We’ve all seen it before, enough times that it becomes a cliché; a guy playing his guitar, unaccompanied by anything but his own voice, singing songs of love, loss and nights alone. Chances are you can find someone who fits this bill in Red Square right now. But as with most anything you see overdone, it’s overdone for a reason, because when somebody nails it, I mean really nails it, it hits a chord that nothing else can hit. It’s understated and poetic, beautiful and somber and hopeful all at once. In short, when the whole played out singer/songwriter thing is executed at the top of its form, it sounds a lot like Rocky Votolato. Keeping his material fresh and non-derivative isn’t simple, though, and Votolato is well aware of the pitfalls of his style of music.
“I think it’s easy to get… in a place that’s cheesy,” Votolato agrees, before going on to describe his own writing process.
“I just try to keep it authentic and very real and somewhat original and write about things I’ve had experience with but…try and keep some fiction in it as well.” The effect of throwing a little bit of lie in with the truth, Votolato feels, is that it “…keeps [the songs] from getting too ‘heart on the sleeve,’ where a lot of songwriters are these days”
Votolato cut his teeth in a variety of now defunct area bands, the most memorable being Waxwing, which consisted of Rocky on guitar and vocals, brother Cody Votolato on guitar, drummer Rudy Gajadhar and bassist Andrew Hartley. After three albums, the members of Waxwing went their own ways, with Cody Votolato devoting more and more time to playing guitar with dance punks The Blood Brothers while Gajadhar continued playing with Gatsby’s American Dream. Meanwhile, Rocky made “a real organic transition” to his burgeoning solo career.
“Since 1999 I’ve been putting out records solo while working on band projects,” said Votolato. “…it was in 2003 when I had recorded Suicide Medicine when the split occurred and I put all my energy into my solo career.”
That solo career hit its stride when his excellent and critically acclaimed second album, Makers, was released on Barsuk Records last year with an assist from Votolato’s longtime label Second Nature. So how does a guy end up on two labels at once? The long story short is as follows: while Makers was still in its infancy and slated for release on Second Nature, Barsuk owner Josh Rosenfeld heard some of the demos for the album and fell in love with the sound. Makers ended up a collaborative release between the two labels, who, in a distinctly un-record labelish move, have managed to stay away freom one another’s throats on the matter.
“It’s been great to have more people involved and more support from two record labels,” Votolato says, lauding both labels for playing nice. “It’s a situation that could have gotten nasty, but it never did.”
It’s a good thing, because Votolato’s upcoming album (due out later this year) will have the same dual label release.
After recording his first few solo efforts fast and loose, Votolato has continued the slower, more measured recording style of the crisp, polished Makers on the new album.
“I’m spending a lot of time on this record as well… it’s exciting to have a new project,” says Votolato, who staunchly refused to pin down a release date for. “It’s still kind of undecided when that will come out, though hopefully this won’t take as long as Makers did… This time around I’ve got a lot more time set aside for recording.”
He’s also got a passel of talented friends on board, including Casey Foubert (Pedro the Lion, more recently collaborated with Sufjan Stevens), who co-produced Makers and takes the reins on all things technical for this turn in the studio as well as accompanying Votolato on most of the tracks. Also on board is James McAllister (also late of Stevens’ band) holding down the fort on drums and fleshing out the biggest musical trade of the season (Stevens receives a mandolin player to be named later in the deal, as well as getting badly needed salary cap help).
So will we get a chance for a sneak peek at Votolato’s new material at Saturday’s show? Not much of it, he says.
“I’m actually waiting to know when the records gonna come out before playing it live… with past projects, I’ve made the mistake of playing the material live before the album comes out,” which Votolato feels dulls the surprise of the new material when the album actually hits the streets. “It’s always more fun as a listener to go to a show and see songs you know.” That said, there is a fair chance that we’ll get to hear a dry run of a spanking new song or two before anybody else
After warming up with some regional shows, Rocky is hitting the road again for most of March, something that’s less thrilling than it once was for Votolato the family man.
“It’s really hard, man. I like touring, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve got two kids, I’ve got a wife…I like the routine of being home, seeing each other every day, helping the kids with their homework…”
Being on the road is a necessary evil, though, and Rocky and family manage just fine, even though the cell phone bill has a tendency to get a bit out of control when he’s traveling from city to city.
“Right now it’s a sacrifice and a compromise, and it’s one of those things like any thing in your life that you try and find a balance in.”
At the end of the day, though, the man’s just happy to have the chance to do what he’s doing, warts and all.
“I feel really lucky. I mean, not many people get to do exactly what they always thought they wanted to do with their life.”