It might not be a stretch to say that writing saved the life of singer/songwriter Rocky Votolato. After the release of his previous album The Brag & Cuss, Votolato suffered bouts of depression and anxiety so severe that he barely left his apartment for a year. To overcome this, he did two things: he read and he wrote.
What struck me most, as I talked to Votolato backstage before his show at the Black Cat in DC two weeks ago, was how writing, for him, was an act of survival. While he wrote his latest album True Devotion (Barsuk Records) to appeal to his fans, of course, he found that he needed the album even more than they did. Writing became an act of therapy for Votolato, who told me, "I used to see suicide as a viable option for existential suffering. I used to think it was a fine choice, a justified choice." Votolato no longer feels that way, but those were dark times, made bright by the power of the written word.
Votolato hasn't always been a singer/songwriter; he got his start in the punk scene in Seattle with the band Waxwing. Like his music, Votolato's writing process has gone through significant changes over the years, and in this especially introspective and thoughtful interview you'll see how his writing process in that sense mirrors the changes in his life. Read more after the video.
Just songwriting, really. I was into drawing when I younger, and it's funny because all my drawings were about musicians, classic songwriters. I do have an English degree, though, from the University of Washington.
Then you must have some favorite authors.
I was in high school when I first got into reading literature. It totally changed my life. I started out reading Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. That book changed my world, really opened my eyes to a lot of different ways of thinking. I was interested in that type of darkness and I was also interested in Allen Ginsburg's poetry.
You are not the first songwriter I've talked to who's a fan of the Beat poets.
The Beats were big to my friends and me in high school. We modeled ourselves after them. We wanted to be like Ginsberg, Kerouac, all those guys. But I was never that into Kerouac. He just rubs me the wrong way with his personality and personal choices. Some people don't let that aspect get in the way of someone's art, but for me it's always been an issue. I'm more of a McCartney fan than a Lennon fan, because I like the way he handled himself in his life.
As far as other writers, there's Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was an amazing thinker. He was the guy who really set apart the American imagination. And Thoreau, of course. I was into the Transcendentalists, and I feel like the Beats really picked up that thread. They were way too into drugs (Laughs), which I'm not into anymore. I was really into darkness, themes of death and existential suffering back then. At a certain point, there was a shift and I moved away from those themes and towards a greater understanding after reading guys like Eckhart Tolle. I also read a lot of spiritual literature. Also Paramhansa Yogananda, who wrote The Autobiography of a Yogi. A lot of books on Eastern thought gave me a different perspective on what I had been searching for when I was interested in those existential ideas.
How does living in Seattle affect your writing process?
I grew up in Texas on 50 acres of a horse ranch in the rural south in a small town of 900. So that really affected my psyche and what I need as far as environment and space and solitude. So even when I moved to the northwest, I carried that with me. Really now, solitude is the most important thing in my process.
What else do you need?
I keep a notepad everywhere I go and am always scribbling down notes whenever inspiration strikes. I see my process as two pieces: the lyrics and the music. They usually happen separately for me.
So when you decide to write a song, what happens?
I start with scraps of paper. If I can get just one good line from those papers or from the notebook, I can usually build a song around it. It's gotten better that way. I still try the method where I sit down and play, and just start singing and let the stream of consciousness come out. But with that, I always end up finding that the words sound silly.
It's funny you say that, because many of the songwriters I talk to actually write by playing and singing.
Really? Maybe I am doing it backwards! That is a small part of my process, because I'll always get a line or two of nonsense lyrics when I'm coming up with a melody; that's kind of what makes it stick, a couple of words where you don't know what the hell you are singing about but the words eventually come to you.
But I usually try to find the melodies, then I take the lines I think are good on their own and if I can, fit them into that melody. Then I get the best of both worlds. I take all those scraps of paper and try to organize them into a song. So I have a master notebook where the scraps go, and I just lay 'em all out, in a hotel at 3am, with an acoustic, and I look for patterns, things that line up, so that hopefully one song is about a specific idea. Then I line all those up, and once it makes it onto a page in the big notebook, I've got a song. If I like the music and melody, I keep revising.
I try to keep my writer's hat on all the time. It makes me look at things from a different perspective. I'm always looking at things that will inspire me.
That seems to be a common theme among the songwriters I've interviewed, that you are always on the lookout for things that inspire you. But do you know what you are looking for?
I'd say it's a heightened awareness. I'm trying to capture and describe a feeling, and that can't really be done in words. But maybe that's what keeps me trying. That's why singing gives that feeling a little more of a transcendent aspect. The combination is what communicates what I am trying to express. And those feelings come up in my albums a lot: death, existential suffering from a philosophical perspective, mental illness, very dark issues. That has shifted with my last album, though.
How do you write lyrics about topics like that without descending into cliche? What can you sing about death to make it original?
