Back from the Brink, Rocky ?Votolato Moves Forward Again

Rocky Votolato
Rocky Votolato
Bjorn Lexius

Rocky Votolato is a guy on the shore skipping stones across the water. Part craft, part amusement, the circumspect Seattle songwriter's success and happiness has ebbed and flowed like the tide, something he's gradually grown more accustomed to, though it's not always been a smooth ride. Finally firmly at peace, he's enjoying that purgatorial moment between albums.

"Most of the songs are there, but I'm still writing the last few, and I have a couple different offers from labels to work with them," he says about weighing his options. "I'm in a real open space again. These songs are extremely intimate and they're just kind of happening on their own. That's really the best thing and it feels much better than being burned out or feeling overexposed."

Votolato's songs subtly lay behind strumming acoustic and shuffling percussion. The lyrics vacillate between bare-wire dispassion like "Suicide Medicine" ("Is it the red wire or the blue wire? Just pick one and cut"), and the poignant poeticism of the Elliot Smith-like "Fragments," where he notes "there's a constant farewell into a new dream full of unpolluted sorrows."

Votolato's been in several bands, including eclectic punks Waxwing with his younger brother Cody (of The Blood Brothers). He's also released solo albums for 15 years, finding modest underground success with his fourth full-length, Makers (released in 2006), and the 2007 follow-up, The Brag & Cuss.  

Always writing on the dark side of the emotional spectrum, Votolato spiraled into an alcohol- and drug-assisted suicidal funk in the wake of that underground success. With sober reflection and by reading spiritual philosophy books, he pulled himself back from the brink, a process obliquely chronicled on 2010's powerful True Devotion.

"I don't think I had the tools to deal with the type of success I was having," Votolato told me at the time. "I started getting on different prescriptions for depression, anti-depressants and that kind of shit -- like Lorazepam and Xanax -- that I didn't react well to. It made things worse."

While True Devotion was a minor sensation that made many critics' year-end lists, a year of performing the record's extremely personal, emotional songs left him feeling chafed. For 2012's Television of Saints, the songs he wrote were more distant and less personal, allowing him more room to breathe.

Indeed, when he started the Kickstarter-funded album, it was with a full alt-country band. However, after spending two weeks in expensive Beer Creek Studios with producer Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Ra Ra Riot), Votolato felt unsatisfied with the record. Defying his label and even his wife, he ditched the sessions and set about re-recording the entire album by himself with a more spare, austere aesthetic at home.

He's written eight or nine songs for the new album. When he returns from this tour, he'll finish them and decide whether to partner with a label or go it alone again. Whatever he chooses, he's excited to move forward.

"I feel like, for this record, my approach has been just to not try to control it, more like True Devotion or Makers, where I feel it's real honest and the songs are really what they want to be," he says. "It's coming from a true source and it's happening without judgment. When I make those kinds of records and songs, whatever anybody else thinks about it, I don't give a shit."

Rocky Votolato is scheduled to perform Sunday, June 8, at the Rhythm Room.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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