City Arts follows Seattle’s punk troubadour on a trip to Reno, as he begins a new chapter of his life, armed with philosophy and a healing new record.
Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts.
Outside security at SeaTac International Airport on a late morning in February, Rocky Votolato is reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and waiting for me. I am accompanying him to Reno, where the thirty-two-year-old performer will play a show for an all-ages crowd at the Rainshadow Charter High School near the bright lights of the Biggest Little City in the World.
He is wearing what I will find to be his uniform throughout the weekend: a black T-shirt revealing numerous tattoos on his forearms and blue jeans.
A single show in an otherwise quiet period in Votolato’s calendar, tomorrow night’s performance will serve as a warm-up for his upcoming tour in support of his latest record, True Devotion. An intimate collection of powerful folk-pop songs, the album is the songwriter’s eighth, assembled and recorded after a year of deep depression and anxiety that rendered Votolato nearly useless, unable to play shows, write songs or, often, leave the apartment he shares with his wife, April, and their two children.
“I’m glad we’re doing this now,” Votolato tells me while waiting in line for a Caesar salad before our flight. “Six months ago, I don’t think I could have talked about this.”
On the plane, we don’t talk at all. A last-minute adjustment by the airline lands me four rows behind him.
An hour into the flight, Votolato is in the middle of a spirited conversation with the gray-haired man sitting next to him. I can see the wrinkles around the older man’s eye deepen as he smiles at whatever it is Votolato is saying.
A natural conversationalist, Votolato prefers to ask a lot of questions. He doesn’t talk about himself until pressed, at which point he will answer whatever question a person might have at great length, if he is feeling comfortable. He laughs a lot, at times punctuating difficult truths with an unsettling chuckle, as if to deny the power that those truths have over him. All of this, I can tell, is happening four rows ahead of me as we fly through the Nevada sky.
Votolato is known to his current fans as an impassioned folk songwriter. Before he was an earnest balladeer, though, Votolato was an unflinching punk rocker in a much-loved Seattle post-hardcore band called Waxwing. That band, influenced by groups like Fugazi and Jawbreaker and born of the isolation Votolato felt following his parents’ divorce, introduced Northwest music fans to Votolato. It also began the Dallas native’s career in music and connected him to a network of musicians. One of those connections, a sometime roadie named Spencer, has set up the performance that is taking Votolato to Reno.
At Reno-Tahoe International Airport, we meet Spencer. He tells Votolato that, despite the fact that no one remembered to contact the local press about tomorrow night’s show, the daily newspaper chose it as its weekly spotlight. Votolato is pleased, but clearly happier to see his old friend. We part ways – I head towards the rental-car desk, they move towards baggage claim – agreeing to meet later for our first interview.
In the off-season, in the midst of the Great Recession, Reno has the feel of a post-apocalyptic fairground. There is plenty of amusement available, but only a smattering of revelers. Circus Circus, Harrah’s, Cal-Nev Casino and the Sands dominate the skyline, with pawnshops, souvenir stores, insta-chapels and strip clubs filling the gaps between. Votolato’s new record playing on the stereo of my baby-blue Hyundai Accent is the perfect companion to this town. The slow music, filled with mournful harmonica and plain-sung lines of regret and hope, serves as a fitting punctuation to a culture degraded by its own excesses. I circle the city twice before I find my hotel, Celebrity Resorts, on the outer edge of downtown. Even then, I sit in the car and listen to the last lines of “Sparklers.” “Letting go is the best way to hold on,” he sings as his nimble guitar work twinkles beneath. “So let the light dance in the dark until it’s gone. Sparklers only burn for so long.”
Inside, the clerk, an older man named Bob, asks me what I am doing in town. I tell him I am interviewing Rocky Votolato. The clerk doesn’t know him. I spot a copy of the Reno Gazette-Journal sitting on the counter, pick it up and find the write-up Spencer mentioned, a flattering preview by a staff writer appropriately named Mark Earnest. I show it to Bob:
“It’s always been a mystery to me why Rocky Votolato isn’t more popular than he is,” Earnest writes. “His indie style is miles above a lot of his more mainstream competition.”
