Ask Rocky Votolato to name the biggest change he's undergone in the past three years--a time marred by depression, anxiety, and a nervous breakdown that often kept him from writing and performing music--and you're likely to hear that he no longer cares what people think about him. "I'm not trying to be something, or nail in some image," says Votolato, a 32-year-old, tattooed father of two. "I'm honest about who I am and what I'm doing."
Rocky Votolato With Adam H. Stephens of Two Gallants, Terrordactyls. Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., 709-9442, neumos.com. $13. All ages. 8 p.m. Sat., March 13.
Without that realization, Votolato says he would have been unable to write his latest record, True Devotion—a lyrical and instrumental departure from the music he's created for the past 10 years. A former punk musician who founded Seattle's much-loved Waxwing, Votolato has been known more recently as an alt-country songwriter preoccupied with whiskey, heartbreak, and death.
But True Devotion—filled with string crescendos and intimate lyrics—is an uncharacteristically hopeful album. Votolato's trademark folk twang is gone. These songs are gentle, backed by stripped-down guitars, vocal harmonies, and a tambourine. There's no near-screaming, no vocals pushed close to the breaking point, as in the title track from 2006's Makers, named for a one-time drink of choice. Here, Votolato's voice is steady and clean. On "Red River," he calmly sings about a better future: "That feeling you get/When the wind is blowing/Like your whole life is starting over."
This new sound is the result, as Votolato describes it, of finding "inner peace." After releasing and touring behind 2007's The Brag and Cuss, Votolato says, "shit hit the fan for me personally." The depression he'd struggled with for years hit a new low. He faced writer's block for the first time in in his life.
Whateverit took for Votolato to reach this hopeful place—he says his drinking has downshifted to the occasional beer—wasn't easy, and it wasn't clean. Besides the echoes of guilt on "Lucky Clover Coin" and other songs from True Devotion, there's still the haunting music of his past.
Here Votolato explains how his personal struggles influenced his records (solo, except as noted)—and how he's managing to move forward.
Rocky Votolato, 1999
Votolato's first solo album was recorded in four hours in a friend's basement—and released four years before Suicide Medicine, the Chris Walla–produced album that would launch his solo career in 2003. Votolato recorded the songs by singing and playing guitar into a lone microphone. Most were written when he was 16, a tumultuous time: his parents divorced, and Votolato, his mother, and his brothers moved from Texas to Seattle, leaving behind a violent father. "Everyone's got a story," he says. "Everyone has reasons why there's an existential suffering that just comes from being a human being."
Nobody Can Take What Everybody Owns, with Waxwing, 2002
When it happened, Votolato would have said that the breakup of Waxwing—the successful post-hardcore band he founded with his brother, Cody—was fortuitous. He was planning to record Suicide Medicine, while Cody's new band, the Blood Brothers, was on the verge of a record deal. Nobody was recorded in three days. Months later, the band separated. Looking back on it now—"now that I'm being honest about it," he says—Votolato was torn, something he wasn't willing to admit at the time. "I wasn't done, it felt like, with that band," he says. It's possible he'll have a chance to finish what he started. While there's no concrete plan at the moment, Votolato has been talking about reuniting Waxwing in the winter for a tour, and "he wouldn't be surprised" if the band made another album within the next few years.
"Suicide Medicine," Suicide Medicine, 2003
One of Votolato's best-known songs, "Suicide Medicine" fluctuates between delicate guitar plucking and frantic strumming while the lyrics contemplate whether suicide is the only solution to depression. Writing the song took five minutes, in a "really bizarre experience where you feel like you're not a part of it," Votolato remembers. At the time he wasn't even considering what the song meant—or that it would resonate with so many of his fans. "Suicide and depression and mental illness seem to be a theme," he says. "When I was looking back at my work after making True Devotion and having a little bit of a larger perspective of what's happening in my life, I saw that thread running through all my albums." He speculates now that it was inspired by his wife's father, who committed suicide before she and Votolato met.
Although Votolato believes the hopefulness of True Devotion is "a much better contribution to our world and society than just crying in my beer and writing solipsistic heartbreak songs," he can't escape Makers, the most solipsistic and heartbreaking of all his records. He still performs songs like "White Daisy Passing," but others, like "Wait Out the Days," are off limits. The song's refrain—"Wait out the days/Till death comes to claim/Anything life didn't already take"— now feels false to Votolato. "It's this thing people buy into, that as an artist you need to be suffering to be creative," he says. "I never wanted to portray myself that way, or really buy in the delusion."
"Lilly White," The Brag and Cuss, 2007
Although the album was a critical and commercial success for Votolato, he remembers the recording of The Brag and Cuss as a "dark time." He wrote "Lilly White" while reading James Frey's A Million Little Pieces—whatever Votolato is reading colors his songwriting—and related to that memoir about addiction and unhappiness: "Fighting a fight I can't win/Broken teeth and broken nose/Ten years at the bottom of the bottle," he sings on this jangling, harmonica-heavy opening track. Now his choices in literature have moved toward the philosophical (he's reading Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. these days), which is reflected on True Devotion. Taken as a whole, Votolato sees the album as the "story of someone who gets really lost and ends up finding their way back to some kind of understanding or sense of meaning and truth."