Seattle indie-folk artist Rocky Votolato considers his song “Becoming Human” a posthumous love letter to his child Kienan, who died in a car crash in 2021. Kienan was able to hear the song before passing away, and Votolato takes a modicum of solace in that. Putting the song out in the world has helped him process some of his grief.
It’s still not easy to talk about.
“I want to talk about it because Kienan was so excited for the record to come out and for everyone to hear their song, and I know they would want me to be brave and keep going forward,” Votolato says. “I do take a lot of comfort in knowing that they got to hear this song before they passed and told me how much they loved it.”
“Becoming Human” appears on Votolato’s latest album, Wild Roots, a concept album for which he penned songs about numerous family members: his mother, his stepfather, his brothers and sister, his two children, his three nieces, a nephew and his biological father. (Votolato says the response from his family has been overwhelmingly positive — always a plus.)
“We had fifteen horses on the ranch I grew up on, and a memory of that horse pasture is what sparked the idea for the entire record,” he recalls. “I was on tour in Europe when I saw a horse pasture that looked really similar to the one I grew up on, and the vision for the entire album flashed into my mind.”
In a way, he says, the album tells his life story and family history through the lens of his closest relationships, his formative years in Texas and his current life in Washington state.
“I just knew I wanted it to have a healing quality to it, and I wanted to write each song as a gift for the person I was singing for,” he says. “I decided a long time ago that I fall more in the Bruce Springsteen camp of artists that want to write songs to uplift people and give them something to face the day with.”
The record is Votolato’s first in about seven years; after touring for his Hospital Handshakes album in 2016, he just wanted to spend time with his family.
“I wanted to make up for lost time with the family after so many years on the road,” he explains. “I also decided I wanted to let the writing come to me a bit more organically…not rush things at all for the sake of getting a record out to keep the tour machine going.”
It was somewhat ironic that the songs about family on Wild Roots were produced during the pandemic, when he couldn’t be around his extended family. He says the pandemic pushed him inward, artistically speaking. It was the first record Votolato has made without a producer; he wanted to keep the writing process for each song “pure” and be 100 percent happy with the record, no matter how long it took.
“I wrote, edited and rewrote many of the songs several times from scratch until I felt they perfectly expressed what I wanted to say to each person,” he says. “Since each song was for a specific person, I had a really high bar set for myself, and I wanted to make sure to get it just right for each of them.”
In the days following Kienan’s death, his niece told him that grief is just love with nowhere to go. He took that sentiment to heart.
“I know that our hearts have been absolutely shattered because of how deeply we loved Kienan, and that that deep love was a gift,” Votolato says. “I hope the song coming out can help to express that love.”
He also hopes that the song might help someone in the world who's grieving their own loss find the strength to carry on. He’s still grieving, but he and his wife, April, are determined to honor Kienan’s legacy by focusing on the 22 years they spent together rather than the circumstances of Kienan’s death.
Votolato notes that Kienan, who came out as nonbinary six months before their death, was a huge fan of his music. The two liked to go to shows together and enjoyed many of the same bands.
“Almost every shirt they owned was a band T-shirt, and they were the absolute best at making playlists,” he says. “They bought a guitar in the last year they were alive, and I was teaching them to play. Those are some of the happiest memories of my life.”
Kienan also helped April with the initial concept for the album art on Wild Roots. It’s hard to think about celebrating the release without Kienan around, but Votolato is taking it one day at a time. “Becoming Human” has offered a way to grieve and express his love for his child.
“My grief counselor told me that grief is very individual and different for everyone, but that the deep grief of losing a child never really goes away,” he concludes. “You just get stronger and better at carrying it with you.”
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