It's tough. That's the skill as a writer, to take on a subject and make it new. That's what a lot of indie artists are good at. My process used to be very stream of consciousness, where I sit down and let it flow. I wouldn't even know what the song was about when I was done, but I had written it in five minutes. Then I got more heady and really focused on lyrics and editing, and on being less vulnerable in a song, trying to pull myself out of it, trying to walk the line between fact and fiction and between autobiography and storytelling.
So when you edit, what do you do?
Time is my best friend. I get away from it and return with a fresh perspective. If I write something one night then read it the next morning and cringe, I know I'll hate it a week later.
What do you edit out in those later drafts?
That's a good question. There are always a few cliches, because we always go to the things that are the most comfortable. I pick out things that I've already said or that are watered-down versions of whatever I am trying to communicate.
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that if a line comes to you too easily, rewrite. Because you've probably heard it before.
Yeah, that's so true. That great line about love that you wrote today? You'd better make sure you didn't hear it in a song last night! It's good to edit. A lot of people are too comfortable with what they've done. On the other hand, though you can't bee to critical or you'll shut the creative process down. I've done that a few times.
How do you know when a song is done?
I've gotten harder on myself. I've made plenty of albums, and I want to be more careful and deliberate with my process. I don't even want to write another song unless it's better than everything else I've done. I have high expectations of myself, and if a song is not to my liking, I abandon it. If my fans are going to like something but I won't, I won't finish it, because I'll hate playing it. I try to write something that I am going to like playing in ten years.
You started out playing other types of music. How has your process changed with the genre?
When my priorities became different, my process changed. I used to not be as critical of my lyrics. It was all about describing how I felt. It was full of angst. I was in punk bands, screaming lyrics, and in that form of delivery you can get away with things that you can't do otherwise. So now I am all about looking for that perfect line. In the early process it was much more about sitting down with a guitar and letting it out. I went through some crazy experiences with my family when I was young, like violent households, and those things informed the feelings of anger and violence that I needed to express.
Now you write about things like death and mental illness. Does that come from personal experience?
I was told in school to write what you know. But I don't want to be too heart on the sleeve. I want to do something that would stand the test of time through incorporating the art of storytelling.
When you write something like that, something personal that you are emotionally invested in, you have two audiences. There's your fans, and then there's you, because writing something like that can be cathartic.
It's almost like therapy. And it's tough to balance. It's been a long road of changes for me and how I relate to art, over the years. With my last album I was in a dark place. I was writing more for myself than anything. At the end of the day, looking back at the record, there were things I had to do in order to get through what I was going through. And sometimes those things connect with people so that they know they are not alone. I see that as part of the service I provide to my fans. That's how I justify being away from my family. That's what happened to me when I listening to music growing up. I saw shows that gave me something to hold on to. I was a screwed up kid with a lot of mental problems.
But the other side wants to be writing songs that are the best possible songs I can write from an artistic perspective. So it's a balance I am trying to keep. I am in a better place now to write songs than I have been in a long time.
Do you ever think about how your kids are going to view your lyrics?
Laughs. Totally. Little things my younger son says will make their way into my songs. Kids have such a different perspective on life. He teaches me a lot about life. He was talking about how to keep aliens from reading our minds, and that made it into one of my songs. It gave me a wider perspective on how what I do affects everyone, either emotionally or artistically.
Do you handwrite your lyrics or type them on computer?
I write them out. I want it to be as organic as possible.
So it doesn't sound like you have much of a routine. Does that ever make you anxious?
Sometimes it does, and when that happens I'll just lock myself in a room and write. And I did that for my last album because I was searching for answers. In a large way, I found those answers.
But you forced yourself to write. Did you know what you were writing about?
Not really, but I knew I needed to keep digging.
How did you brainstorm?
I read. A lot. For example, "Red River" is based on a short story by Louise Eldridge called "Red Convertible." It's about two Native American brothers, and one enlists in the military around the time of the Vietnam war to escape the misery of reservation life. He comes back totally messed up after the war, and she really deals with it in a poetic way. It was a very important story to me in college, and that affected the lyrics for the song.
Let's take this as an example. So you read the story, then what did you do?
As I was reading, key lines inspired me. I paraphrased them, took notes, and took the story in my own direction when I wrote "Red River." So as I read, I also wrote when inspiration struck. I'd mark parts of the story that stirred me emotionally. Then I tried to relate it to my own life. I'm in the story too.
I was also reading a lot of Allen Ginsberg, especially his poem "Kaddish." It was about his mother. He wrote it the day after she died. I was reading the poem in the actual apartment bulding where he wrote it, on the Lower East Side. My buddy lived there. We sat around his apartment, drinking Makers and talking about the poem. It was the perfect environment to write. That turned into my song "Makers."
Another song on True Devotion is loosely based on the life of Sylvia Plath. It was a way of exploring suicide and death. Very uplifting. Laughs. It's sort of a posthumous letter to her children. She's on the other side, talking about the mistakes she made regarding her suicide. I used to see suicide as a viable option for existential suffering. I used to think it was a fine choice, a justified choice. I thought about it every day. Not anymore, but I used to. I'm in a better place now.