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Oliver Wood "Always Smilin'" On First Solo Album

Oliver Wood
Joshua Black Wilkins
Oliver Wood

Musician Oliver Wood is releasing his first solo album, called “Always Smilin.’” It features the mix of sounds and styles and catchy vocals Wood has pursued over many years with The Wood Brothers, as well as a variety of new collaborations.

It's been such a strange year for most musicians. What have you been up to?

Well, I had a lot of time on my hands without the usual touring that we musicians do and that I usually spend, you know, 130 days a year out in the world. So to be home was very different, of course, for all of us. But I actually found it pretty darn pleasant for the most part, aside from just all the scary stuff in the world. Being at home was really nice, just to be with my family full time instead of coming and going all the time. And then also just to have the luxury of all this time to do something creative. And so making this album, I think was made possible by just the quarantine life, you know, and just not being able to do much else. So it's quite a luxury, I actually learned a lot and got a lot done.

Did you have to set a schedule for yourself going from such a regimented experience on the road to then having that that open schedule?

Yeah. To some degree, I mean, at first, it was one of those things where I think all of us were forced to just stop and slow down and at times have nothing to do but just be and be with ourselves and each other. And so that started out as sort of a revelation and really something to practice doing, you know, into, to hopefully take with us into the back to whatever the new normal is. But yes, I started getting up early and meditating and sort of free writing and journaling and that became a real routine. And I think it helped me stay creative and inspired. And, you know, before the pandemic, I had started some collaborations and some new songs that were outside of the Wood Brothers just for fun, just because I wanted some variety.

When you play a play with a band for 15 years, like I have, you become accustomed to this style and comfort of creating with your bandmates, which I still love and cherish. But what do you miss out on sometimes is collaboration outside of that circle. And so I started dabbling in that a little bit over the last couple years before the pandemic. And so I had some starts on some songs and some collaborations with Phil Cook and Carsie Blanton and Chris Long, these are people that are co-writers on some of the songs, but I never thought I was making an album. I just was doing something fun with my friends. And yeah, so it wasn't until the routine of just writing every day and working on music every day in the quarantine that I even realized I was making an album. I just thought I was killing time and being creative.

Without playing the number of live shows that you are accustomed to with the Wood Brothers, did your playing change at all, as you found yourself more circumscribed to the home studio?

Yeah, that's a good question. It probably changed it. You know, with all that free time I, I mean, I tend to get pretty bored of myself and bored of guitar playing in general. And so sometimes sitting around and just, you know, I think what we do as artists as we sit around and we try to figure out something that we haven't done yet, and I don't know, I can think of a specific moment where I found this old piece of wood that that I think my wife had given me a few years ago and it's a slide you know, like a bottleneck slide. Like guitar players use, like blues guitar players, or like Derek Trucks that are usually made of metal or glass. Right, so I got this wooden one that has a very different sort of probably undesirable to most sound. And I started messing around with it and wrote a song with it. And so that was probably something that wouldn't have happened. Otherwise, I got to experimenting a little bit which sometimes when you're just in a touring groove, you are focused less on creativity and a little more on routine and survival. So I really appreciated the time just to sit and have to figure out some new things. I also actually learned how to how to use Pro Tools a little bit or so I thought I had before today when I couldn't figure it out for our interview. But I was able to do some home recording and actually teach this old dog a new trick of like how to record yourself at home.

It's interesting because your recordings typically, you know, the Wood Brothers or this new album, I don't know how you do it, how you pull it off, but it always sounds very new and not overproduced. I mean, you capture that in the room sense even though obviously the song is finished. Did you factor that into your making of this album?

Absolutely. I think that's kind of our style or a that's sort of our ethos is to be as natural and live as possible. But also try to innovate in little ways that we can try to figure out how can we innovate but still not get too technical and, and just use the few things that we have in terms of instrumentation. Absolutely. That's my aesthetic too for making this record. So you know, this the things that I really enjoy about my new record were collaborations like let's say before the pandemic went up, I would have somebody like Phil Cook, one of my co-writers for “Soul of this Town” and Carsie Blanton, the guys that played on “Fine Line” and “Kindness.” These are the some of the singles that I released that are also on the album. I would have them come in and we would just improvise and mess around in the studio. So it was that sort of same playful thing that we try to do with the Wood Brothers.

And the good thing is, the luxury I have is that I have access to the Wood Brothers studio. So that means any sort of improvisation or impromptu thing can be professionally recorded and turned into something. It's pretty organic stuff because it's just people sitting around creating stuff and improvising oftentimes, and but capturing things as they’re created, you know, as opposed to creating something, practicing it, getting all the parts down and then recording something which is different, you know, you're using a different part of your brain, you're using a logical organizational part of your brain when you're when you record music like that, as opposed to capturing the creating side of it and the early stages, where you're still using the side of your brain that that is based on inspiration and reaction and less so logic.

I know the last time we talked about the latest Wood Brothers album, you had recorded it in the latter way that you're describing for the first time. After doing a couple of records this way, do you have a preference? Because obviously, you can, you can write songs the other way too. And you've done that.

Absolutely. I like both. I mean, I think there are certain songs that lend themselves to improvisation, and that you're trying to capture something spontaneous, and capture things that you would never do if you weren't in that childlike frame of mind. And then there's other songs that maybe are more craft, you want to have a little bit more craft to them. So I think it varies from song to song. But I always like the most live and spontaneous thing possible. And that doesn't mean I always get it when I do my work, but I think I'm the biggest fan of you know, seeing or hearing something that was like a moment that was captured, not a moment that was crafted, you know, but some magical thing.

