“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
That age-old philosophical question gets a sort of modern-day variant with the advent of The Woods, a three-person indie combo that definitely deserves a listen. The trio’s debut single, “World’s On Fire,” is an engaging, hooky workout with fierce triple harmonies, a loose, acoustically driven country/rock groove, and an almost esoteric lyric that’s open to multiple interpretations.
The band’s story is counterintuitive: The Woods (lead vocalist Dan O’Rourke, lead guitarist Leland Rooney and Canadian solo act Raquel Cole) came together during the pandemic when the culture was generally separated. And “World’s On Fire” is an old-school minor miracle as well. “It’s sort of amazing that the song was even written in the first place,” says O’Rourke.
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That’s because there was no actual writing appointment when O’Rourke and a couple of Nashville friends fashioned it in a pre-pandemic world on May 1, 2019. O’Rourke was hanging out with fellow musicians Nick DeLeo and Nick Halsted at the Donelson-area house the two Nicks were sharing near the Cumberland River at the time. They launched into an informal jam session, with O’Rourke playing classic rock chords that, at one early stage, approximated the turnaround in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “Proud Mary.” The progressions and the rhythms evolved and the tempo slowed significantly when they found a comfortable motif before a knock at the front door interrupted them.
As the hosts handled that visitor, O’Rourke kept the chords going on his own and started noodling with off-the-cuff phrases, including a sort-of-mumbled “Hey, baby, the world’s on fire.” It was the beginning of a song that might have been lost in the atmosphere if another friend — Levi Chavez, a non-musician who likes to watch their living-room jams — hadn’t captured it.
“We would do this pretty frequently to the point where Levi would know when to hit record,” says O’Rourke. “All of this exists because of Levi being there and hitting record and recording what we did; otherwise, we might have just forgotten it.”
That “world’s on fire” line became the opening phrase in the song as O’Rourke, DeLeo and Halsted hammered it out in a short flurry of activity, following the apocalyptic hook with a question: “Will we do things right if it’s endin’ tonight?”
“This song has two different sorts of interpretations,” O’Rourke suggests. “The first interpretation is from a more personal standpoint as though there’s a relationship where maybe things aren’t as amazing as they could be.
“The greater picture,” he adds, shifting to the second meaning, “is sort of the same thing that you see with humanity all the time. Every generation thinks the world’s on the brink of ending. We’re not the first to have some global catastrophes happen and I’m sure we won’t be the last, but every time, humanity’s true colors kind of show.”
The back half of the verses adopted a curlicue melody while hinting at further dialogue before breaking out fully into a chorus that begs for physical contact: “Love me, hold me/ We’ll be hotter than the world outside.” That chorus reaches a long note at the end of the penultimate line, loaded with tension amid a seventh chord, before finally resolving with an optimistic closing observation: “Everything will be all right.” Intriguingly, while the song’s title leads off the verse, it never appears in the chorus.
The three writers wrapped the process by creating a work tape with trio harmonies underscoring key pieces of “World’s On Fire.”
Subsequently, O’Rourke enlisted a couple of Nashville producers — Chris Rowe (Taylor Swift, Midland) and Kenny Lamb (Rhett Akins, Barrett Baber) — to record some solo material in July 2019. When that went well, he decided to tackle “World’s On Fire,” bringing in DeLeo on guitar and Halsted on cajon as part of the studio band. The harmonic identity was so strong that O’Rourke focused on pulling together a more formal group, but the onset of the pandemic forced him to refrain from widening the net too far, which would have increased the participants’ potential exposure to the virus.
Rooney was already a friend, and his harmonies and lead guitar were easy additions. Cole began doing high harmonies with them for online performances just to help out while they looked for another male to take that role. But in short order, it was obvious she had the voice they needed.
“I never wanted to be in a group,” she says, “but the thing about The Woods is, I wanted to be in this group. I’ve had some success in Canada, but I haven’t broken into Nashville, and I was hearing these songs and I was just like, ‘I want to be a part of this.’ ”
With the two new members in place, they tried to rerecord “World’s On Fire” in its entirety, but the original rhythm section had such a cohesiveness that they decided to ride with the 2019 recording. “The magic was already caught,” says Cole. “We decided we’d just add to it — instead of, you know, feeling like we needed to start all over again.”
Rooney added a new intro and fit a twisty, Southern rock guitar solo into the existing framework. “As far as the little melody is concerned at the beginning,” he recalls, “it was actually Raquel, while we were in the studio, that was like, ‘Hey, we want kids in their bedroom to be learning how to play this. It needs to be guitar, and it needs to accessible.’ ”
The solo was similarly uncluttered, though for different reasons. “Choosing the actual melodies and notes I played was really me trying to dance with the track,” he says, “a sort of call and response with the music instead of just playing all over it.”
The band’s BSG label released “World’s on Fire” to country radio in conjunction with GrassRoots Promotion via PlayMPE on March 14, though the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave them pause. Ultimately, they decided not to let footage of burning buildings derail the optimism that’s embedded in the track’s performance and its “everything will be all right” conclusion.
“We were kind of on the fence putting it out because of how timely it is, but I think it’s always going to be timely,” says O’Rourke. “Before war, COVID-19, there were forest fires — like, literally, the world was on fire.
“I’m a history major, so I’ve studied how this is just the cycle of humanity, and I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a good time,” he continues. “You look back at the ’60s, the civil rights movement, which we just had a resurrection of in 2020, and that’s all really bad stuff. But hopefully, after all that happens, we’re moving in the right direction.”