Bob smiles, informs me that he directs a local Buddhist choir and spends the next ten minutes regaling me with tales of the arts fair Reno holds in July, some time between the big car show and the big motorcycle rally. He promises to print me some literature before processing my room charge and offering me two keys, “just in case.” Not knowing quite what he means, I ask for only one and head up to my room.
It’s well past ten p.m. when Rocky and I meet up again, just outside the bright, flashing lights of the downtown casinos, looking for a quiet place to talk. We turn a dark corner and Votolato becomes skittish. “I don’t know Reno very well,” he says, “but I know it well enough to not want to wander into the wrong part of town.”
Votolato was jumped once in Las Vegas while he was on a six-week tour with the rough-and-tumble country-punk band Lucero. One of the guys in the band got into a drunken shouting match with a driver downtown and things escalated. “It was like a clown car,” Votolato says. “All of these giant guys kept coming out and pretty soon everyone was getting beat down. I was the only one who didn’t punch back. They were just beating the daylights out of us.” He laughs.
We head back towards my hotel, stopping by a crowded coffee shop where Votolato orders a cup of hot water for the bag of tea he has been carrying around with him. A few minutes later, Votolato is sitting on the couch in my room ready to talk.
“I grew up in Texas,” he begins, “but I moved up to Seattle when I was in high school. I had a pretty thick Southern accent and had no friends going into the tenth grade. I was pretty unpopular, pretty uncool. But I knew I wanted to play guitar, because my uncle played guitar. He was a truck driver and he would come over for family gatherings and play Beatles covers and Dylan songs and I just loved it. My mom bought me my first guitar – for two hundred dollars from a pawnshop in Houston. That was a year before we moved up from Texas, in 1991.”
That move took him away from an abusive father in Dallas and into the care of a supportive stepfather in Seattle. As Votolato goes on to explain, the move wasn’t enough to reverse the damage done.
The teen began practicing blues guitar for eight hours a day on weekends. The first song he learned to play was “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Soon he was playing songs by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then Votolato discovered punk rock and, after seeing the band Jawbreaker, decided that he needed to start writing his own songs.
Looking back, Votolato says that his early songs – aggressive, terse and unlike the blues-based rock he had started out with – offered a certain amount of therapy. Still, Votolato’s depression manifested itself physically, in the form of stomach pains, and emotionally, in the form of violent outbursts.
In 1996, he formed the punk band Waxwing with friends and his younger brother Cody. By 1999, the band had made an impact in Seattle. As Votolato was honing his skills as a loud, aggressive punk rocker and garnering praise for his performances through the next four years, though, he was also quietly writing folk music that spoke to his roots.
In 2003 he released an album called Suicide Medicine that earned him notice for his musicianship as well as for the album’s dark themes. Two years later, Waxwing disbanded, leaving Votolato time to focus on his solo career and his family.
The quick succession of his next releases – Makers in 2006 and The Brag and Cuss in 2007 – and the rigorous tour schedule that accompanied them continued to raise Votolato’s profile, but it also took its toll on him, feeding his depression, fueling his drinking and leading to the darkest of thoughts.
“I talk about death a lot in my art, and I worry that I misled someone into thinking that suicide was okay,” he tells me. “Now I am on the other side of that and suicide seems very selfish to me and very adolescent or ridiculous.” He lets out a short burst of laughter. “I hope nothing I did misled anyone down that path. I don’t 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. A lot of times I would just write back, ‘I hope things work out all right for you. I really appreciate that you like my music.’ You know, so, hopefully my music has just been comforting to people; that’s a good justification, I guess, for dealing with my mental problems publicly, through my art.”
His tea long cold, Votolato grabs his jacket. I drive him back to Spencer’s house, where we sit in the rental car and talk for a few more minutes. “How do you feel things are going so far?” he asks. I tell him I think they’re going well. “Good,” he replies. “I’m sorry I babble so much. I try to be as concise as possible, but a lot of these things I haven’t really talked about yet.”
It’s Saturday afternoon and Rocky Votolato is back on my couch with a cup of hot tea in his hand. In a few hours he will perform for an all-ages crowd. Right now, though, he is telling me about the year he disappeared from music.
