Over the course of two days in mid-February, Rocky Votolato sat with me, in a hotel room in Reno, Nevada, and shared the origins of his latest solo record, True Devotion. The album is a powerful collection of songs that tangle with feelings of guilt, inadequecy and hope, all told by Votolato's intimate matter-of-fact vocals. The music came about after a year that found the songwriter locked away in his Woodinville apartment fighting off depression and anxiety through a course of independent scholarship that covered the work of saints and sages of the recent and distant past. All the pages of this month's City Arts could not fit what Votolato has learned on his way toward a personal sense of peace. We tried to fit them, though.
Photography by Mark Baumgarten for City Arts.
Here are a few more of the artist's thoughts, spliced with songs he performed at the Rainshadow Charter Highschool the evening of our final interview:
...his first brush with music
"I knew I wanted to play guitar, because my uncle played guitar, down in Texas, he was a truck driver, and he gave my older brother his Gibson Les Paul and that is what started it into my family. He would come over for family gatherings and play Beatles covers and Dylan songs and I just loved it. He played, like Kris Kristofferson and David Allen Coe and country stuff. But I was really intrigued with it and I just wanted to be able to play guitar and my mom bought me my first guitar a year before we moved up from Texas, in 1991."
Votolato's guitar is too big for the turbo prop and must be checked
...his earliest influences
"I learned to play blues guitar first, and then moved into writing songs. That Creedance Clearwater Revival song, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” was the first song I ever figured out, all the way through on the guitar. You know what was tough for me was learning to play and sing at the same time. That was a big hurtle. And then the next step was writing my own songs, which didn’t come until much later. I spent a lot of time learning blues guitar, so I could play a lot of Hendrix songs and Stevie Ray Vaughn songs – comin from Texas, you know – but I got more into songwriting when I started going to punk shows. I went and saw Jawbreaker play and that was pretty pivotal. It was one of the first club shows I had gone to. I had also gone to see Fugazi at the time and some other bands who had a big impact on me. I was there socially, with a lot of friends, but then I looked up on stage and saw something happening and it just struck a chord that went all the way to my soul and I was like, This is what I am going to do. I knew in that moment and I never looked back and dedicated myself to writing songs at that time."
...his first song
"I started with a lot of trial and error. The first song I wrote, it’s so juvenile, but it’s about pulling weeds and mowing the lawn; something my parents were making me do at the time. It was asking the question, Why do we have to do these stupid jobs? And, What makes these plants weeds and why to they have to die? That was the philosophical dilemma at the root of the song. I couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 at that time. Then I went on to write songs about the girls at school."
...how music helped
"For me, it was cathartic. It was a form of therapy, seeking to deal with … I was dealing with depression, I know now, for my whole life. Pretty severe. It was just a channel to get some of those feelings out and be able to communicate. I was kind of a sensitive kid and I had a lot going on, so I needed somewhere to put that energy. So I poured it into my music."
Votolato says farewell (actually, he is loosening his strings)
"I had a lot of stomach aches, physical sickness. My stomach was sick my whole life. Not very healthy. Not a great sense of well-being. Very on-edge. Anger, extreme anger. I was really a volatile kid. My parents were both very explosive people. I grew up in that environment where there was a lot of fighting, a lot of yelling and screaming and stuff breaking. I felt I had a lot of stuff to sort out. My early music was real, what’s the word, aggressive in a way. That mellowed as I got that off my chest and dealt with some of the things that were bothering me. Then I was really able to let some of the things I loved about music, as I explored my earlier roots, come out a little bit more. I think you see that progression with my solo albums. They get a little bit more Southern sounding; a little bit more songwritery and less screaming going on."
...the move from punk to folk
"I had several different bands through high school, but Waxwing was the first band where it felt really meaningful and had felt that I had developed enough skill that I could start recording records. But all the while I was doing that, I was making folk songs, or songs that … I always wrote on an acoustic guitar, my first guitar was an acoustic; so I always wrote on one, even when I was writing punk music for Waxwing. So, there was always this element that was drawn more to my early influence, songwriters, the people my folks would play; early Dylan, ’63, Freewheelin; probably had the most impact on me in my younger days. Then Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash. More the Southern just country music and ‘60s songwriters stuff that my parents loved. And I just loved it. You just soak it in when you’re a kid."
Celebrity Resorts, the "hotel" where the interviews took place
...the birth of his solo career
"I had been doing all these bands for so long and I had all these songs. It was basically just from an overflow of creativity. I had all these songs that were never going to work for a punk rock band, so I went over to my friend Jake Snider, from Minus the Bear, I went over to his studio and, for four hours, I just sat and played the songs, and that became my first album. I definitely enjoyed both aspects of what I was doing at the time. And so I really did enjoy having both of those outlets. I feel right now, if anything, I miss having the band; just as something to go to. I am really grateful for how this has worked out; but every once in a while I think, I should get the band back together, or I should have a band to have another outlet for my personality. It would be nice to not be restricted with my writing. Just let whatever comes out happen."
