Posted by Tobias Carroll
Seattle’s Rocky Votolato has been making music for well over a decade now,with six solo albums to his credit and numerous other EPs (not to mention three full-lengths as singer-guitarist of the band Waxwing). I’m not exactly an impartial observer when it comes to his work — the record label a friend and I ran released the original version of his A Brief History EP in 2000, and I’ve known Rocky for well over a decade. In recent years, many of our conversations have been about books; that combined with the fact that his latest album, True Devotion, boasts at least one song with a literary pedigree, I thought it wise to send Rocky a few questions about books during his current tour with Matt Pond PA.
“Red River” takes its inspiration from a Louise Erdrich story. How did you first encounter her work, and what stood out about that particular story?
I first read that story when I was in college at the University of Washington. Louise Erdrich has written a lot of really great stories that focus on Native American issues. “Red River” is based on “The Red Convertible,” a story about two Native American brothers. One of the two brothers signs up for the military trying to escape the misery of reservation life. He comes back from the Vietnam War with a lot of mental problems and I think she tells the story in such a poetic way. It seemed like a timely story to revisit now as we are seeing so many soldiers struggle to readjust as they come home from Afghanistan and Iraq. That song is really for them.
Is this the first time you’ve looked to a work of fiction for inspiration?
Definitely not the first time for me…but maybe the first time I was so specific about it. Lots of other times it’s been much more vague, maybe inspiring a line or two but not the idea behind the whole song. I got into reading literature in high school when I read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. Since then reading books has always inspired and affected my songwriting.
Last year at the Elliott Bay Book Company, you accompanied Antonino D’Ambrosio for a reading from his book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears. Did that experience have any effect on the songwriting you’ve done since then?
That was such a cool experience and it was really great to learn all of those Johnny Cash songs, especially since they are so obscure. The only one I’d ever even heard off that record was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Playing that song while Antonino read from his book was definitely the highlight for me. As far as affecting my writing goes, I feel like I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to writing political songs. It’s not something I’ve done a lot of but I feel like I explored it more than ever after that… It probably had the most effect on a song I wrote called “Disposable Soldier,” which ended up as a B-side from True Devotion that was released as a bonus track on the European release.
What are you currently reading on this tour?
I’m reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and listening to Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogannanda on books on tape in the car. Lots of time to kill on these long drives…
(Photo: Michael Cardwell)