life like growing up there and how do you feel your time there helped inspire your later music career?
Royal Wood: We are the culmination of our years and the wake that precedes us. Being surrounded by nature as a child allowed me to understand how necessary communing with it actually is. I make a regular attempt to go back to nature and be at peace in it. As well, I think the imagery of the wild that permeates my sub-conscience finds a way of speaking in my lyrics.
Your great grandfather, who you’re named after, was a musician himself and you grew up in a house full of music. Looking back, would you consider your family life a strong launching pad to your want to pursue it as a career?
I was blessed to have such nurturing parents who saw a talent in me, and lovingly fostered those skills with a desire and firm belief in myself that anything was possible. I am who I am today because of my family.
You started playing pretty young. What do you remember from your childhood as it relates to your own lessons at the outset of your musical path?
I did indeed start very young. I began playing piano by ear at the age of four, and everything else quickly followed. I was one of those kids who naturally followed his bliss. I had bands in school. I played coffee houses and open mics. I basically did anything I could sink my teeth into to better my abilities. The memories that stand out the most though are the ones with my father with his guitar and my siblings and I with our instruments crowded around the kitchen table, or on the couches in the living room where the piano was, drinking wine and other things, laughing, and playing and singing music until the wee hours. My Mom always proudly watched and joined in where she could. We did that most nights growing up in the country. Those are the occasions that I will think about and miss until the grave finds me one day – and they are truly some of the happiest moments of my life.
You mentioned once that there was a point in your career where you felt you had to shut out other musical influences and find your own voice. How did you go about accomplishing this and what would you say you found when given the opportunity to shape your own style?
I still remember the day it actually happened – that moment I heard the music that was inside of me all along. I had been playing cover songs in bars in Montreal, and Toronto in my late teens and early 20's, all the while writing my own material – but all of it felt fake and forced. And then one sacred day, I sat at the piano in my childhood home one winter, and just allowed music to flow through me, instead of from me. It was a pivotal watershed moment. I haven't let that tap shut off since.
Was there a specific moment where you stood back and thought to yourself: I’m really doing it? I’m making it?
Oh yes. Many moments. The first was when I was just a kid, and I played a piano in a restaurant for the patrons and the waiter said that someone had tipped me $5 dollars. I was so excited. I ran back to the table where my parents were, and proudly exclaimed "Mom and Dad… I got paid money to play music!". Many, many years later I learned that the "supporter of my art" that night was actually my father. He had sent over the tip. He was the greatest father a child could of asked for. He always quietly coached and supported from the background, allowing his kids to find their path. Another moment that stands out in my minds-eye was my first show opening an entire tour for David Gray across Canada. I stepped out on stage with my guitar player to a crowd of 3000 people, and thought… "I'm DOING it! This is IT!"
You’ve been pretty prolific releasing nine EPs/LPs since 2003. What fuels your drive to get your music out there so rapidly?
Funny. I don't feel like I've actually released that much music. I guess that's because I know there is still so much more still in me. I am constantly writing, and inspired to make new music. I have 3 albums currently peculating in my brain, and I hope to have them come into shape in the years to come. I read once that "without a vision people perish". So I love to dream often, and make those dreams into a reality.
There seems to be a shift between Tall Tales and A Good Enough Day in your sound and focus. Was that cognizant when you were recording/writing?
No. That was actually a very natural evolution. There are moments on Tall Tales like "The Wonder" or "The Roaming Sky" where if I had had the budget, and a proper studio, I could have made them more like A Good Enough Day in terms of their production and artistic scope. The truth is, at the time I had little to no money making Tall Tales, so I used a friends makeshift indie studio and worked with the parameters I existed in. By the time I made A Good Enough Day I had enough savings to go at it with everything I could dream of in a major studio, with incredible gear and musicians.
Your music always seems to be evolving. Is that something you specifically set out to do or is it a more organic process?
My evolution is most definitely organic. I follow my muse and my heart, and as a result I see where inspiration takes me. I think all true artists need to progress and steer into new horizons, or they are missing the point of art. All of the creators I love like The Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young, etc all changed drastically over the years. It's the excitement of making something new that keeps me going.
After A Good Enough Day you worked with a lot of Canadian female musicians. What did you learn from those experiences/collaborations?
Yeah, I guess you are right. I never really thought about whether they were female or not. I just continued to move forward in my career and go where the flame was to fan. I think I learn from every experience in life, and all artists have something to teach you if you are ready to learn.
Buffy Sainte-Marie recently took a jab at the Junos for not acknowledging the work of Canadian female musicians more. Having worked with many, would you say you agree that more needs to be done to promote our female artists?
Well. That is a complicated issue. Of course I think sexism exists everywhere in the world. As does all kinds of prejudice. I also think though, that every piece of art should be celebrated because of it's music, and not because of whether someone is male or female, black or white. I wish the music could do all of the talking for us. Sadly, that just is not the case and biased exist and are felt. I certainly applaud Buffy for speaking out for what she believes in. As well, I think we should always be mindful of our own short-sidedness.
Your separation from Sarah Slean was announced as an amicable one by her. How do you feel that parting worked its way into your music and what did you take as something learned from that relationship?
Every moment in life is a lesson. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Speaking of changes, Ghost Light also marks a change in your path as a musician. You’ve said you wanted to out a more raw approach to your life and songs. What moved you in that direction?
I listened to my heart, and it said "follow your passion". My bliss at that time was music performed and captured in the moment. While making Ghost Light I didn't do pre-production. I didn't think about whether I had a "single" on the album. I didn't ask a team what they thought of the demos. I simply created and made art. And it felt amazing.
Do you find yourself examining specific themes in your music that keep popping up?
Well. Love is what drives all humans. Everyone of us simply wants to love and be loved. That is the ultimately driver in the Universe. So I know the theme of love both lost and found is a permanent theme that will never go away in my music.
You had a recent show with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. What was that like for you?
I have performed many times with string players live. But performing my own music with a full orchestra, with charts I played a role in creating, was the ultimate checking off of the life list thus far. I've waiting my whole musical career to do that. I can't wait to do it again!
You’re playing a huge stint of shows at the legendary Black Sheep Inn. What are your thoughts on that venue and Wakefield?
The Blacksheep Inn is one of the venues in this country I cut my teeth on. I have done so many shows there in the past, and sadly it's been years since I last stepped foot onto it's stage. As a result I am very excited to once again perform in that legendary venue. Frankly, I've been looking forward to it as much as any show on this current tour.
What can the audience expect from in the Black Sheep shows?
I decided I wanted to return to the story teller and songsmith that I love to be in smaller venues. Therefore, it will just be myself and my bass player performing. I plan on playing piano, guitar, and ukulele songs, as well as sharing the stories behind the music and certain moments in my life. I also plan on playing not only songs from Ghost Light, but many others from across my career.
Royal Wood plays the Blacksheep Inn from October 6 – 9. Tickets can be purchased online.