Royal Wood had a problem. The singer-songwriter had fallen out of love. But not with a person, with something potentially more devastating—with music. “I found after making a few records, it’s a big business. I just kind of wanted to step away,” he says. “I didn’t pick up piano or guitar because I wanted to know what had the best return on my investment; I got into music because it was fun. Nothing ever had or nothing ever will be as fun.”
The sound you hear on Wood’s new album, Ghost Light (slated for an April release), is the sound of a man falling back in love. “I wanted to regain the joy I’d lost in music making,” the Peterborough, Ontario, native says. “I wanted to experience the passion and joy of creativity that I had as a kid when I bounced around from instrument to instrument.” And he did.
If his last album, 2014’s The Burning Bright, provided catharsis over his divorce from singer Sarah Slean, Ghost Light allowed him “a needed release from demons of working in the business.” Wood, who received a Juno nomination in 2011 for songwriter of the year, shed Toronto and its music industry trappings for a well-needed reboot. He spent time living in Los Angeles, Ireland, and the family farm he grew up on to clear his head. He gingerly stepped back into the studio, and in 2014, when his label contract was up, he split ways with his manager.
Working with producer Bill Lefler (Dashboard Confessional, Ingrid Michaelson), Wood found happiness in unfettered music creation again. “Sometimes, the studio is my favourite place of all,” he says. “There’s something holy and sacred about it. You can make something or nothing. It’s like a church that is just for you.”
Joy pervades much of Ghost Light, including the ukulele-led “I’m Gonna Marry You”, a bouncy Jason Mraz–redolent ode to love; the rhythmic declaration of fealty “Come Back To You”; and sprightly “Morning Light”. The album’s centrepiece is a piano meditation, “To Forgive”. “That sprang from reading a line once years ago—‘to forgive is to forget’,” he says. “That’s the most honourable moment that you can give to your partner or loved one: if we’re actually going to forgive each other we have to let it go. It stuck with me after my divorce.”
Wood, who was playing piano by ear when he was four, turned to the crowd-funding platform PledgeMusic to pay for the recording, a method he’d resisted before on studio albums because he preferred the traditional label route, but had used successfully for his Live at the Grand DVD. Among the lessons he’d learned previously was to start the campaign early and engage the consumer in a personal way. Included in the premium items pledgers could receive were a rarities and B-side collection with the CD cover hand painted by Wood, handwritten lyrics to the song of their choice, or even to have him perform a favourite song via Skype. “The point is to make the fans share in the moment and enjoy the experience of releasing new music,” he says.
Throughout his career, the smooth-voiced Wood has been something of a musical magpie, easily adopting different styles to suit his mood. While at McGill University, he immersed himself in jazz, a passion that has served him well no matter in what direction his music moved. “One of the biggest things that jazz teaches you is spontaneity and how [to] never perform [a song] the same way again,” he says. “All the men and women I play with have come from a jazz world where you’re taught to search for that moment of inspiration.”
Wood, who will perform with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in May, strives to make each performance unique and to take risks in concert. “I remember seeing this amazing interview with Nina Simone. She said [on stage] was the one place where she thought she could exist without fear,” he says. “There’s this moment of letting go.”
If Wood has a lingering frustration, it’s that in his early years he got tagged as a piano balladeer and that image has stuck, even though it was never true. “It was odd to me because I was playing every instrument on the record, arranging, and producing,” he says. “I hope people finally understand that I’m a multi-instrumentalist. I don’t just sit at a piano and sing sad songs.”
Listen to “Long Way Out” from Ghost Light: