Roy Woods has spent much of the past year far from home, but he’ll probably never shake the pillowy Brampton accent that make his sentences sound like questions and his songs sound like pleading dispatches straight from the GTA.
After emerging with a buzzy EP and an OVO record deal in 2015, Woods established himself as a singer and songwriter with a knack for strange, catchy melodies and unexpected collaborations. Last week, he finally released his debut album, Say Less, a collection of glossy, sex-tinged songs made for both the club and the late-night drive home afterwards.
As is the case for his peers on the OVO roster, there’s a swole, Drake-shaped shadow looming over Woods. But also like them, he’s defining a lane of his own. And what he’s landed on — an earnest and charming, if slightly off-kilter, sound — is a welcome foil to the smooth-guy style that elsewhere dominates the camp. (As some have pointed out, Drake is noticeably missing from Say Less, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s missed.)
When we recently spoke on the phone, Woods was headed home from New York, where he’d celebrated the album’s release. In a freewheeling conversation, he outlined his journey from aspiring football player to lovelorn artist. Now that he’s here, he says, all he wants is self-actualization. Stars — they’re just like us.
I want to start by talking a little bit about home. You have a song on the album called "B-Town." What does Brampton mean to you?
Brampton is home for me. Brampton has its own feeling — it's not like [Toronto]. It's a small town, where everyone pretty much knows each other, or, like, at least you know their friend. It's a place where art is really expressed in different forms. There's no age limit — everybody wants to create and do something.
People who aren't from Toronto don’t necessarily know what it’s like, and yet your upbringing informs the way you make music. When you're traveling, how do you explain your culture?
Usually, people that are from outside the region, the first thing they recognize is the accent. That's always the first thing they want to talk about because it stands out. It’s something they don't understand but they really, really want to know. So that's one thing I always want to explain: why we speak the way we speak.
That was a really big conversation earlier this year, when More Life dropped and some people were confused by what they were hearing. What were you thinking when that conversation was happening on a larger scale?
Honestly, I didn't really think too much of it. I think it’s up to people to learn and try to understand. For example, when it comes to U.K. music, Canadians are more familiar with grime than Americans are. But when we first heard it, we were like, Ok, what is this? It takes time for people to get used to things and understand it.
Tell me about how you grew up. What's your family like?
My family is not really that together. I have a whole bunch of family in Guyana, and then I have another part of my family in Scarborough [a region in eastern Toronto]. But I don't really see them. I'm usually just with my mom and my little sister. It's always been just us from when I was a kid. My dad came in and out of my life when I was a kid, and even now. He always kind of has not really been there but also been there, you know?
My little sister, she does art too. I've been doing art since I was a kid, and she does too. She likes to pursue that but she's also in school, so she's really focused on school and stuff. But me, I decided, No, I don't like school. I was always like, Maybe I'll do school later, if I find something I like, maybe psychology or cooking arts or some shit.
But, my family is a weird family, you know?
Man, all families are weird.
Yeah. I'm the second-oldest. I have four sisters, two on my dad's side and two on my mom's. But I only lived with my younger one. I'd say it was a simple life, but there's always been complications, like, when it comes to taking care of my mother. I’ve always had to take care of my mom since I was a kid. You know, I still do. And my whole family back home. Back home, in Guyana, there's lots of poverty there, so there's a whole other family I'm looking out for and trying to take care of as well.
You're in the position of having to take care of people who are older than you, but you're also a big brother. What kind of lessons have you wanted to share with your little sister?
Me and my sister, we go back and forth. She's more mature for her age than I am. More times, she teaches me things. I just try to teach her about people because she's not much of a people person. But me, I love people, I get along with people, I talk to all kinds of people. I try to give her those kinds of skills, how to maneuver life and the outside world. But she's so in her books that she teaches me everything. She's my best friend.
“Being vulnerable, shit, that’s just being honest.”
