Donovan Woods Features Gay Couple in Music Video & Talks LGBTQ Inclusivity in Country Music: 'It's Really Frustrating'

Donovan Woods
Danielle Holbert

Donovan Woods

When folk singer-songwriter Donovan Woods began working on his new song “Burn That Bridge,” he knew it should be about a same-sex couple.

Woods, who does not identify as LGBTQ, said that once he figured out the groundwork of the song's story -- one of two good friends falling in love with the other -- he felt strongly that it should be represented by a gay couple. Now the song’s video, premiering here, features two men slowly falling in and out of love with one another, all within the same apartment.

Woods talked to Billboard about writing the song, the meaning of his upcoming album’s title, Both Ways (out April 20) and the lack of progress being made in the country music industry.

Tell me about the writing process for this song. You said you thought it was always about a same-sex couple, so what was it about the process that made you think that?

Well, I wrote it with two of my friends [Dylan Guthro and Breagh MacKinnon], and one of them is a gay woman, and she kind of came to it with a story, and that sort of idea of burning all of the bridges that are really representative of putting all other relationships in your past behind you, and moving forward with this feeling of early love, of feeling so invested in it. So it's just, the story being from her was the reason I thought it was about a same-sex couple. I was so intrigued and guided by the notion of best friends falling in love. Like, the amount of fun that would be. So it seemed like a compelling story to me, and that's where we started, and in my mind, that's what it was always about.

Congratulations on the video, I think that it's absolutely gorgeous.

Thanks, thanks very much.

What was it like to film that entire video in an apartment with two male roommates falling in love with one another?

I never thought of it whether they were roommates, or whether they were just friends, I just wanted it to be representative of that feeling and being imbued by that feeling of brand-new love where you don't leave the apartment, you know? And we threw around so many sort of ideas of how to represent that, and one of them was the same takeout guy coming over and over and over again. [Laughs] Then the thing with the apartment was not only, like, a really convenient budgetary constraint, but it felt like it represented that feeling of early love where you don't even, like, call your friends, and your friends are like, "What is wrong with you?" [Laughs]

Yeah, and it did actually also portray that other side, too, where it kind of showed what happens if this goes wrong.

I think that's the most interesting thing about that story to me. I certainly have experienced it and I know probably everybody has who's fallen in love, where, like … three months into it, or a month into it, when you have your first fight, you call your friends to try and talk about it, and they go, "I haven't heard from you in like, five weeks. I don't give a shit about this." I think the fun part about the song is that it sort of speaks to this story that's really exciting in the moment, and everybody loves that feeling. But the reality is that it can be ruinous. Like, burning the bridges in your life is obviously not a good idea. But like, it's the weird sort of dichotomy of that experience that is included in there, hopefully.

There's a lot of choreography and dancing in this video. Why did you decide to incorporate that into this?

I love really good dancers. Like, I think it would be the funnest job in the world to be, like, a young, fit background dancer for a pop star. Like, you and a group of your friends are dancing and you tour around the world, and your body is so flexible, and you just f---ing dance, man. You know what I mean? I feel like it's the greatest job of all time.

I'm always super compelled by dance, and I think that can help you tell a story quickly in not so many words. I think that the idea that there's a sort of slice-of-life stuff, with the guys sitting in the apartment, and there's also these dramatic moments where they represent their feelings toward each other, and sort of what's happening in their interior lives. And I think dance is like ... man, I'm just a fan of it. So if I can have it in this video, I wanna have it in the video. And trust me, you don't want to see me dancing.

You're a folk musician, and you've found a lot of really great success in writing for country stars. How do you think the folk and country industries and those communities are doing in terms of including more LGBTQ individuals?

They're not doing well at all. I'm shocked again and again by how slow the progress is in the country world. There's a few young artists right now who I can say -- Maren Morris is one of them, Brothers Osborne are one of them -- these are young people who have grown up in the real world with a realistic view of what 2018 should look like. And their artistry and what they put out and the way they represent themselves in public reflects that, and it's wonderful.

There's a lot of artists whose public persona still does not match their private feelings about a lot of things, and that's big time in country music. And I suppose that's in a lot of genres, I think people are still afraid to sort of express their real opinions outwardly for fear of losing fans. The frustrating part is that was certainly not true of Johnny Cash, that was not true of Merle Haggard, that was not true of these people that were their heroes. So it's frustrating to watch, sometimes. I think there's progress, but it's too slow.

You know, I'm a Canadian guy who was raised by atheists in a hippie town, so this is pretty easy for me to say. I know that the South is a different world, and there's a lot of context to that that I don't have the understanding for, but personally, I think it's much much too slow, and it's really frustrating.

I completely agree with what you said about Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne, because I feel like they really recognize that it's more important for them to speak out about what they think is important than it is to preserve whatever less-tolerant fanbase is out there.

There's such a compelling narrative in country music that is threaded into these songs, that "things were better in the olden days." So many lyrics are like, "Oh, the modern world's crazy," this type of stuff. But it's all codified language that is dangerous because things were not better in the past. Like, they just weren't. We all know that. They were not better from a social justice standpoint, they were not better for human rights or equality. We all know that, it's a fact. We can look at that. So it's frustrating that it all gets lumped in together, and I like that these new artists are saying, like, "Well, we love the tradition of country music, but we also live in 2018 and not everything has to be an anachronism. We can move forward in the aspects that are important." So, hopefully that happens.

So what else can we expect from your upcoming album?

There's a few that are similar to this vibe, that have a sort of ecstatic, almost dance-y feeling in them. And then there's, you know, my stock and trade in reality is songs that are pretty sad. So there's some real sadness coming, nobody has to worry about that. [Laughs] It's definitely the most varied record I have so far, and that makes me a little bit nervous, because there's just so many different types of songs on it.

What was the inspiration for the title Both Ways?

It's sort of like the aspects to my career where I'm reminded all of the time that you're not allowed to have it both ways. You know, one way is that like, they don't really let you be a writer for other artists and also be an artist. That happens, but it's pretty rare, and they don't really want to let you do it.

Yeah, there are not a whole lot of Carole Kings in the world.

Yeah, yeah! Or like Jack Antonoff or somebody like that. That was one of the ways, and then the other way was like, once you start singing sad folk songs, there are rewards in the music industry for staying in your lane. Like, there is a path that is certainly laid out for you, where if you just repeat yourself, there are some rewards that you can get. So I think, just trying to have it both ways, it was a good goal for me. Just to be like, "I would like to try to have it both ways in every single regard," and that is sort of what the record kind of represents to me.

Woods will head out on tour this spring. Check out his tour dates below.

Apr 22 - Montreal, QC - Le Ministere
Apr 22 - Ottawa, ON - National Arts Centre - Theatre
Apr 25 - Toronto, ON - Danforth Music Hall 
Apr 26 - Edmonton, AB - Starlite Room
Apr 28 - Calgary, AB - Sait Theatre 
Apr 30 - Saskatoon, SK - Broadway Theatre
May 4 - Los Angeles, CA - Hotel Cafe
May 8 - New York, NY - Knitting Factory 
May 16 - Peterborough, ON - Market Hall Performing Arts Centre 
May 17 - Paris, ON - Dominion Telegraph Event Centre 
May 20 - Beverungen, Germany - Orange Blossom Special 
May 21 - Utrecht, Netherlands - Tivoli Vredenburg
May 23 - Antwepen, Belgium - Trix
May 25 - London, UK - Borderline 
May 29 - Copenhagen, Denmark - Vega (Ideal Bar)
Jun 1 - Berlin, Germany - Kantine am Berghain