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Strong Medicine

On His Third Album, Singer-Songwriter Rocky Votolato Proves You Can be Honest Without Going Emo

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 8/6/2003

If all musicians must contend with the fine line between stupid and clever, those of the singer-songwriter subspecies have to deal with an even finer line between wrenching and retching. Especially when it pertains to that category of punk-bred artists who come out from behind the screams and crunchy riffage to bare their souls with an unplugged guitar and comparably low-key accompaniment. With the right hands, these indie troubadours can generate genuinely spine-chilling musical moments. And with the wrong hands, well, you get the kind of emotional vacuity and odious posturing found in your average profile.

Rocky Votolato is one of those guys who falls well on the right side of the line. As The Stranger, a weekly paper in his hometown of Seattle, so aptly put it, the twentysomething singer understands "how to convey honest sentiment without embarrassing [himself] or the listening audience in the process." When alerted to this appreciative appraisal, the affable Votolato lets out a hearty laugh.

"You definitely want someone to be able to express themselves and move you with their art, but yeah, it can totally make you cringe sometimes," he chuckles. "I guess for me it just kinda happens as it does, and I'm not trying to force anything or communicate with any cliché bullshit. I'm lucky people don't think it's coming off as trite or cheesy."

Actually, it's more like impassioned, affecting, poignant, memorable--all words that can be used without hesitation to describe the upcoming Suicide Medicine (Second Nature), Votolato's third full-length solo album in a career that began with an eponymous 1999 offering (he's also got two EPs to his credit). Suicide, like its predecessors, often travels down an earthy country/folk/pop road that wouldn't be unfamiliar to fans of the Pernice Brothers, with well-built, uncluttered tunes constructed from clean-strummed, fine-spun guitar melodies, understated drumming, and occasional dollops of harmonica, organ, mandolin, and piano. Sometimes it's just Votolato and his acoustic guitar, though on songs like the title track and "Prison Is Private Property," he attacks his instrument with the staccato zeal of a punk rocker as much as he makes it weep.

Other enticing contradictions abound. Votolato's voice is simultaneously gravelly and sweet--with traces of Paul Westerberg, Jeff Buckley, and the aforementioned Joe Pernice in there--and his delivery is as disposed to a melodic (if slightly unhinged) croon as it is a near-conversational rant.

And then there's the lyrics--Votolato has a keen way of juxtaposing the violent with the serene, the ugly with the beautiful. "If I have to crack open your skull with my fist/ I'll let the light and the sound escape," he sings on opener "The Light and the Sound," imploring his subject to indulge the creative muse that resides inside rather than live a regretful existence pursuing a paycheck. In fact, that leitmotif weaves through much of Suicide Medicine. "I've seen men wallow in fear/ Inaction acts as a blade across the throat," Votolato intones on "Death-Right." And in "Prison Is Private Property" he avows, "Me I've got a family I know real well what it means/ To make sure there's enough food on the table each day/ But I'd rather starve than be a whore for an empty living."

It's not poetic license: Votolato is married with a 4-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, and the realities of providing have made it difficult to tour much, either by himself or with Waxwing, the harder-charging guitar combo he has concurrently fronted since 1996. But with some prodding and support from his wife, he finally decided to plunge headfirst into his solo career this year by touring on the new album.

"She kinda talked me into givin' it a shot because she could tell I wasn't real happy staying at home and working a shitty corporate job for four years," he says. "We did a lot of preparing for this, and it'll be a huge sacrifice. But I figured, fuck it, I might as well try it while I'm still young enough to do it. I'm just trying to play music and be my own boss. And I'm just so fed up with our whole culture revolving around money and materialism. It doesn't have to be that way, and that's what I'm trying to get away from, and that's a lot of the idea behind the record."

Whether it's his wake-up-and-smell-your-life-rotting-away approach, or the fact that his work with Waxwing has been likened to emo torchbearers Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World, Votolato's solo turn has not only drawn unjust comparisons to melodrama merchants Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional) and Connor Oberst (Bright Eyes), but some critics have also suggested he's merely riding their coattails. "I've probably been doing this longer than both of those guys, so I don't see either one of them as an influence," Votolato says. "Whoever is the big deal, that's sort of what the smaller artists with an acoustic guitar will be compared to. Four years ago, everyone said I was like Elliott Smith. That's the easy and lazy thing to do, but that's always gonna happen and it doesn't bother me. I don't care. If people really wanna listen to my record they'll be able to hear the differences. I just don't think it's worth losing any sleep over."

Votolato is, however, more than happy to lose a few winks in the name of hitting the road; he's already logged an impressive amount of interstate miles in 2003 to raise awareness for Suicide Medicine, and it will get even busier once the album drops.

"I definitely think that touring is the best way to touch people and get them excited about what you do," he says. "And the people who come up to me after shows, they seem really connected to what I'm about, and that means everything to me, makes it all worthwhile. That's the kind of music I do and what I'm going for. I want people to really be affected by it. I'm not doing this just to be background entertainment in bars while people get drunk.

Rocky Votolato plays the Ottobar on Monday, Aug. 11, with the New Amsterdams and Jesse Malin. For more information, call (410) 662-0069 or visit

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