Rocky Votolato – Making his mark
Rocky Votolato was as surprised as anyone at what happened when his song “White Daisy Passing” was showcased on a recent episode of “The O.C.”, sandwiched between numbers from the similarly strummy and delicate Sufjan Stevens and Sun Kil Moon. “The O.C.” has historically served as a kingmaker for a certain type of indie act, and it worked its magic on Votolato as well: “White Daisy Passing” was downloaded a thousand times — in one day — after the episode aired.
For someone who has spent the better part of ten years, more than half a dozen albums and thousands of gigs trying to get America’s attention, Votolato feels as if his career is getting under way at last. “It’s crazy,” he says cheerfully. “But it’s really good. I do feel things are taking off more than anything I’ve ever been a part of. There’s no one thing — I think it’s a combination of a lot of things working in my favor all at once.”
It helps that Votolato’s new Barsuk Records release, Makers, is his best yet, a surpassingly great exercise in raspy, folky minimalism with the hushed and placid feel of a mid-period Simon & Garfunkel record. It also helps that, thanks to the recent success of artists such as James Blunt and Damien Rice, it’s a good time to be a sensitive male singer-songwriter. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” Votolato says. “I don’t necessarily see myself as being part of a movement. I just do what I do. It’ll be popular for a while, then it won’t. I know I’ll have dry periods, but I’ll just keep doing it.”
Votolato, 28, and his brother Cody (now a guitarist for the Blood Brothers) were onetime members of Waxwing, a Seattle-based, vaguely emo punk band not to be confused with the poppier and more successful Waxwings of Detroit. A confluence of events — Rocky and his wife had a child, while his brother’s involvement with the Blood Brothers increased — kept Waxwing from touring and getting much attention outside their hometown, even as copasetic peers such as Pedro The Lion and Death Cab For Cutie began to find a national audience.
“I think it was a bummer for me [the most],” Rocky says. “I wanted to make Waxwing happen, but my wife got pregnant and I wanted to go to college and to stick it out and do the right thing.” He wound up getting a degree English literature from the University of Washington.
As Waxwing foundered, the solo records Votolato had begun making during the group’s off-seasons became the main event. They got progressively darker and quieter; 2003’s wintry, subdued Suicide Medicine marked the unofficial end of Votolato’s punk period. “I like punk bands, but I don’t want to be in one,” he says now. “I got to a point where I didn’t want to yell anymore; it was hurting my throat. You can even hear it in my recordings now. My voice wasn’t built for that.”
Growing up on a farm in Texas, Votolato survived on a steady diet of Johnny Cash. After moving with his family to Seattle, he fell in thrall to grunge. It would take years before he returned — with a vengeance — to the country music of his childhood; Makers has even has a completely unironic song about boxcars.
“I think those influences are coming out in the music I do now,” he acknowledges. “When I started writing the record it was over two years ago, and I wrote more than enough songs for probably two records. One was a stripped-down record, one was more of a country-rock record. But all the songs I thought were better were the more stripped-down ones….I really wanted to make it where every song had as little as possible and the songwriting was really what was featured.”
Votolato, who has a 6-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, figures he did 200 shows a year in support of Suicide Medicine, working temp jobs during his rare periods off the road. “The touring is kind of tough,” he says. “It’s hard for me to leave for long periods of time. I want to be able to support my family and not do stupid jobs, but at the same time have a low-key career without a lot of expectations.”
Votolato figures he’s sold more records solo than he ever did with Waxwing — “when people [meaning interviewers] bring up Waxwing, it’s really as a side note,” he says politely — though not enough to give up temping. And while it’s too early to say whether or not the “O.C.” boost to Makers will translate into lasting fame, he’s been feeling ambivalent about stardom, anyway.
If it were up to him, says Votolato, he’d have a career like Kris Kristofferson, who gets attention only when he wants it and probably makes a decent living in the bargain. “I’m lucky and happy that I haven’t been in the limelight up until now,” he says. “I’ve had all this time to be left alone. At some point I might be ready for that. But who knows, right?”