Q+A: Alt Artist Rocky Votolato on Songwriting, Living Room Gigs and “Making It”

Rocky Votolato, courtesy of rockyvotolato.com

Singer-songwriter Rocky Votolato has been navigating the music biz for quite a while. He released his first major album in 1999, and ever since has been touring with a vigor rarely seen on the indie rock front. Votolato recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to the Quad.

Hear him live at Great Scott in Allston, MA on October 20th at 9PM. For more information, check out Votolato’s website and tour schedule.

What can you tell us about your upcoming tour?

I’m really excited for this whole trip. I’m getting to see some cities in the U.S. that I haven’t hit yet in this record cycle, so this tour is kind of like the second leg of touring for True Devotion, which is my new record that came out earlier this year. When that record came out, I basically toured the whole U.S. and then I went to Europe and then did a bunch of much smaller performances throughout the summer. Then I had time off, and now were jumping back in, head first. I’m excited to get back out there, people have had the record for a bit longer now, so it’ll be great to get to play the newer songs. And of course, I always love coming out east, to Boston especially. The last time I played Great Scott, I remember it being a really wonderful show. People were really excited and seemed genuinely excited to have me there, so it’s exciting to head back there.

So if this is the second leg, then that means you were on tour earlier in the year?


How much time do you actually spend on the road in total?

It’s been up and down over the years. This year I’ll probably play around 150 shows. Next year, I’ll probably be touring even more, so it may get up to around 250 shows.

Wow, that sounds like a lot to me.

It is! It’s a big part of the year. It’s like having a regular job in some ways. [It’s] about the equivalent to working five days a week and getting the weekend off. I’ll sometimes do five or six shows a week and then a day or two off.

So I heard you did a sort of “living room tour” this past summer.

Yeah, I did.

Sounds pretty alternative, what was that like?

It was awesome. It was a good way for me to get back in touch with the roots, back when I had just started playing shows. It’s a great way to have a truly intimate, authentic connection with people… a much more organic way to see and play a show.

Do you prefer shows like that over a giant crowd?

I think there are pros and cons to both. I enjoy playing at any level, but there are things about [playing for smaller crowds] that I absolutely love. There’s far less pressure and stress, and you get to connect with people in a way that [you] just can’t when there’s 500 people at a show. Especially for me playing solo, if I’m at a club and there are some dudes by the bar who just want to talk, that’s definitely going to affect the atmosphere. It’s not like I’m big on volume. I’m trying to hit people more with the content of the song and the lyrics.

Votolato in a live studio session, courtesy of Brian Patrick Cullen

So I don’t know if you agree, but my own conclusion after listening to your music is that it seems really mood driven. Like, I’ll listen to “White Daisy Passing” or “Streetlight” and I feel this overwhelming sense of just peaceful melancholy, if that makes any sense at all. Do you strive to create a mood when you write?

I mean, I’m always trying to capture a certain feeling or mood when I write… I think that’s a pretty good analysis of it. And it’s really not a linear process. The songs kind of tell me what they want to become, and sometimes feel like I’m chasing something and I don’t know what it is. I definitely follow wherever the ideas take me.

With the lyrics, I’m always writing. I keep a notepad with me and I jot down anything that’s the slightest bit inspiring. I end up having notebooks full of random and disorganized ideas, and then I go back to them and try to find the lines that say something original or something meaningful. And then I take that and write the melody separately, and based on the mood of the song, I pull in the lines that match up.

So in that sense, the lyrics come to you before the music during the writing process?

Yeah, a lot of times. And sometimes it takes only one good line for me to be able to build a whole song around that. It sounds kind of funny, but it’s like getting your thesis before you write a paper.

Is there one thing in particular you find yourself writing about a lot?

Definitely. Themes that run throughout are mental illness and examining death… those come up over and over in my work. They’re things that I’ve tried to understand through my art. I feel like art and artists are valuable to society when they are searching for and trying to expose truth in some way… it makes you vulnerable, saying what you actually think about something. But its a good service that art provides to the world, and it’s how I tend to justify being out there playing 200-plus shows per year.

It’s funny that you say that, because sometimes I hear a lot of Elliott Smith in your music, especially when you talk about mental illness and death as recurring topics.  Do you think that’s a rightful comparison? Were you influenced by him in any way?

He was a contemporary of mine. I was writing songs and putting our records around the time that he started, and somebody once brought me one of his records and told me “dude, you sound like this guy!” I thought it was pretty cool, and when I started listening to him, I definitely realized why comparisons were being made. So I don’t know if he was really an influence on me, but I definitely have a lot of respect for him. I think we just happened to be playing music in a similar vein… but he was definitely a genius songwriter, and it’s great being compared to him.

What was the point at which – or maybe it’s yet to come, I don’t know – you hit a point of fame or notoriety or success that you wanted? Did you have an “I made it” moment, or are you still waiting for it?

I don’t know. There are so many goals over the years that I’ve achieved and then changed my mind about. Like, at the beginning I just wanted to sell 10,000 records. And then when I got there, I realized I wanted to do something else or something bigger. I still have an underground indie rock career, and in that world, I feel really successful. I’ve sold more records that I ever thought I would. I’m reaching people all over the world now… one of my bigger markets is in Europe. In the end, though, I try to define my success in terms of the art I make. The biggest goal I have in my mind right now is to write a record that’s the best thing I’ve ever done… my masterpiece, I guess you could say.

The cover of Votolato's newest album, True Devotion

I was just about to ask about what’s up next for you, actually. Is that it, then? Writing the post-tour masterpiece?

Yeah! I’m actually working on it now. I’ve just been writing songs and thinking about what direction I want to take the record in.

So since Quad’s audience is mainly college students, I have to ask this one last question. What advice would you give to the aspiring musician in college?

Well, the music business has changed a ton since I started out in it. One thing that’s been happening that people have to watch out for is getting signed to a bad contract and watching out for anyone who wants to take your merchandising rights. They call it a “360 deal,” where the labels want a piece of everything the artist is doing, including the merchandising and touring… particularly things that had been traditionally left up to the artist. I would advise anyone to hang on to the rights to your touring and to your merchandise. You could end up working your whole life in a music career with someone else reaping its rewards.

But with that said, you got to follow your heart. Do the music that you want to do and that you like to do. If you do it long enough and give it enough of yourself, it’ll all pan out.

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