Waxing Philosophic

Waxwing frontman Rocky Votolato finds depth as a solo act.

Moving is hard on any kid. You've got to leave your friends behind and start over in a strange place, where you don't know anyone, and everyone has their own stories and memories that don't include you. But take a twelve-year-old who grew up somewhat provincially -- on a fifty-acre ranch outside a Texas town of 900 -- and plunk him down in a city like Seattle, and something's got to give. In Rocky Votolato's case, that something was the most apparent evidence of his outsider roots.

"I lost my accent," Votolato says during load-in at a club in Austin on his first-ever tour through his original home state. "I sounded pretty much like a hillbilly when I left, but it just kind of slowly went away. You get made fun of enough at school, and you just slowly assimilate. When you move to the city, it just goes away. Nobody else talks like that, and you just start to stick out for it. I think now it comes back for me every now and then, like when I say 'y'all,' or 'fixin' to.'"

Votolato, a singer-songwriter with a sweet, slightly raspy voice and a penchant for emotive songs of love and loss, is a walking dichotomy. The sensitive punk rocker also fronts Waxwing, a band with a sound that's decidedly antithetical to the low-key, personal musings that he has so expertly translated into song on his solo outings. He's a simple country boy who's embraced the big-city nightlife but still has a trace of a twang, even if he doesn't think so. As a Texan who now resides in Seattle, Votolato finds himself in an odd interstate melting pot.

Rocky Votolato caught in an unguarded moment.
Robin Laananen
Rocky Votolato caught in an unguarded moment.

"It's like two different countries, the culture's so different," Votolato says. "There's good things and bad things about Texas, just like there are about Seattle. But there's definitely things here in Texas I wouldn't have gotten living in Washington that I'm glad are a part of who I am."

Votolato formed Waxwing in 1996 with his brother Cody, and the band has released four records since then. Though Waxwing has enough bombast and volatility to please any fan of post-grunge Seattle music, there are enough spaces in between the musical blades to allow glimpses of the sensitive side of Votolato's lyrics. Those lyrics and the thoughtful music the brothers Votolato produced indicated the potential for a more nuanced brand of music, as if another sound hovered nearby, just waiting to be discovered.

By 2000, Votolato had found that other sound and had accumulated enough songs that didn't fit the aesthetic of his band that he was able to record a solo album. Dan Askew, head of Waxwing's label, Second Nature Recordings, heard a demo of Votolato's work and liked it, and in 2001, Burning My Travels Cleanwas born. The disc was a lo-fi discourse on the singer's past, a scrapbook of acoustic-guitar snapshots -- some whimsical and soaring, most with a significant helping of sadness -- that made listeners feel as if they'd known him for years. But there was also a dreamy quality to it that belied his past and present as a punk rocker.

Votolato's latest effort, Suicide Medicine, scheduled for release later this month, has a very different feel from both Travelsand any of the Waxwing records, though it takes cues from each. Without sacrificing his warmth and personal way of speaking through his lyrics, Votolato seems to have opened up, releasing some of the power that was suppressed on Travels. The difference between this record and the previous one, according to Votolato, is that he finally had a chance to focus completely on one project.

"There had been two parts to my writing: I'd write a Waxwing record and I'd write a Rocky record sort of simultaneously, and I think the sort of songs I would make were more varied," he says. "I'd have a rock song in mind for Waxwing, and because that was so loud and fast and aggressive, I think in reaction to that, I made a record like Burning, with all these songs that were sort of more introspective, more laid-back and more peaceful and quiet, super-soft. With this record, my full focus was on [it], and it sort of mixed the two styles more. Some of those songs might have worked as Waxwing songs, but I used them as Rocky songs. I feel like it's my first album that got my full attention."

Aside from his focus, there was another important difference between Suicide Medicine and every other album Votolato has appeared on: Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie signed on as producer. A sense of studio adventurism is apparent just upon reading the liner notes -- Walla is credited with playing, among other things, the glockenspiel, melodica, electric guitar, bass and bass organ. The collaboration was Votolato's best encounter with a recording studio yet.

"It was a really awesome experience -- more so than with any of my other records, where I felt like I was kind of struggling more in the studio," Votolato says. "This one just came out really easy; we had a lot of fun making it. I think it sounds better than anything I've ever worked on. It was definitely one of the smoothest recording projects. I mean, I usually dread recording."

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