When you were growing up, you used to play football and you experienced a few concussions. How did that trauma affect your outlook on life?
I actually didn't see it any kind of way. It was just something that I knew came with the game. I was prepared for whatever aftermath I had to face. But [my injuries weren’t] bad at all, so I thank God. I just knew it was something I had to live with and move on from. So I didn't focus on the concussions, I just moved on to music and started focusing on that.
It's interesting because football is quite an aggressive sport, whereas the music that you started making afterwards is more thoughtful, it's about feelings, it's about love often. That seems like quite a divide.
I was always known to be that kind of guy — like a soft, loving, warm kind of guy.
Well, you grew up with a lot of women around you.
Yeah, I did. And so I understand a lot of things more than most men would, because I've spent so much time with women since a young age. I'm sensitive.
But there's always been an aggression, and I wanted to get it out the right way. Football was something that was always in my life. My dad had incorporated that in my life from when I was, like, 2 years old. I had a lot of anger as an adolescent and I needed to get it out.
Football was one way of channelling energy, and music was another way of channeling energy. They were both different: one is more angry and violent, it causes and inflicts pain, whereas the other one releases pain. After that, it was easier to understand those emotions and feelings [I had].
That's a good point — using something like football as an appropriate way to channel anger. It makes me think about a lot of the conversations that have been happening in the news over the past few weeks, about misogyny and men abusing their power when it comes to women. As someone who is, as you say, sensitive to women, what do you think is your responsibility as an artist when you see that topic in the news?
Well, we have to love ourselves first. You won't know how to love anybody else or appreciate anybody else if you don't love and appreciate yourself. I know about myself, but everybody has had a different life and different experiences and reacts to things differently than I do.
When it comes to artists belittling women, it's definitely not new. It's not new. It's been going on. But we have to love the womb we come from. It's a matter of knowing how to love and how to show that love. If you truly love yourself, loving women isn't difficult. I find that men, they just look for a women to make them feel better. And [women] too, sometimes.
Are these conversations you have with your friends?
Oh, all the time. These are daily conversations that I have. I love talking about this stuff. It's what I normally talk about everyday with my boys and shit. We go through shit, so we have to talk about it. I love getting deep into a conversation.
That's good, but also rare. It can be hard for men to be vulnerable in that way. To some extent, something that comes across in your music, too.
Vulnerability is something that's made writing music the best for me. I don't have to hide. And if you don't have to hide, then you don't have to lie. There's no hiding: I'm literally just being me, open and free. And the fact that I'm accepted for it makes me feel even better about myself. Because I'm literally giving everybody all of me, the entire world. And, like, I used to be scared to let even my mom know who I really was. Or even the person downstairs or my friends. But being away from everybody and away from the city and away from what everybody thinks, that really helped me learn to live how I want to live. Being vulnerable, shit, that's just being honest.
Earlier on in your career, when you were working yourself or with just an engineer, just grinding, you were able to be open. But how does that change when music is your job and there are expectations of you and people are watching you?
I've always put the expectation on myself to do better and be better. But there's people depending on me, and so it's been more motivating. Now if I'm disappointing, I'm not just disappointing myself. So I'm pushing myself to be the best Roy Woods I can ever be. That's the only to stay on my Ps & Qs, by using fear to motivate and making sure that I’m just always doing better and better.
How do you measure that growth for yourself?
Self-reflection on everything. Like, What am I doing to make myself a better person? To treat people better? Talk to people better? Talk to my family better? Am I taking care of myself? Am I eating healthy? Shit like that is where it starts, and then it goes on to the music. I have to take care of myself before I can give anyone anything. I have to make sure I'm in a good headspace. If everything around me is good, then I can focus on perfecting and mastering my craft. It goes hand in hand.
So have you been taking care of yourself?