On certain, iconic recordings, there's always little things that stick with you that are probably mistakes, or things that happened by accident, because they were not planned. And that's what makes them so human and relatable and kind of unique, you're like, something that's never gonna happen again, you know, something that can't be recreated exactly. And that's, that's still my favorite way to capture something. So this is not unique to me, but I think a lot of musicians, when they are in the studio, we try to keep that attitude, even though we know a song really well. And we pretty much know what we're gonna do. I think it's important to be open for something unexpected to happen, and then sort of rolling with it. And that's what's going to be unique and special about that performance. And this sounds kind of corny, but I feel like that's something I learned even more, or all of us did during the pandemic, like we're not entitled, even when we think we know what life's gonna be like, we don't we're not in control of it. So we have to be ready for the unexpected and be ready to adapt. And that's going to be kind of the art of living too.

To say the least. I mean, did you learn anything about yourself during this process that you can share, advice wise, for others?

Absolutely. Well, that that's kind of been one of my main things that I've tried to preach to myself is, you know, whether, well, first of all that, yeah, we're not in control. The whole idea that we are even in control had much control before the pandemic is kind of an illusion. So it's something I learned from meditating too is the idea is that you can't control anything. So you might as well learn to adapt and roll with it, you know. And I like approaching life like that better.

It's much easier to be relaxed, if you just, you know, the rule is change. That's the constant, right? And so I feel like that with, I've been able to psychologically apply that to my music as well, when I'm creating something, just, you know, anytime I feel like, Oh, I got this down. This is gonna be awesome. I trying to remind myself, no, it's not true. It's it may not turn out as well as you think it will. And it may turn out better if you just allow it, if you just roll with it, you know, so just see what happens. And it's kind of like a discovery process. So I learned I feel happier if I'm creating and living in with mindset.

Well, that was one of the reasons I was so excited to speak with you. Again, as I mentioned in the introduction, I went to see a  Wood Brothers concert in Albany in like February of 2020. So right before everything shut down. I'm a live music nut. So just thinking about getting back to that sometime soon. And of course, you guys are so excellent. And it's such a great live show every time that I think I ended on a high note but I was hoping it wouldn't go for this many months without returning to a concert.

Yeah, it's really remarkable I, I got to do my first few live shows a couple of weeks ago. Just distanced outdoor things. Nothing super, super formal, but it just felt so good and not just the playing, but most off just the connection with the people. And I think people are so happy when they're out seeing music and we all need that. So it's gonna feel good if we can get that cranked up again.

There's a great duet you have on this album with Susan Tedeschi who is just obviously a tremendous world class, blues musician and singer. Were you able to do that in the same room? How did that work?

No, unfortunately, weren't. That was a song that was written during the pandemic. And, and Jano Rix from the Wood Brothers produced that one with me and played the drums and the percussion. And yeah, that was something that we produce at the studio. And then I thought, well, who's gonna sing with me on this? Because it really needs something that's a pretty loud and rowdy situation. And, you know, I've known Susan, we've known each other forever, Susan and Derek and I have known each other since they were teenagers. And I wasn't much, much older than they were so.

So anyway, we've done lots of stuff together over the years and written songs together and toured together and stuff. And so she's a buddy and definitely, to me, one of the just treasures of American voices, you know, American singers. Just wow, she's got it all. So, so yeah, I just checked in with called her and said, Hey, would you mind singing on a song of mine? And she was gracious enough to do it. And of course, she was amazing. So, but no, is the answer. We did not do that in the same room. Unfortunately, we've done that before. You know, they, both Derek and Susan, came and played on a Wood Brothers album, and we got to actually have them in the studio with us. And there's no substitute for that. But that was one of the things about the pandemic, people had to get a little more creative. And, you know, normally we would get people like when they come through town, like, oh, Derek and Susan are in town, let's get them into the studio. And that goes for my other collaborators on this album, you know, I tried to catch anyone I could when they're in town. But once thr pandemic started, then all of us had to start doing things remotely, at least more so than than before.

Is there anything specific about touring — I know a lot of musicians have talked about, you know, the rigors of the road, the travel, the weird sleep schedule, all that stuff. But is there anything specific that you missed about performing or playing live that you're eager to get back to?

Absolutely. I definitely don't miss the travel and all the non-musical parts. Other than just being with the band and the crew, which is like a family in itself, you know, so that sort of your family away from home is everybody's on the bus, and that's your tribe, and, and it's very comforting and fun, and it's good people and I definitely missed that. And aside from the music, I just missed that connection that I talked about earlier. I mean, there's nothing like the connection with an audience. That shared experience with the audience and with the people on stage and, and the people that are involved in putting the show on and just, you know, everybody involved sort of gets connected and puts aside any kind of just differences or worries or, you know, it just focuses on that moment. Everyone's in that moment together and sometimes with the rigors of the road, you take that for granted and you get a little burnt out, but that's the thing that I missed the most and that I noticed is important to do for myself and for others, you know, people coming up and saying, hey, that  show or that song or whatever really got me through some tough times or made us so happy after being so stressed out. You know, those kinds of things, when you hear that, you realize the importance of doing this job. It's not indulgent, completely, you know, it's actually hard work. And it's worth doing because it makes a lot of people happy. And it kind of connects us all, you know?

Well, not to be corny about it, but I definitely had that reaction with your new album. It was like manna to these ears after this strange year and just made me think about, you know, summertime and concerts and all that. And it was it was nice to escape for a minute, as we hopefully wind down from this pandemic. So congratulations. It's a wonderful record. “Always Smilin’” is Oliver Wood’s first solo album. Thank you so much for speaking with us as always, and stay safe.

My pleasure, Ian, thank you so much.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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