Despite his rough and tumble sounding first and last name, Rocky Votolato is anything but a brute -as he himself best pronounces: “quiet is the new loud.” Like M. Ward, Votolato echoes a timeless quality that better serves on vinyl courtesy of soulful chords and worn melodic vocals, via a discography that started in 1999.
Since his 2006 breakthrough country influenced folk album Makers caught the attention of indie and mainstream circles, Votolato has toured rigorously in support of two more albums (2007’s The Brag & Cuss and 2011’s True Devotion) both also critically praised and well received by a steadily growing group of dedicated fans.
Television Of Saints, Votolato’s newest effort, again wears the inner struggles and triumphs of the artist through lyrical wisdom and classic melodies. Marking Votolato’s first self-released record (with help and distribution from the Undertow Music Collective,) much of Television Of Saints was funded by a generous outpouring of love and support from his fans via Kickstarter. Teaming up with longtime friend and producer Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens, Pedro The Lion) and with the help of an outstanding cast of musicians, including his brothers Sonny (Slender Means) and Cody Votolato (The Blood Brothers, Telekinesis), Television Of Saints is another daring creative statement from Votolato that refuses to disappoint. Just prior to kicking off a spring U.S. tour that stretches from Portland, OR to Boston and back to Seattle, we had a fortunate chance to hear from Votolato.
You funded much of Television of Saints through a Kickstarter campaign. While you've done the indie route for quite a while, does engaging in this "newer" form of art patronage-- one that virtually didn't exist over the past few decades under major label-dom-- change your writing/artistic process? Do you feel aesthetically beholden to your patrons, now that they've funded your album?
I honestly don’t feel like it changed the way I approached the record from an artistic perspective at all. I was already writing and recording the album almost a year and a half before I ever decided how I was going to release it - so that part of the process was pretty separate. I was in negotiations with Barsuk records about continuing to work together, but weighing my options with my management, releasing it on my own through Kickstarter just looked like the better path to take right now. Since releasing an album this way is really more of a glorified pre-order, and there are tangible other services and products that are being provided as rewards for the different levels of giving, I never felt artistically or aesthetically beholden to anyone. I was always clear on the fact that I’m making the record that I want to make, and if people are interested in supporting me in this then I am very grateful, but that in no way effected the way I approached the art. I was very true to my own vision for this album as an artist and was determined to realize that vision no matter what kind of financial struggles I faced throughout the process. I did end up recording the album twice start to finish, and had to fight for what I wanted from this record every step of the way. It was a long hard road but now I’m completely satisfied with how it turned out and I am eternally grateful to every single fan that decided to take a chance and help me get this thing finished. I appreciated their incredibly generous outpouring of love and support more than I can put into words.
What's one thing a major-label budget would have done to benefit Television of Saints? In what ways do you think a smaller budget may have actually benefited the record?
I never let the budget impact what the final product was so I don’t think I would have made a different record if I would have had all the time and money in the world. When I wasn’t happy with the way the first round of studio sessions at Bear Creak went, I decided to scrap it all and pretty much start from scratch. When I needed more time to work on the record I took it and cancelled a six-week European tour that was already scheduled and announced… These were very hard decisions to make, but in the end nothing was more important to me than realizing the vision I had for this album, and I couldn’t be happier with the final product now. I’m just glad I had the courage it took at the time to dig my heels in and fight for what I wanted. I explored every production avenue that I wanted to and every song is exactly what I wanted it to be.
Who are some of the influences you turned to for Television of Saints?
I was careful not to let any other musical influence cover up my own musical voice and intuition throughout the process of making this record. I think it’s important to find the inspiration for my music from inside myself – so that it sounds like me, and not a bad rip off of some other popular artist at the time. Of course that being said, I’m always being influenced by things in my environment when I’m writing – and I think the artists that influence what I’m doing haven’t really changed that much over the past 15 years… Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles – and some punk and hardcore influences like Jawbreaker and Fugazi. I wasn’t listening to anything in particular more than usual – I think the personal experiences I was having on tour and at home and my connections to my family, friends, and fans were the real inspirations for this record.
How do you think you’ve been able to maintain the consistency in your recordings in quality and creative leaps through seven full-length albums? Looking back what is your creative highpoint in your catalog?
I think I started getting close to realizing what I wanted with some of the songs on Suicide Medicine…but I really feel like the high point from a song-writing and audio recording perspective was my fourth album “Makers”. I feel like Television of Saints is up to that level as well and so it’s a really great feeling to be able to climb that mountain more than once. Not every album you make is gonna be the absolute best thing you’ve ever done and I understand that… I think the secret is just continuing to stay determined to be true to yourself and not loosing site of why you started making music in the first place.
It’s interesting that you’re a big punk fan and you played in more faster tempo bands while evolving into a singer-songwriter mode yet you haven’t lost your heaviness in many respects - what does being heavy mean to you as a lyricist? Are there any songs that you feel are most heavy of yours in impact and making an immediate impact?
Quiet is the new loud right?:-) Being heavy to me as a lyricist, in the good sense of that word, is being able to communicate something real that transcends regular language and taps into something deeper and more mystical than we can actually describe with words. It also means being able to do this with just a few lines, or a simple turn of a phrase, and without being trite or cheesy. I’m not exactly sure which of my own songs do this and would have to ask one of my fans for a good answer to that question. Just based on some of the conversations I have with different fans around the world I think the list would be very different depending on which person we asked.
You’ve been in the Pacific Northwest for quite some time. Obviously it’s a very fruitful area for different music developing – how do you feel that area is most misunderstood and how would you describe its evolution over the past twenty years or so?
I’ve always felt extremely fortunate to have moved up to Seattle from Texas when I did… I’ve lived here for over 20 years now and I think there are only a handful of places on the planet that have the kind of strong creative underground music community and focus on the music scene that Seattle has. I’m really not sure how it might be misunderstood and I’ve never really spent any time thinking about it - maybe some people only think of grunge or something stupid like that. I think it’s an amazing place to live and be making music. It seems to be that there are more bands and songwriters than ever coming out of the Northwest and that it’s still one of the world’s best breeding grounds for new music.
You are in the midst of a European tour right now in support of Television of Saints. How does your music come across overseas verses here in the states in terms of reaction and appreciation? What new songs have you enjoyed playing the most and what performances have stood out as highlights so far?
The shows in Hamburg, Berlin, and Cologne were amazing on this tour and have been some of the biggest shows I’ve ever done in Europe. I also had a really great time in Italy this time around and can’t wait to get back there and see more of the country… It’s such a beautiful place and life seemed to move a bit slower and at a more mellow pace. I was there for three days on this tour and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten that much food in my life. I don’t think it’s really that much different than the states in terms of reaction and appreciation – I might have a few more fans that came out of the punk and hardcore scene in Europe and more people from the singer-songwriter world in the US, but to me people are just people, no matter what musical background they have or country they come from.
I’m always just amazed and humbled by the fact that anybody knows my songs and wants to come and see me sing in places so far from Seattle. It’s been really great having a whole new list of songs to choose from for my set list each night. One thing I love about this new album is that almost every song on the record is easy for me to play live and I feel like they work very well with my favorites from past records. “Little Spring,” “ Fools Gold, “ and “Start Over “are probably my favorites right now. I really feel like the solo show I’m putting on now is stronger than it’s ever been and I hope all my fans in the US come out to see it. I’ve got a six week US tour lined up that starts in May, shortly after I get home from this one.
You said in a previous interview “artists have different goals [and] mine is clearly to do something that I’ll like now and I’ll like in 10 years.” Is there anything you did ten years ago that you currently don’t like? If so, do you still revisit that music or does it serve a purpose for you in another way – despite not liking it now in the present?
I’m my toughest critic and plenty of my close friends and producers have told me that I’m much too hard on myself – but I think the majority of what I’ve produced, not even just ten years ago, didn’t quite hit the exact mark that I was aiming for. The more rare case is when something really does end up exactly as you wanted and you have a song that will be good now and forever. I think that’s just part of being an artist. I’m an unapologetic perfectionist and I think it’s what helps me to get creative results and keep doing good work (even if that work isn’t always up to the standard that I’ve set for myself). Time is the ultimate skeptic and when enough of it has passed it always reveals so much more to me about the songs. I think that’s what eventually separates truly important works of art from the bullshit – they always touch something timeless and essential about human life that we can all relate to and find meaning in. That’s still the goal for me and I think it always will be.
Rocky Votolato US Tour Dates
5/02 Wed – Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios* 5/04 Fri – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill* 5/05 Sat – West Hollywood, CA – Troubadour* 5/06 Sun – Upland, CA – The Wire Music and Art Venue* 5/07 Mon – San Diego, CA – The Casbah* 5/08 Tue – Phoenix AZ – Rhythm Room* 5/09 Wed – Albuquerque, NM – Low Spirits Bar & Stage* 5/11 Fri – Austin, TX – Lambert’s* 5/12 Sat – Denton, TX – Rubber Gloves* 5/13 Sun – Norman, OK – The Opolis* 5/15 Tue – Kansas City, MO – The Record Bar* 5/16 Wed – Minneapolis, MN – 7th Street Entry* 5/17 Thu – Chicago, IL – Schuba’s Tavern* 5/18 Fri – Lansing, MI – Mac’s Bar* 5/19 Sat – Toronto, ON – The Drake Hotel* 5/20 Sun – Rochester, NY – The Bug Jar* 5/22 Tue – Cambridge, MA – TT the Bear’s Place # 5/23 Wed – New York, NY – The Studio At Webster Hall # 5/24 Thu – Philadelphia, PA – MilkBoy # 5/25 Fri – Washington, DC – The Red Palace # 5/26 Sat – Chapel Hill, NC – Local 506 # 5/27 Sun – Columbia, SC – New Brookland Tavern # 5/29 Tue – Atlanta, GA – Drunken Unicorn # 5/30 Wed – Nashville, TN – The End # 5/31 Thu – Columbus, OH – The Basement # 6/01 Fri – Indianapolis, IN – White Rabbit Cabaret # 6/02 Sat – Champaign, IL – Mike ‘N Molly’s # 6/04 Mon – Columbia, MO – Mojo’s # 6/06 Wed – Denver, CO – Hi Dive # 6/07 Thu – Provo, UT – Velour # 6/08 Fri – Boise, ID – Neurolux # 6/09 Sat – Seattle, WA – Neumo’s #