Interview: Oliver Wood – Always Smilin’ Came From Quarantine

Oliver Wood, of the Americana soul trio Wood Brothers, is finally releasing a solo LP. Covid-19 quarantine allowed him to collaborate, write and record in ways he hasn’t before. The result, Always Smilin’, is another funky, groovy rock collection of songs that will keep listeners who first heard him in the Wood Brothers, absolutely hooked. We recently caught up with him via email, ahead of the May 21st release…

In your recent press you state: “You’d be surprised at the music you write and the chances you take when there’s nothing at stake. The best art is an accident. You wind up accessing a different part of your brain and trusting your instincts, rather than relying on control. I’ve learned it would serve you well to be like that in everyday life, especially when you’re dealing with stresses and crises.” Can you expand more on this and tell us how the pandemic curveball sparked the energy to pump out your debut album?

Initially, The Wood Brothers made high quality recordings of casual jams and improvisations. It was something that happened by accident when we tested new studio space. We were excited about how it sounded and didn’t have any songwriting agenda yet. We improvised and enjoyed the sounds we were getting. Listening back to the recordings we loved the looseness and spontaneity, which is hard to capture when you’re thinking in terms of a song and trying to perform it in the studio. We started writing songs over the improvised tracks, and that’s a technique I used for some of the songs on my record too. 

Just before the quarantine era, I invited musical collaborators to come in and play for fun and see what we came up with. Some of those jams turned into songs (‘Kindness’, ‘Came From Nothing’, ‘Unbearable Heart’). Once quarantine started I began writing songs over the music and editing/adding things. It’s a fun process, and quarantine was the only way I would have time and energy to do that. Of course I also wrote and recorded with more conventional methods, but tried to keep the spirit of trusting instincts and not trying too hard to control the outcome of a creation. In the same way, none of us had any control of the pandemic, we had to adapt and roll with it. Not a bad way to be.

If you were able to choose one artist from before your time and see them perform live who would it be and why?

Definitely Ray Charles. To me he embodies everything I love about music: soul, originality, diversity/eclecticism. I’ve listened to more Ray than any other artist.

It’s no accident how gospel themes seep their way into your lyrics, rhythms and melodies. I myself am a massive gospel record collector. We are also big fans of Phil Cook and were excited to hear about his live record with The Branchettes that will be released soon. What are some of your favorite gospel records and which artists inspire you most in this genre? Are you religious or just a fan of music like me?

I’m a huge fan of gospel music, and also of Phil Cook!! Phil is an amazing collaborator and I hope to work with him again asap. I love all kinds of gospel, especially Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Soul Stirrers (with and without Sam Cooke), Clara Ward, Mavis Staples. I also love the quirky Bahamian singer and guitar player Joseph Spence. Of course, artists like Ray Charles, Aretha, Sam Cooke….it’s in everything they do. I did not come up going to church, but I love the music, and how it’s seeped into blues and R&B. The spiritual aspect of Gospel is what gives it the fire I love.

4) Sister Rosetta Tharpe is most definitely my number one choice for the artist I wish I was alive to see! Not too many other shoppers are in the Gospel section here at NYC record stores. What does it say about people like us, who are removed and essentially outsiders from the religious church going experience, yet incredibly drawn and hooked in by the music? I keep asking myself as a hobbyist and gospel record collector, will I remain an outsider only looking in as a fan of the music? Or would I belong in a deeper and more spiritual understanding and lesson in what it means to literally preach and spread the gospel?

To me—as an “outsider”—it’s less about the gospel and more about the connection. I think when I hear really heartfelt gospel music I am hearing something innocent and without pretense. It is folk music—music for folks. It’s main purpose is to connect people to each other; not to perform and make money. It has that purity of soul, just created to feel good and be expressive (like all the great folk art). I think we hear that in Ray Charles, Aretha, Sam Cooke….even in their pop music, because they came from that tradition, where music is a way of life before it becomes a profession.

Always Smilin’ is released today – you can read our review of the record HERE.

Interview By Scott J. Herman