"It’s almost meditative for me when I am performing. I sort of go into another space, so I am not even there. When I am playing, I feel the energy coming out of me and I know other people are experiencing it. It feels awesome; it’s wonderful. Now my perspective is so different from when I was younger; then, maybe, there was more ego in it, thinking that I was showing somebody something. I feel like I went through of few hard years of not knowing how to relate to performing as I was not knowing how to relate to my own career and how it was developing and what I wanted from my life in general. Now, I just feel like a servant; like it is this service to society and not this negative thing where people can wallow in their sorrows."
Spencer the Roadie (who set up the Reno gig) and Rocky
...suicide and his audience
I was really so lost for so long and really depressed; suicidal, a lot. And I had this thing, up until the last couple years, where I though suicide was a viable option; I thought, This is a good way out, essentially, to escape the existential suffering of this existence. I talk about death a lot in my art and I worry that I misled someone to think that suicide was okay. If I ever did, that would hurt me now. Because, knowing what I know now, I am on the other side of that and suicide seems very selfish to me and very adolescent or ridiculous. I still think it takes a lot of courage and I sill have a strange respect for anyone who can actually do it, knowing how hard it is to actually do. But it comes from mental illness. I just feel like, I hope nothing I did misled anyone down that path; and I don’ know for sure, but I know that I got a lot of mail from people who were contemplating suicide or would tell me that my art really spoke to them because they were mentally sick or depressed or struggling with those issues, so, struggling with your problems publicly, maybe you could mislead someone. I always respond to all my fan mail; or I’ve tried as best I could. At the peak times of my success; I haven’ kept up with all of it, because there has been too much. But most of the time, it’s a slow trickle and I try to get back to everyone. A lot of times I just write, 'I hope things work out alright for you. I really appreciate that you like my music.' Or, you know, people just write me about hard things they gone through or losing a loved one; those kinds of things. You know, so, hopefully my music has just been comforting to people; and that is overwhelmingly the kind of mail I receive. So that’s a good justification, I guess, for dealing with my mental problems publicly through my art."
...the existential dilemma
"I think it’s interesting and intriguing to talk about these dark issues. I have always been a big fan of existential literature. Like, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha was one of my key books growing up. All his books, like Steppenwolf and Demian, and Allen Ginsberg, all the beat transcendentalist writers; all the guys who talk about dark things. It was really just compelling to me, very interesting to me, just from an artistic perspective. So I thought it was a good segue way into the larger questions of life and that searching for inner truth. I think that’s kind of what I’ve tried to do; to find something timeless has always been my goal with my art. That’s why I need to slow down making my records, so that I can have a little more time to explore whether a certain song can stand the test of time. But my goal is to put out an album of ten or twelve songs that I can put on in ten years and still think, There’s something still valid here, artistically."
Reno's Fitzgerald Casino might be gone, but the luck lives on
"I did a tour with Lucero that I was just self-medicating with alcohol for depression and anxiety, not handling well at all the pressures of traveling all the time and trying to maintain a family at home and working towards this music career. I just kind of had a meltdown. I couldn’t do it anymore. I really backed off. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that 'The measure of mental health is the disposition to see good everywhere.' And I feel like where I ended up is what happens when you do the opposite of that for too many years. I just didn’t have a clear perspective of the meaning of my own life or what it was about and had gotten really close to suicide. Like I said last night, I had always contemplated suicide as a viable option for escape from existential suffering and, for me, I had gotten to a place where I was really considering it, had planned it out, knew exactly how I was going to do it.
"If you get close enough to it, to committing suicide, you realize that it’s really a tough thing to do. You can think about it, you can contemplate it, but actually doing it, I don’t know if courage is the right word, but it takes a lot of dedication to it. People who slit their wrists, they aren’t serious because that doesn’t even work; they haven’t looked into it. They’re just calling for help; they’re not really saying, 'Alright, I want oblivion; I want out of this.' And so, I had done research on it. On the Internet. Looking around, searching for what do people do when they are serious about killing themselves. Do you cut your wrists; what do you do. So, I reached that point, I was reasoning this out. I got to the point where I just laughed, it just seemed so ridiculous and clear to me that I was just missing the point of life and that the point is just to be at peace. I was overlooking all the wonderful gifts in my life. Over three billion people on the planet are living under two dollars a day. In extreme poverty. And people have so little. Waking up is really the best way to describe the feeling that I had. And then, life just looked different.
...the breaking point that led to True Devotion
"'Lucky Clover Coin' was the breaking point. It was kind of what opened the floodgates. I wrote that song, pretty much after a year of having nothing work. I had written songs, but there were none that I wanted to put out; they were just, it was like my creativity was a river and then a log had fallen in it and that stream became a trickle. It was painful to get anything to come out; whether it was a guitar part that I was remotely interested in or a line that I thought was inspired. All of that was just dark and dead and beat to hell. When I finally did write 'Lucky Clover Coin,' that was great; it was just such a release for me. I was walking with my son and he picked up a coin that had the little three-leaf clover on it. That was an actual account of what happened, but the rest of the song was about me really wanting to leave this life of depression behind and move on to something better. I had to. The rest of the record just poured out; in a month’s time I had written the whole thing. I was doing a lot better and it was helping with my mental health as well." •
Pick up a copy of the March issue to read our feature story on Rocky.