Canadian Royal-ty: An Interview with Royal Wood

Whether an old soul reveling in the sumptuous folds of a ragtime melody or a smooth, contemplative rocker with pop-perfect pitch, Royal Wood has been working a long, studious groove in Canada’s growing indie rock realm as one of the many bright, talented artists of this generation, helping to rejuvenate the once-anemic scene. Wood’s elegantly-crafted numbers walk a balance between a plush swell of jazz and the instinctive, hedonistic joy of pop with poise and precision.

His first album, 2004’s Tall Tales, was a sophisticated and smart blend of Depression-era jazz and classy indie pop. At the centre of it all was his voice; either a silky, soft croon or a powerhouse of dynamics that tested all the octaves in his range with impressive skill. Most interesting was Wood’s accompanying look; he dressed like a 1930’s lounge singer who had stumbled into a scruffy, Adidas-conscious millennium by way of a time-warp. It wasn’t so much that Wood dressed to differentiate himself from his contemporaries – it was just that he sincerely embodied the music he made and played in an earnest and wholly human way.

His follow-up album, A Good Day, dealt in expansive ballads that stretched his mournful atmospheres skyward and a sharper pop edge that tightened up the looser rhythms of his first outing for a more structured brand of rock. By the time Wood recorded his third effort, The Waiting, he had nearly shed the cabaret-pop influences that had defined his beginning years, opting for more straightforward rock with a heavier emphasis on the rhythm section. The Waiting would propel Wood further into public notice and essentially set him up for his newest release, We Were Born to Glory, a fully-realized pop album miles away from his sound of a decade back.

These days, Wood continues to write and record, steadily touring and building up his fanbase one ladder step at a time. He continues to retain his status of Canada’s best-kept-secret, but it shouldn’t be long before his charm overflows the Canuck borders and the beans are spilled.

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If I am correct, you do not have any formal training or academic background in music — you learned to play by ear. How did you grow up with music and find your footing with composing and developing your music? What was your life as a child discovering music like?

I began music by ear at the age of four, but I was enrolled in practical piano theory and performance when I turned 12 years old. I continued those studies until I turned 18. As well, I studied music from grade 7 until I graduated high school in grade 13 (OAC Level).

Music surrounded me as a child. My father played guitar and sang rockabilly and my mom listened to her classical music daily on car rides into town. I also had three older brothers that certainly inspired my listening tastes. However, I would say one of the most important discoveries was my uncle’s vinyl and reel-to-reel tape collection. He passed away when I was very young, and finding his treasure trove of music changed everything. Suddenly my palette had new colours to choose from. I was exposed to Dylan, Cat Stevens, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon and so much more. Music was everything to me. It was my escape from the the world of a house full of siblings. I would close my bedroom door and play along to the music I was listening to, all the while trying to soak up as much as I could.

I played in cover bands, and began to write my own songs at around that time as well. They were the formative years, but I would say it was when I moved to Montreal to attend McGill University that my music really defined itself as a songwriter and a jazz enthusiast. That is when I began playing in jazz clubs around Montreal. As well, that is when I discovered Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Tom Waits, Oscar Peterson, Monk, Nina Simone. I was finally on my own to fully form as a young man. I began to read volumes of literary classics and poetry. Words became as important as the music to me.

What about some of the musical influences? Your earlier work betrays sounds of ragtime jazz. Your more recent work expresses an appreciation for artists like Lloyd Cole and the more accessible works of Tom Waits.

As a lover of music I would say I honestly listened to anything and everything that resonated in me as a child. To this day I still love all variations of music as an art form. From classical to jazz, blues, pop, country, hip-hop, electronica and so on and so forth. It is not a particular genre I am drawn to, but rather the feeling or vibration that is achieved from listening to it.

Your music on your last two albums has begun to explore a more rock/pop route, pushing much of your cabaret/jazz influences to further edges of your sound. You made name for yourself in Canada making cabaret pop music. What were the reasons you chose to take a more direct and familiar approach with your music by exploring pop music and how do you think your ideas now translate through pop and rock, rather than jazz?

My career has been a very natural and unconscious evolution. The driving factor in me is the guttural feeling of being in the flow and creating something new. I never sit down and say, “Today I am going to write a ballad in the pop realm.” etc. I simply sit down at the piano or with a guitar and see what comes. True art doesn’t come from me, but rather “through” me. Once it is made, then I put on my production ears, and do what is right for the song while in the studio. Again seeking that “feeling” of rightness and ecstatic joy that comes from knowing the sound and arrangement is the correct one to bring the emotional feeling and message of the song to life.

The lyrical themes on the last two albums have explored topics of love and sex in a way that the first two full-length albums did not. In the beginnings of your career, lyrical themes centred more on the innocence and naivety of love and the slowly fading childhood longings and remembrances. What are your thoughts and ideas on the new thematic material you’ve been exploring on The Waiting and We Were Born to Glory?

