Rocky Votolato: Coming Out of the Darkness
Rocky Votolato has struggled with depression all his life. With True Devotion he found a way to recognize his problems and work out his demons. PopMatters talked to him about his difficult journey and the album that came out of it.
“Lucky Clover Coin,” the song that opens Rocky Votolato’s sixth solo full-length, is a man’s conversation with his young son: an apology, an explanation, a bittersweet request for understanding from someone who almost left for good, as a suicide. It’s lush and lovely with strings, courtesy of Votolato’s friend Casey Foubert, yet also charged with effort and heavy with personal stakes. A story, certainly, but also a slice of Votolato’s life in the last few years, as he battled severe depression after his last solo album The Brag & Cuss and finally won through.
“I’ve been dealing with depression my whole life and not really knowing it,” said Votolato in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t really know how sick I was.”
“I’ve always had a tendency toward depression and anxiety,” he admitted. “That’s probably what led me to playing music in the first place. But I was doing what a lot of musicians do, which is kind of self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, making bad choices.”
From Texas to hardcore and back…
Votolato, born in Texas, got an earful of singer songwriters early on, listening to Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan as a tweener. Then his parents divorced and his mother remarried, moving him and his brother to Seattle as he turned 13. Votolato quickly became involved in the city’s punk scene. He saw Nirvana on the Nevermind tour, but mostly he went to smaller scale punk shows, catching Jawbreaker and Fugazi whenever they came to town. In 1996, he started the punk band Waxwing with two friends and, later, his brother Cody. Waxwing released four full-lengths between 1999 and 2002, honing an aggressive post-hardcore sound. Yet, all the while, Rocky Votolato was accumulating a store of acoustic songs that didn’t work for the band. He set them aside, occasionally releasing home-recorded solo albums. As his brother’s other band, Blood Brothers (and later Jaguar Love) took off, Waxwing went into hiatus. Votolato began to focus on his solo career, releasing a self-titled debut in 1999 and following every year with another songwriter disc. With 2006’s Makers he got picked up by Seattle-based Barsuk, his current label, placed a song on the influential The O.C. and began to make a name for himself. The Brag & Cuss came a year later and received strong acclaim.
A dark period
Votolato’s problems came to a head after the release of Brag & Cuss. Touring constantly, playing 200 shows a year, away from his family, he began to doubt the dreams he’d been chasing and to wonder what he really wanted out of life. “I’d had some success with my career and just kind of seen into that world and was not really being prepared to deal with it, if it happened,” he said. “I think it’s similar, though not as extreme, to what happened to Kurt Cobain. You have a type of personality or person who’s really just interested in making art and not as interested in being something or being famous, and they can just get run over by that machine.”
He dropped out of ordinary life, staying in his apartment for weeks and months on end. Yet while it may have looked like his was avoiding his issues, Votolato was actually working through them. “I was figuring out what I thought about life itself and kind of taking a step back,” he said. He started meditating, a discipline he now calls “a lifesaver,” and read philosophy. Eckhart Tolle’s books, New Earth and The Power of Now, gave him a framework for dealing with his problems. Mahatma Gandhi’s writings reinforced his commitment to living authentically, adhering to what is true and giving back to the community.
“Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘There’s no god higher than truth,’” Votolato remembered. “I read a lot of his stuff, and it was really helpful to me in reorienting myself to life and figuring out what I was going to do and how I was going to continue. But that sentence really spoke to me. Being honest, meaning not just telling the truth, but living your life with sincerity. That’s kind of what it’s about.”
True devotion is devotion to truth
Eventually Votolato found himself able to function again, and even to write music. In fact, when he came back to his songwriting, Votolato was more productive than ever. He spent about six months writing and recording these songs, working almost entirely by himself at his home studio. “I’m just able to write easier now,” he said, “and in a way that’s not so destructive to my life.”
Votolato’s True Devotion is a veiled record of his struggle, told often in the third person, as if his troubles had happened to other people rather than himself. “With my work I’ve always tried to walk a line between being autobiographical and fictional,” he explained. “I think that’s a good place for singer/songwriter art, because it can communicate something that’s earnest and real, hopefully without it being too cheesy. It’s one way I’ve developed to try to communicate without being so utterly personal. It gives me a little bit more perspective about how to make sense out of my own life.”
His friend and collaborator Casey Foubert, whose string parts at the beginning and end of this album are the only sounds made by anyone other than Votolato, says that honesty is one of the things that makes Votolato’s work special. “Rocky has, to me, a very powerful, emotionally charged voice. When he sings about something for which he feels deeply he communicates with a directness that I find electrifying,” said Foubert.
Foubert, who has produced past Votolato solo albums but was away when this one was made, says he thinks self-recording was good for his friend this time. “I think Rocky benefited from doing vocal tracking and guitars on his own,” he explained. “ This helped him capture great vocal performances, and enabled him to shape the sound of the record, as an engineer. “
Votolato added that having the time afforded by home recording allowed him to make sure that every song was personally meaningful and strong. Moreover, it gave him time to work through the difficult issues at the heart of the album and come to a resolution. The first half of the album is noticeably darker than the second, containing most of the suicide imagery. The second half, by contrast, tentatively celebrates connection, self-knowledge and perseverance. Votolato says that the more uplifting, hopeful songs that make up the second half of the album came out almost effortlessly. “A lot of times I just end up feeling like songs kind of write themselves. I think that’s a gift,” he said. “Any time I have to work really hard to make the songs, I feel like I’m almost getting in the way of what’s happening. When it’s going well, you just kind of relax and let it happen. It’s like you’re beamed up.”
On this album, “Instrument” and “Sun Devils” came the most easily, Votolato said. The darker songs earlier in the album required more work. Yet when asked whether he had to struggle first to get to the peaceful place at the album’s close, Votolato said, he thought that was right. “I think I did have to struggle,” he said. “It was a process of self-discovery. That’s what this record was all about, kind of finding out what it means to be me.”
Votolato is still seeking a balance between his music and his family life, between trying to get his songs heard and personal equilibrium. Committed to giving back, he plays frequent shows for charities and has pledged to donate 10% of his album’s proceeds to the Seattle organization One Day’s Wages.
Though he believes that his depression played a role in bringing him to music in the first place, he cautions that that no one should romanticize his difficulties. “Music tends to draw in people who have issues and who end up trying to work them out through art, but I think it’s an illusion to think that that’s what makes good art,” he said. “I’m real careful with that when I talk to anyone about it. Because I think then what you end up with is a lot of people thinking that they have to have these terrible lives in order to be artists. And that’s a mistake.”