Yeah, I've been eating healthier. Some days I want a burger but I want to eat better. I want to eat veggies and shrimp, and less carbs and less pork. I want to start smoking less and so I try to keep myself busy during the day, just go for a walk or a jog something. I have a life to live and, at 21, I can't waste my time doing bullshit. I have a whole life to live for, so I want to make sure that I'm there for it.
When you go back on tour, you'll have to get fit.
Oh yeah, exactly. I'm going on a bigger tour so I already know what's ahead of me: lots and lots of work for me, especially if I'm smoking a lot of weed. But I'm aware of it. The first thing is being aware of it and so I'm taking the right steps. Me and my boy — he's a vegetarian, so he's been getting me on that shit. Vegan food and stuff like that. And I actually do like it, I really enjoy it. So I'm making healthier choices. There's way more options now, and it's really good. Like, a soy burger just tastes like a regular burger, and you wouldn't even know it.
You've spent a lot of this year on the road and being away from home. What was the hardest thing about that?
Honestly, that's where taking care of myself really started. I learned that eating good really matters. It took a toll on my body. I never, never had a weak immune system until after tour. Your body's a temple and you have to take care of it. Sleep is one of the most important things on road.
After OVO Fest this summer, you said that was the best day of your life so far. Have you had a better day since then?
I've had ups and downs but I'd say last night, my album release party, could compare to that, for sure. It was so memorable. Like, my sister [made] the cover art. She made it! So that alone means the world to me, because that's both of our art right there. Me and my sister, we grew up making art together, so going from me making comic books with her to her making cover art for me for my album, it's fucking beautiful. And all my brothers were here with me in New York. What a fucking life. I had to thank everyone for being there for my album because this was like a graduation from me. I [had] my boys with me, two of my guys from Brampton. And us guys from Brampton, we never leave. Even Toronto, no one ever leaves. So it [was] a blessing to see everybody here.
How do you maintain your relationships with people who are home when you have to be away so much? I feel like that must be one of the hardest things about your job.
It's actually not. It's pretty easy for me, because I don't have a lot of friends. So the people I talk to, they know what it is. They know I'm busy, they know what I'm doing, so they wait for me to come back. Then it's like, "Yo, I'm back, what's good, link up!"
“Me loving myself has made everything about life better.”
When you think about everything you've accomplished over the past couple of years, what are you the most proud of yourself for?
There's lots I have to be proud for but, besides music, I have to say loving myself is what I'm proud of. Now that I, like, love myself and have that feeling, the music I've been making has been just way better than everything I was making when I was in that feeling of discomfort with myself. Me loving myself has made everything about life better.
How does a person learn to love themselves? That's something people struggle with well into middle age, so how do you get to that point at 21?
You can't be ashamed. You have to accept yourself and the flaws within you, and adjust. Just like an animal has to adapt to the weather, we have to adjust and adapt to things and the people around us.
Are the people around you good? You could look at your own actions, but what about the people around you? Are they helping you make good decisions or bad decisions? Are they helping you make money or lose money? Are they bringing you down or bringing you up? If they're bringing you up, you're that much closer to loving yourself.
But knowing yourself is super key. Before you can love yourself, you have to know yourself. You have to know who you are. What are the reasons for your actions? Why are you even in this world?
When you really try to live with positive energy, it really does work. Even if it takes time.
There's clearly been a lot of growth for you over the past little while. Did that make the process of working on this album different than the EPs you released before?
Well, I started working on this album in the beginning of time, when I first met OVO. So making it was like piecing a puzzle together. I knew what the puzzle was supposed to look like, but I just had to find the right pieces and put them together. Every piece was meant to be there, so I'm glad all the pieces fit and that I took the time I needed in order to make it work.
Is there something in particular that you want people to take away from the album?
What I want people to take away is whatever they feel. Whatever it makes you feel, I want them to understand that feeling and why they felt that, and then go back to the song and try to understand it. Every song, I put energy and emotion into it. There's energy within every track, so I'd love them to feel that energy if they can.