Rocky chooses the road over the abode

Rocky Votolato will perform March 26 at Mojo's.

By Parker Tarun | March 18, 2011

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Dualities splinter the art and life of Rocky Votolato. A tension is heard in the lo-fi corners of the singer-songwriter’s aesthetic indie folk. Votolato wrote last year’s True Devotion after he suddenly stopped touring and dropped into a quiet period of respite. Again, he’s circuiting cross-country, limning stories with his frosty voice in-person, but it’s the friction of his touring life and tranquil time-off that have made him a captivating songwriter.

“That album is really about the process of healing and recovery from years of hard touring,” Votolato said of True Devotion. “But also depression and mental problems that I had been dealing with my whole life. Taking that time off and getting a handle on that. I’m in a way better place now.”

Although now essential to the Seattle scene, Votolato came out of Texas as a teenager, an origin that leaves as much of an impression on his music as the Northwest has. After cycling through a few bands in Washington, Votolato found success as the frontman of indie rock band Waxwing. Making music as a solo artist became his full-time job though, when Waxwing disassembled in 2005. The bare, seasonal vibes of Votolato’s Americana greatly counterpoises Waxwing’s four-piece punk rock, but for him the sound comes naturally.

“When I was a young, angsty teen, I had all of this anger and frustration, and a lot of those feelings went into Waxwing,” Votolato said.

His transition into the more pensive songwriter happened without need for pause or practice.

“It was what came out when I would sit to play acoustic guitar,” he said.

Although haunted most of his career by depression and anxiety, Votolato’s songs toggle between the poles of despair and hope.

“They’re not all gloom and doom,” Votolato said. “I feel like I’m an optimistic person. Hopefully, some of that makes it into the art.”

His most recent album was a force of catharsis for Votolato, and he conceded that organizing his pain into music is the best way to rid it. But when he does write, he also strives to create something larger than himself and, perhaps, cathartic for others.

“I’m trying to make timeless, classic songs that can also be relatable for people,” Votolato said.

There are vivid stories in the crackle of his voice on “Don’t Be Angry” and the hilly, desperado tones of “Red River,” but their source remains a greater mystery. The real and imagined chapters of Votolato’s life coexist in his lyrics.

“I’ve always tried to walk that line between autobiography and fiction,” he said. “I think it would feel vacant if it didn’t have some legal, concrete meaning for your life. But if you go too far in that direction, then you’re doing a confessional diary entry and it’s annoying the shit out of everyone who’s listening.”

“The harder you fight the tide/The less likely you’ll survive,” Votolato sings on “Fragments,” staring into some past demon. Willpower permeates his music, but there’s also a wise resignation every time he exhales into the microphone and realizes much is out of his control.

“I have tried to avoid sentimentality,” Votolato said. “I think being honest is a political act these days. I try really hard to be honest.”

His music captures a busy mind, an artist questing for personal healing but also striving to be greater than just Rocky Votolato, the man.

It seems paradoxical that a punk rocker could transition so smoothly into such clear-eyed folk, but Votolato has become pretty good at balancing acts. Between optimism and realism, fact and fiction, pause and play, Votolato channels his ambivalence for a living into profound records and energetic live shows, telling of just how truly devoted he is.

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