Play with a band or go it alone? For Rocky Votolato, it's all about building an audible picture by himself. With his next album to cap the first ten years of his songwriting, for him, it's about starting on a fresh foot into the next ten years. Votolato took some time to sit down and talk about how True Devotion not only opened up the truth for him as a songwriter, but on a deeper and more personal level as well.
The interesting thing about True Devotion is that it seems more full, more bold as an album. Was that something you were going for in the recording of this record?
I just feel like it was an unconscious process...I was in a place where I was trying to allow it to come out and happen instead of forcing it. I'd been trying to write music for almost a year, and I couldn't write anything at all. It was a dark time for me. When I wrote "Lucky Clover Coin" for True Devotion, it was a relief. The rest of the album, I feel like I had written it all. It just flowed out. I don't really feel like I could take credit for the record [laughs], and now it's just something that I had to do at that part of my life to get through. I am really grateful to be able to communicate [the state] I was in at the time.
I feel like it's a very full record...
Yeah. I feel like past works were more stripped down. The way Matt Pryor built his later projects.
I think it's cool you noticed that. I just tried to treat each song with the instrumentation that it called for. So, as I went through the record, my approach - and I always try to do this - is to keep it as simple as possible, and I only add stuff as it fits the song. I keep the instrumentation simple, a less is more approach to it, and a lot of the songs, you know, I don't want there to be thrills - shit that's unnecessary. Some of these songs just ended up getting totally filled out. It's just how it happened. I had fun in the process. This is the first [album] I completely recorded on my own, for the most part. I had Casey Colbert's help with the mixing. Most of the engineering I did. [Colbert] helped me get set up with my own studio. Basically, it's like my own ability to engineer the record influenced the sound a bit, and maybe that's what filled it out a little bit more.
Was it challenging in any way to sit down and do that on your own? In essence, you're the only one responsible for what came out.
Totally. It was a lot of responsibility, but I was excited about it. I did so many albums where I was working with producers. I had been in the studio enough times to kind of get a feel of how to do stuff. I wanted the isolation. That's what appealed to me. I was just in a place in my life, where it was really important to be isolated. I didn't want anyone's influence to direct what I was doing. That was real important to me. The whole process was self examination and introspection, which is real important for people to do. It was for me. What I've seen of it, I would recommend anybody taking a year and get a question on all their beliefs and asking hard questions and looking inward. I think that's where you really find a mood that helps you live your life in a better way.
Is that kind of the theme that runs through True Devotion?
Yeah. I would say, when I look through the record now, it looks to me [that] I have a certain sense of detachment from it. It's more like a concept album than anything I've ever done, because when I look at it, it's kind of like a story of someone who is really lost, who ends up finding some kind of peace of mind through the way. I want my writing to reflect what's happening in my life, and that keeps it real, but there's also fiction. It's autobiographical and fiction. It keeps it from being cheesy. Thematically, there's a lot of images about waves and the ocean, and I think what it was really getting at, for me, was the investigation of duality. The illusions of good and bad, of what's really happening here in terms of existential thought and philosophy. That's what I was digging to figure out with the record. There's a lot of imagery of waves and the ocean, and that's how I think we ended up with the anchor on the cover too.
That was something after the process?
Yeah. I didn't realize any of that was happening with the album as I was making it. Like I said, it was more of an unconscious process than the last couple of albums.
What do you think about letting things go in the writing process, as opposed to being adamant about what's going on? Especially the fact that you are now the producer putting everything together. Was it more relaxing, or more challenging?
There were certain challenges, but for me it was more relaxing. I like to work alone. That's probably why I am a solo guy. I hire guys every once and a while, like today I had a drummer. There's never been a group of musicians that I've played with where I've been, "Yeah, this is my band." I've always been cycling through musicians for ten years. I kind of got the point that this is a solo endeavor. I sort of stripped away any thought that I needed someone to support me. It was kind of empowering to work on the album by myself, and I think I'll do that for the next one too.
So it's going to be like that from here on out?
We'll see. I may get tired of it at some point. [Laughs] But for now, I'm enjoying working this way. It feels honest. It feels real. Again, I'm not trying to contrive anything. I'm just trying to be myself and live my life with integrity.
That being said, does that put a lot of stress and pressure on you? There's two ways of looking at it: this is the album I wanted to write as opposed to this is the album I wrote straight from the heart?
There's a certain sense of venerability...
At the same time, the way I look at life, I feel like I've discovered some pretty important truths through this process. I think the main one, I've been telling my friends and family and anyone who asks, the great truth I really figured out is it absolutely doesn't matter what other people think of you or me. That has to be the mantra. Your ego always says, "What will they think?" Everyone in a crowd or in a room is always worried about what other people think. That's what stops honest communication and real art. I think the highest goal of art is trying to find the truth. That's what this whole record was for me, was trying to find that out. Mahatma Gandhi says there's no god higher than truth, and I look to him as somebody that was an example of what to do and how to live - especially for political leaders. He wasn't perfect. He had his hang-ups just like any [other great leader] for our society and humanity. Honesty and sincerity is an important theme for this album. I think it's important for people to stop saying, "What will they think?" and start saying, "What do I think? What's important to me?" Living from integrity and sincerity will lead to a happier life from everyone around you. Anytime you're trying to impress people with anything you're trying to do, you always end up with your back against the wall, never being sincere.
Does that make the writing process easier?
I feel like it definitely took the weight off. I feel like I've been confused with these things my whole life. I think a lot of people are. It's one of the things we're trying to figure out here. How do we express ourselves and be who we are while worrying about the pressures of our families and our little tribes and trying to constantly get us to conform to what they are and not to say the truth. It's painful to look at it and say what's going on. To me, I've released a burden. I don't feel pressure. It makes things easier. The future looks wide open to me right now. I'm excited to make songs again. I've already started to write new songs. I'm going to just allow things to happen instead of controlling things.
So, with True Devotion, it was that necessary next step?
In a lot of ways, it is that transitional album for me. Now, there's an open door to see what flows out.
Great interview Adam. Just wanted to point this out, wasn't sure if it was a typo or not, but my copy editing sense was triggered- "Yeah. I would say, when I look through the record now, it looks to me [that] I have a certain -since- of detachment from it."