Saskatoon’s a pretty town in the winter, but only when you’re sitting inside looking out of a window. Outside, it’s bitter cold. Winds sweep across the surrounding prairie and slam into the bridges bolted like rungs on a ladder over the South Saskatchewan River, which lazily weaves through town. From inside the Yard and Flagon on Broadway, it’s pretty though. Ryan Boldt and Chris Mason of the Deep Dark Woods see it too. We sit and sip beers not too far from the smoky window, looking out at the town that’s as responsible for the loneliness, isolation, and despondence one can hear in their music as it is for its beauty.
The title of their third and latest album, Winter Hours, captures the essence of those elements perfectly. The small town life – bassist Mason and guitarist Burke Barlow grew up in Prince Albert, while vocalist Boldt and drummer Lucas Goetz are Saskatoon born and bred – can be both enriching and daunting. Unfortunately, it is typically the latter for a folk band looking to set itself apart.
“I think coming from a small town, especially in the west, you know you’re pretty good if you get popular because there isn’t much attention paid to the west,” says Boldt. “If we had been from Toronto, I think we might have gained momentum sooner. It’s kind of like everybody’s popular in Toronto.”
But there is a flipside to that coin. While Boldt and company may not have been conferred popularity by birthright, they were able to experience aspects of Canadian life that many born in big cities cannot. Boldt tells one story of spending a weekend on his grandfather’s farm as a small boy and being enlisted to help clean up the barn’s pigeon problem. “My grandfather handed me a shovel,” laughs Boldt with some reservation, “and started to swing an extension cord with a light bulb on the end of it into the rafters of the barn.
“I like being a country boy,” continues Boldt. “City folk, they don’t ever get to see some of that stuff.”
After cutting 2006’s eponymous debut in less than a day in an upper suite not far from where we sit – a decision rooted more in economics than aesthetics – the band took a more calculated approach to 2007’s Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Recorded over a winter in Saskatoon, the sophomore release was more polished and produced. “We paid for the second album in installments,” says Boldt, laughing. “I don’t think we paid it off until after the CD release.”
Now with Vancouver virtuoso Steve Dawson at the helm of Winter Hours, the band has returned to its original configuration and recorded live off the floor – only this time with the direction and support only a maestro like Dawson could provide. Recorded at the Factory and in his home studio, the Hen House, Dawson accompanies on some of the tracks, picking up a ukulele, a mandotar, and even a mellotron, all of which provide atmosphere for the Woods’ often haunting soundscape. Add to that Boldt’s maturing songwriting and the band’s trademark harmonies, and Winter Hours becomes not only the band’s finest outing yet, but also one of the best roots records to be released so far this year.
“Steve (Dawson) just let us do whatever we wanted to do,” says Boldt. “He came up with a great sound for the record. We played it live off the floor. Even my voice is live off the floor. He really pushed us to do it as naturally as possible. It was the easiest recording we’ve ever done too. If we weren’t feeling it, we’d go play NHL for a bit, eat some food. It was easy and relaxed.”
Winter Hours is a mash of influences all anchored by traditional folk music. The R&B infused “The Sun Never Shines,” written by Boldt during a period when R&B was all he listened too, is still swayed by the likes of Shirley Collins. And the band has even included a rock and roller, “Two Time Loser,” but it can’t get out from under the heavy pall of anguish and regret that characterizes Boldt’s songwriting either.
“We’re influenced a lot by other music,” says Boldt, “but mostly it is the loneliness, the lack of money, and the dreadful winters. If I lived in Hawaii, I probably wouldn’t write as much. Some people, it doesn’t affect them. Dylan’s got loads of money. But then there is Paul Simon.”
“I think,” says Mason, taking a slug off of his beer, “we got a good ten or 15 years before that happens.”