It's been seven years since Seattle folk mainstay Rocky Votolato released an album, but that doesn't mean he hasn’t been writing new songs. On the contrary. He’s penned more than 50 in his time away and this year he whittled that down to 15 to compile his most personal album to date, Wild Roots. Released September 9 on Spartan Records, Wild Roots is Votolato's love letter to the people in his life, with each song written for a different family member.
“I had a version earlier that I could have released, but I didn't feel it was quite ready,” the singer says from a stop on his month-long tour of playing private living room shows and other small, intimate venues around the country. “I set a high bar for every song on it. Once I had something I was proud of, that was my litmus test.”
Votolato made a name for himself in the late '90s as the singer and guitarist for Waxwing, a guitar-driven post-rock band also featuring Rudy Gajadhar, Andrew Hartley, and brother Cody Votolato. The quartet regularly sold out venues around town like the Crocodile and the Paradox. At the same time, Votolato began releasing more introspective acoustic music under his own name, with the two projects culminating in a discography of nearly 20 consistently great albums, EPs, and singles over the course of 18 years.
It was after 2015's Hospital Handshakes that Votolato realized he needed to slow down. “It was just about taking the pressure off and letting things come to me more organically,” he says. “I wanted to get off the treadmill of the 18-month record cycle."
The slower pace has paid off. In a new song, “Becoming Human,” he sings, “I've been home now for a couple of years / I've found the happiest world that I've ever known / And I think I'm finally becoming human.” The song is delicate and uncluttered, with a lilting melody that lingers long after the song ends. Votolato found inspiration in the Persian poet Hafiz, especially in his book The Gift. “The book was just designed to be a gift for people, and the poems are so full of humor and life and beauty. He was just hilarious. It helped me to get the idea to write these songs as gifts for family.
“I'm just trying to give my family and friends and fans something to celebrate,” he adds. “I want to give them something to face the day with.”
Part of the challenge was writing songs that captured those unique relationships in ways that were meaningful to his loved ones but could still be relatable to listeners. As he wrote the songs, he was intentional with the way he peppered in memories and little messages. “The cherry blossoms in the first song were a specific choice because I knew they were my niece's favorite flower,” he says. Another lyric mentions a Persian ice cream parlor, a nod to his niece Ivy's workplace. “I wanted to evoke images that I knew would create an emotional response for each person while being universal as well.”
These details lift the songs out of abstraction, deep into the heart of memory. Votolato's delicate falsetto, paired with Abby Gunderson's violin and piano arrangements, and the record treats memory as a living, joyful document. Though not all of the songs are about lightness and praise.
Votolato wrote the slowly strummed “Texas Scorpion (The Outlaw Blues)” for his father, a member of the Dallas Scorpions motorcycle gang. “At one point, we went over a decade without speaking. When I decided to forgive him and let him back into my life, that was healing,” he says, adding that he took inspiration from Cat Stevens's “Father and Son.” It's also the album's second single, a choice that makes Votolato laugh. “The record company didn't want it to be one, because it's long and just not single material, but I was determined.”
In several songs, Votolato directly sings, “I just wanted you to know I love you.” Though that message is palpable throughout, he felt it was important to articulate it. “I just felt that was the right thing for those particular people. Now, more than ever, I realize how temporary and fragile our lives are. My own sense of mortality is there, really strongly, and I'm using it to help me express feelings. To tell people they're loved, they're cared for, they're not alone.”
Sadly, his reference to mortality is not abstract. In December 2021, Votolato lost his 22-year-old child, Kienan, in a car accident. “Since my child passed, every aspect of my life has changed. There's the person I was before they died, and then there's the person I am now. I'm more private these days, and more withdrawn on social media. The surprising thing is, with people in my life I've never been more open or more present.
Votolato was able to play “Becoming Human” for Kienan, who inspired the song, though some of the lyrics take on achingly new meanings when he performs it now. “The brighter that your moonlight shines / The more I can see at night,” is heartbreaking to hear.
These days, Votolato is more keenly aware of mortality, but in a galvanizing way rather than a defeatist one. “What are we going to be thinking on our deathbeds? I think I'll wonder how kind I was to people. The more I can do that now, the better,” he says.
As Votolato and his wife April were thrust so suddenly into grieving their loss, they took notes from one of their favorite musicians, Nick Cave. Cave lost two sons, seven years apart, and has been open about the weight of grief, and how the support of his fans got him through.
“My wife and I are huge Nick Cave fans. We played ‘Into My Arms’ at our wedding ceremony. We were just devastated and sad to hear what he'd gone through, but we were moved by his response to the tragedy. I never dreamed that I'd be going through something similar.
“I read a lot of Nick Cave's interviews because I was looking for answers on how to navigate this,” he continues. “A big takeaway was that there's a huge impulse to retreat and withdraw into isolation. That's exactly what I wanted to do. But [Cave] and his wife both realized it was wrong and dangerous to do. My wife and I came to that conclusion.”
And, he says, he’s thankful that Wild Roots is out and offering him opportunities to connect and reconnect with others. He hopes his fans will feel that, too. “I just appreciate people listening. I hope they feel a sense of connection. I hope they find meaning in it.” He chokes up with gratitude. “Everyone's just been so supportive. I am so grateful. I want to have a deep connection to the people who listen to my music.”
Through his years of playing house shows and maintaining correspondence with fans, he’s laid a strong foundation for that connection. Performing was intimidating after so much time away, but the intimate living room tour has created a comfortable, supportive environment. “They were my first shows in three years, I was very nervous the first few nights,” he says. “I had a lot to overcome, but it went well. And people were so supportive. Each night it got easier. The shows have been cathartic and healing. It's so nice to sing for people again.”
Rocky Votolato plays Tractor Tavern Sat Nov 5, 8:30 pm, $20.