The subject matter of my creations have always come from a deep and personal well. Like with the melody and chord changes, I try not to edit or direct it’s message, but rather see what comes out naturally. Looking back it always tends to be a snapshot of what I was contemplating philosophical and emotionally at the time. I agree there was an innocence on my earlier albums, but that makes sense. I was young, naive and innocent in the ways of life. I was a boy in a man’s body trying to find my place in a grown man’s world. Now I feel as though my subject matter is adult and grounded in adult themes and situations because that is where I now find myself. I am married, established in my career, a source of emotional support for my family, a mentor to younger artists, etc. As we maneuver through life, art will change with us or we cease to be connected to source. Change or parish as an artist. We must always push boundaries and breakdown walls to discover what is on the other side.

In the last few years, the visual component of your music has really developed. You music videos have become pointedly concerned with aesthetics and are focused on reflecting much of the imagery your music and lyrics create. How does this representation of your music develop exactly? How have you gone about choosing directors and artists to create this aspect of your music?

Since the very beginning I have had a direct artistic hand in what my videos portray and inspire. They are the visual component to a musical landscape in which I paint with sound and they are a direct extension of my craft and should therefore reflect my muse. I am very proud of the videos I have made with various directors in my career and I look forward to making many more in the future. Looking back I would say that every video has happened in pretty much the same way. After the song is chosen, I imagine what I would like to showcase visually and have that sent out to potential directors. Usually ones I have already sorted through depending on what style of video I want to make next. Then the directors pitch their ideas back to my team, and then the final candidate is chosen. Once that happens, the director and I will storyboard back and forth until we come up with an agreed upon idea that is artistically fulfilling and financially viable. It actually is a very long process from beginning to end, but I love making videos, and hope to one day make a short film.

You’re a notable figure in Toronto’s music scene; if you were to describe the scene to someone outside of Canada, how would you explain to them what Toronto’s music and art scene is like?

Toronto’s music scene is like any other I would imagine. It is very small, and interconnected. Everyone knows everyone else, and it is very supportive. Actually I would say that the Canadian music scene itself feels the very same way. I don’t think I have ever done a festival or attended an event where it didn’t feel like a family reunion of sorts. Of course some competition exists for some artists, but I truly attempt to stay out of that. I am in this to make art, not to win the prize for bragging rights.

Both your music and your appearance (and some of your music videos) evoke a certain time and place, namely the 1930s. You’re dressed as so and you’ve got the songs to match — even your turn-of-phrases bring to mind the old-fashioned romanticism of the Depression era. This was more evident with your earlier work than it is now. What is it about this era in particular that you are (or were) drawn to?

I am still very much drawn to that era of music and art in general. In the ’30s music was a real art form. It relied on talent and a knowledge of your craft. It required dedication and shortcuts just didn’t exist like they do today with computers and studio tricks. You either had what it took to perform or you didn’t. It was as simple as that. I guess more than anything I respect mastery and I revere discipline.

You’ve been a know -figure in the Canadian music scene and you’re just beginning to get wider notice and attention over in the States and in Europe as well. Firstly, what is the reception toward your music outside of Canada and how do you see yourself expanding beyond your indie-artist status as the recognition of your work increases?

Actually my career took off first in Europe in 2007, with radio play in Ireland and the Netherlands, but Canada has certainly surpassed that early recognition now. Therefore I have decided to really focus my attention on the US and Europe for the next couple years and make sure I continue to build on that earlier success. As an artist I can’t just rely on Canada for a lifetime career. Eventually you saturate your fan base, and I am in this for the long haul. I absolutely want to be a career artist with a 60-year lifespan in many facets of the arts. It is my goal to expand into other avenues within the arts as well as I find them all creatively fulfilling — potentially acting, writing fiction and getting back into drawing and painting in the coming years. As a child I used to draw and paint all of the time, and I am starting to miss it terribly.

Being a “best-kept secret” has its selling points: a loyal following and a certain charm all its own for the simple reason of being someone’s personal, secret discovery. Its bad points? A lack of recognition and, possibly, album sales. You’ve been one of Canada’s best-kept secrets and it has secured you a faithful fanbase. But you are not immediately a recognizable face around the globe, though you have been gaining more attention outside of Canada. Could you be content with just being a “best-kept secret”? Does such a status limit potential or opportunity in anyway?

I refuse to take life for granted anymore, so I can honestly say that I am very proud of the career that I have built on the world stage, but yes I want to see it grow in many ways and in many countries. But mostly, I want to be able to continue to make a good living, raise a family, and continue to follow the muse, wherever she takes me. Each day I go to bed excited about tomorrow and I am very fortunate to be able say that.

You are in your 30s now. How are you exploring music differently than the way you did when you were in your 20s? Have the emotional perimeters of expression changed? What insights have you gained and what notions have fallen away since you left your 20s?

The driving factor in my life now is to celebrate and be ever mindful of how fortunate I am to be able to follow my dreams and to succeed doing so. With each new song, album, tour and creation I find myself pushing every boundary that I can. That is what is most present in my 30s. “Be great or be gone”, as Neil Young once wrote.

As for emotional expression, though the subject matter may be changing, the place from which my songs spring forth is very much the same — the universe provides. When I am still and really listen, all is revealed. True art comes from being in the flow. Not using your head, but rather the ancient and undying part of your soul. The limitless and infinite you. That is where pure expression comes from. That is the tap I attempt to turn on, and leave on as much as possible. Which oddly enough is done by not trying to turn it on!