An Interview With… Rocky Votolato

Images: Amber Zbitnoff Knecht

Growing up with a love of folk and outlaw country, Rocky Votolato first rose to prominence as part of the Seattle music scene and, in the ten years since releasing his debut solo album, he’s worked with members of Death Cab For Cutie and Pedro The Lion, as well as touring with the likes of Damien Jurado and The Get Up Kids. Rocky released his latest full-length album Hospital Handshakes last year to great acclaim but is already back with a new EP, Sawdust and Shavings, filled with stripped-back versions and a couple of unreleased tracks.

Ahead of his UK tour and the release of Sawdust and Shavings, we caught up with Rocky to talk about the EP and more.

Hello Rocky! How are you at the minute?

I’m doing great!  Four weeks into a six week tour of Europe and really enjoying the shows.

Tell us a bit about the EP; why did you decide to do stripped down versions of the songs from Hospital Handshakes?

The production on Hospital Handshakes was really pushing the boundaries of what I’ve always done with a more indie-rock full band production. While I enjoyed doing that at the time and am still very happy and satisfied with how it turned out, I felt some of the subtlety and intimacy of the songs was lost.  I tried my best to re-capture that feeling with the new EP and present the songs in the way that I will usually be playing them live since I really enjoy touring solo and usually tour that way.

The EP contains a number of unreleased tracks too. What were the inspirations behind some of these unheard songs?

From an artistic perspective both of these unreleased tracks are very important to me and I see them as closing the chapter on a pretty dark period in my life.

The unreleased tracks are as just as high a quality as those on Hospital Handshakes. Why did you not include some of them on the original release of the LP? Was it because of the toned-down sound?

There were many long discussions between Chris Walla and I who produced the record about what songs should be included on the album and which songs should be left off.  ‘Shortcuts’ was definitely being considered for the album and just didn’t have the same aggressive and dark tone that we felt matched the rest of the record.  ‘Kids As Kids’ wasn’t finished yet and I knew I wanted to work on it more so that one we both agreed should wait till it was tracked a bit better.  I definitely think the toned-down, more mellow feel of both these songs lead us not to focus on them as much during the original recording sessions and I think they fit perfectly on this follow up work.

Rocky Votolato 2015 - Photo By: Amber Zbitnoff
Rocky Votolato 2015 – Photo By: Amber Zbitnoff

these unreleased tracks are very important to me and I see them as closing the chapter on a pretty dark period in my life

For the video of the title track ‘Sawdust and Shavings’ you teamed up with filmmaker Luca Lucchesi. What was it like to work with him?

Working with Luca was a dream. He’s such a talented professional, has a real vision for what he wants to create and knows how to make it happen, he brought also Sönke Hansen with him, an amazing director of photography. We immediately had a confident feeling, nevertheless we never met before. We shot it in few hours on an off day in Berlin during my last band tour 2015, didn’t know yet it was about to become the title track of the EP. I think it’s the most professional looking video I’ve ever released and I couldn’t be happier with how this one turned out and completes the EP and the tour as well.

Going back to the original album for a second, how did Emily Kokal from Warpaint get involved on the song ‘Hospital Handshakes’?

She is good friends with my sister Brandi who lives in Los Angeles and who tours with Warpaint.  When I sent the song to my sister she immediately thought of Emily and suggested we work together on it.  She played the song for Emily and luckily she loved it!  I was so excited to get a chance to meet her and work with her through that experience.  She’s an incredible artist and I’m hopeful that we can collaborate on more songs in the future.

You’re noted as being a big fan of folk and country legends like Nick Drake and Gram Parsons as well as contemporary artists like Jason Isbell and Sufjan Stevens. What attracts you the work of these artists and why do you find them inspiring?

They are all very authentic and real in their approach and you can hear it in the lyrics.  I’m a fan of people who understand the craft of songwriting and for me it usually comes back to the quality and depth of the lyrics and a delivery that is honest and convincing. I got my English Literature degree from the University of Washington before getting making a life for myself with music and I’ve always considered myself rather like a poet trapped in a songwriters body than the other way around.  Quintessentially, I really enjoy playing with words and writing lyrics is usually the focus for me… the music usually comes after the ideas are there.

You’re embarking on a UK tour very soon; can we expect the stripped back versions of the Hospital Handshakes songs or will you be beefing things up?

I’ll be playing stripped down and intimate acoustic versions of all these songs.  This will be my first proper headlining tour of the UK so I’m really excited and looking forward to it.

It’s been ten years since your song ‘White Daisy Passing’ became popular after being played on The OC. Do you still play it live or would you rather focus on your more recent work?

I still love playing that song and will definitely be playing it at these shows. I’ve always tried to create something timeless and classic. The best thing about songs with that quality is that you can play them a million times and they still feel fresh and new and are always fun to play.

What are your plans for after the UK tour?

I’m announcing a massive tour of the US and Canada this week in support of the new EP and have plans to begin recording another full length this summer.  I may be back for summer festivals in Europe as well but some of that is still being worked out.  I guess we will see.  It’s gonna be another year of 200 + shows and a very busy one.  I’m more excited now than I’ve ever been about songwriting and connecting with audiences live and am very grateful to be playing music for people most days of the year.

Sawdust and Shavings is out now. Rocky is touring the UK from today.

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