“I think it was after the touring on The Brag and Cuss,” he says. “I just reached a place where I couldn’t do it anymore.”
After locking himself away from the world that fed his ego, Votolato began looking for answers in books. As a teenager, he had read the works of Hermann Hesse, starting with Siddhartha and moving on to Steppenwolf and Demian. He devoured the work of Allen Ginsberg and all the other beats and the transcendentalist writers. When he hit bottom, he went back to the writers who inspired his intellect.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘The measure of mental health is the disposition to see good everywhere,’” Votolato says. “I feel like where I ended up is what happens when you do the opposite of that for too many years.”
Votolato began a yearlong course of independent scholarship. He read Tao Te Ching, books about the lives of saints, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the works of Eckhart Tolle.
He began meditating for one hour a day. He cut down on his drinking. He stopped eating meat. He stopped drinking Coca-Cola products. He stopped smoking. He forgave his mother and his father. He even forgave George W. Bush. And he adopted a philosophy based on a single idea: inner peace achieved through the denial of ego.
“There is no one religion or particular philosophy that I ascribe myself to,” he says. “‘Ego’ is just the word that I have hung on to that best describes for me, humanity’s confusion over what life is and what is leading us in a direction towards something really gnarly and destructive.”
Almost a year into his studies, Votolato had formed a constructive philosophical approach to life, but he was behind schedule for writing his next album.
“It was painful to get anything to come out,” Votolato says. Then one day on a walk, his son found a coin with a little three-leaf clover on it. Votolato wrote what would become the first song on True Devotion, “Lucky Clover Coin.” Just like that, the dam had burst. In a month he had finished his album, a testament to his journey away from depression and on to something better.
The building that houses Rainshadow Charter School is a converted restaurant, and the bar where volunteers sell brownies and soda to raise money for the Holland Project (the local all-ages music cooperative putting on the show) still has the name Café Sera Rosa plastered to its surface. Almost two hundred young music fans, as well as the gray-haired stranger from the plane and his wife, are waiting for Votolato to take the stage. The merchandise booth, located where the host’s stand would normally be found, is covered with copies of True Devotion, fresh from his record label and available to his fans for the first time.
Votolato takes the stage and launches into “Instrument,” a brooding song that ends on an impassioned, repeated incantation. “I just want to be free,” Votolato sings. “I just want to be free. I just want to be free. I just want to be free.” The audience stares silently as the singer – alone on the stage with his guitar – strums out of the song. They don’t know this song. Still, they applaud effusively.
Votolato goes on to play every song from True Devotion, peppering it with a few fan favorites that, Votolato told me before the set, are still in keeping with his current beliefs.
“This next song is about mental illness,” he tells the audience at one point. “I’m sure you all might know something about that.”
He strums the opening chords to “Suicide Medicine,” crouches slightly, closes his eyes, and sings into the mic.
“A brain that never stops ticking,” he sings. “Sometimes an on-off switch would sure come in handy. A mind that’s constantly cutting up and dissecting, looking for answers, committing murders along the way.”
By the second verse, the collected crowd is singing along, loudly. “Is it the red wire, or the blue wire? Just pick one and cut; it just doesn’t matter anymore or did it ever, cause I could never control when the bomb would explode.”
It is clearly the highlight of the night.
After the show, a line of fans forms at the merchandise booth where Votolato is signing autographs. Rolf, the man from the airplane, buys a CD and invites Votolato up to Tahoe to play a house show next time he is in town. He hands a piece of silver to Votolato. The singer lets out a burst of laughter.
Later, Votolato shows me the piece, telling me that Rolf believes that the economy is on its last legs. Silver and gold, he told Votolato on the plane, are the only solid investments left.
After the crowd wanders off, the musician packs his merchandise and guitar into my car. I drive to Spencer’s, where we sit and talk for a while longer about his hard-earned philosophy. “What do you think of all this stuff?” he asks. “Do you buy it, or do you think I’m kind of a nut?” I answer his question and then make plans to pick him up at ten the next morning. We have an 11:50 a.m. flight to catch. •