For a while there, it seemed like veteran local musician Rocky Votolato might never record an album again. In 2007, after eight years of making music both with his band Waxwing and as a solo artist, Votolato was depressed, exhausted, and blocked. He gave up touring—he'd been on the road about 250 days a year since 2003—and secluded himself at home with his wife of 10 years (they married when Votolato was 21) and their two children. He didn't go out or see his friends; he tried and gave up on antidepressants. He wasn't writing any songs.
"It was a long time coming," says Votolato, by phone from New York City, where severe snowstorms had him holed up in a hotel by the airport, waiting for a rescheduled flight to Chicago. "I had been struggling with a pretty severe depression and wasn't necessarily aware of it until around 2007, when it became clear to me that something wasn't right. I was just really sick—I couldn't tour anymore, I couldn't write songs."
Instead, Votolato (whose bio accurately describes him as "soft-spoken, very kind, very hard-working") wrapped himself up in books. He studied philosophy, theology, spirituality; he read the Tao Te Ching repeatedly, along with Buddhist texts and the Oprah Book Club selection A New Earth; he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mahatma Gandhi; and he cites Martin Luther King Jr. and A Course in Miracles as influences.
Eventually, this period of study and self-examination paid off, and Votolato found his voice returning.
"I'd always been relatively prolific," says Votolato. "And I was maybe taking it for granted, and I got to a place where that wasn't there anymore. When I finally wrote the first song for [new album] True Devotion, it was a great experience to be able to communicate through music again.
"One thing that's more clear to me now as a goal is to be less conscious about it," he continues. "I want my writing to be honest and to be flowing. It's tough, because the ego wants to be in control, but—and all good songwriters know this—where good songs come from, you're not in control. You have no idea where it comes from—you'll get it when it comes, or you won't, and you have to be open for that. So if I can stay out of the way, I won't fuck it up."
In the fall of 2009, Votolato finally returned to the road with his first batch of new material in years, although he did so on a decidedly small scale. Like Barsuk labelmate Dave Bazan, Votolato embarked on a tour playing in people's private living rooms, just him and an acoustic guitar and a chair, to audiences of about 20 to 30 people.
"The fans who really care about me and what I'm doing were super into it," he says. "And it's great to be able to connect with people on that intimate of a level."
If such an intimate tour isn't likely to convert hordes of new fans, perhaps neither is the resulting album, True Devotion. For one thing, after this many years, many folks will have already heard and made up their mind about Votolato's plainspoken acoustic songs. For another, True Devotion is a fine, but not an amazing, record. The album purposefully abandons the alt-country twang and fuller band setups of his previous records in favor of a more bare acoustic sound; it feels designed for intimate performance. But while that honest simplicity comes off well in Votolato's unadorned but nimble guitar playing and his sometimes raspy vocals, it can often feel almost like artlessness in his lyrics about fighting riptides (don't!) or how "sparklers only burn for so long." An exception is the song "Instrument," the album's most immediately affecting song and its seeming centerpiece, with its lyrics about finding freedom not on the road, as is the classic cliché, but in coming home.
Making this record may have changed Votolato's life, but listening to it won't necessarily change yours. Still, whatever the reaction, Votolato says he's at peace with himself and his art—at long, long last.
"It doesn't matter what anyone thinks," he says. "I don't care about any of that anymore at all; I really know that none of that matters to me. It's just up to me to be honest, so that's what I've done with this record. That's the big accomplishment."