Rocky Votolato has made his way back into the music studio after fighting a battle with depression and existential contemplation of why he should even make his return. It took the help of ex Death Cab For Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla and his brother Cody of The Blood Brothers to help creatively canvas the emotional rollercoaster that was forcing him to shut down. Hospital Handshakes was the end result, but he doesn’t want his fans to feel sorry for him. Instead, Rocky uses this record to encourage his fans to use creativity to find what truly motivates and inspires one to not only live their life, but to love it. In this interview, Rocky opened up to Cliché about what it took for him to not only write his 8th studio album, but to even write a single lyric or chord for the first time since his 2012 release of Television Saints.
Cliché: What can you tell me about the overall tone of Hospital Handshakes? Where did this unique title derive from?
Rocky Votolato: That title came from a poem that my wife wrote, so she let me have that title. I really just fell in love with it. I thought that it worked really well to describe the seasons of my life, where these songs came out of. Those words, I feel like each one of them has a double meaning for me. Hospitals are scary places usually and it isn’t somewhere that you want to end up, but people are healed there and come out better than when they went in. Handshakes can be seen as when you go through something intense and your hands are physically shaking or if you are shaking someone’s hand in a greeting or as in a goodbye. I really liked both those words and how they play together with those meanings. I had a bunch of different other titles that I was playing around with and I kept coming back to that title. For a while I’ve been interest in this concept called ‘The Wounded Healer.” Have you heard of that before?
I have not. What can you tell me about it?
It is someone who has gone through a really traumatic experience and this person lives through it and recovers. They then use that experience to help other people heal. The album essentially is a story about healing and redemption. That title, Hospital Handshakes, I felt was a better and more original way of pointing to that idea, instead of saying we are healers. Broken Healers actually was the original title. This title perfectly defines the period of my life and everything that I was going through.
You gathered quite the collection of musicians to collaborate on this record. What did it mean for you to let go of your creative control?
I think for me that was a really good thing. That was one of the biggest things that needed to happen in order for me to make this record, even to just keep making music at all. I think I had become overly controlling. Over the course of my past few albums, True Devotion and Television Saints, I had ended up engineering it on my own and I did most of the instrumentals myself; they were true solo projects in that way and I think I just started to overdo it with being way too controlling and self-critical. For me, letting go of all that felt really good. It felt really good to surround myself with people, to trust them and to follow their instincts, not mine and to let it take shape.
Was it difficult to not interject?
It was challenging sometimes, but I was able to stop myself or from jumping to conclusions too quickly. I was able to sit back and to find the beauty in it. I followed the logic to see why they made those creative choices. Sometimes it takes a little bit more patience and I was really open and was embracing the creative collaboration. If you have great players and people that you are comfortable around, it leads to great music and partnerships. Your projects begin to flow after that. It was really good for me to embrace that this time around.
“By the summer of that following year in 2013, I had decided to quit music altogether. “
You’ve said that the songs sort of wrote themselves and poured out rapidly and were substantial. Were you surprised to find yourself burdened with a variety of emotion towards your experiences?
Absolutely! It was incredibly overwhelming! [Laughs] If you can imagine the backdrop of what was going on in my life when I wrote this record and the few years before… Basically when Television Saints came out, I was shutting down creatively. I had a really hard time writing for that record. I had just gotten into a place where the well had run dry and I was not able to write. I had become really self-critical and overly controlling, like what we were just talking about.
By the summer of that following year, in 2013 I had decided to quit music altogether. I just couldn’t see the reason for doing it anymore and I was frustrated. I had been writing songs and pulling things out of me since I was 13 years old, so I really depended on music. For me, it is a place to deal with life itself and existential suffering or just whatever. Things built up into a painful dam, all of this energy piled up without an outlet and that’s why I think when it broke open, it became overwhelming and I just started to write like crazy. I really think it came down to shift in perspective. Basically, I had to wake up to the reason that I started to play music in the first place. I had to stop being so overbearing, so controlling and so self-critical. I surrendered to the process and it was a really healing experience and it really shows in the record. I was dealing with really intense issues and dealing with severe depression and I felt like I was totally losing my mind.
You can really hear that emotional distress with your single “Hereafter.” That song is very raw and emotional where you have painted a portrait of the hardships of your career as a musician. Was this song written because you had different views of the music industry than when you first started?
I feel that it has. I was jaded from running my head against the wall with trying to exist and to find my place. The music industry is really tough and I’m sure you hear that from artists all the time, but I just don’t want to take this for granted anymore. Music is a gift and that is what I love about it. It is an outlet for creative expression. It’s really important and that connection with people through music is what is really important as well.
We all get bogged down in things that don’t really matter and we let that take over our perspective on whatever industry that we are in. I think everybody struggles with this, no matter what you are working in. We are all fighting for the same thing at the end of the day. It’s all about people finding what they love and what they want to do and we are trying to find a place to belong. We need to express ourselves with whatever we love to do. That is what happened to me and I really hope that I can hold onto that. I want to be excited about the music industry again and I’ve been listening to more records and I’m going to shows, writing more music. I just feel really grateful and it finally dawned on me to be grateful for what I have achieved and the fact that I can even play music in the first place.
“It was just creative energy looking for somewhere to go.”
Hospital Handshakes blends two genres of some of your projects. What made you want to combine such an interesting mix of post punk and dark folk?
I was actually just reflecting on that. I think that it happened subconsciously. It wasn’t planned out or thought of beforehand. It just happened naturally due to the fact that I wasn’t really having an outlet for the louder music. Waxwing is the band that people knew me from before I started doing my solo project. It’s been largely inactive for years and years. Before this record, I was trying to get the band back together and we did a few reunion shows. We were trying to make a new record and we wrote a few new songs, but it just didn’t work out with schedules and other projects. Especially with my brother Cody who is in The Blood Brothers and he is in a million other projects. That outlet wasn’t there for me, but I still love that kind of music and I still have that desire to create things that aren’t formed by that inspiration.
I think it just happened that my solo thing is the only net left to catch whatever is coming through creatively. For me that’s fine. It was just creative energy looking for somewhere to go. I mean who knows, maybe in the future I will work on another project that is louder and more aggressive, but for now I am really enjoying doing this and incorporating these two styles into one. I am excited to be taking a band out on tour with me this summer! It’s almost going to be a reinvention of what the Rocky Votolato solo project is and I’m excited to do it.
You are currently on a Living Room Tour. When an artist composes a work, they are sharing their personality and their life with fans, whereas Living Room Tours are where fans invite you to their lives and their stories. What stirs you to forge such an intimate bond with your fans?
I just love the idea. For me it makes sense because I love my fans and I have this incredible family of people who I have connected with due to my music. I am so grateful for that and for all of those people. At the end of the day that is the whole reason that keeps me going. It makes a deeper impact when you play right in someone’s living room where there are 30-50 people standing in front of you. It’s super organic and intimate. After the show you get to shoot the breeze and I think the fans like it too. It’s the most organic way you can experience music. There is no PA system, no stage. It strips away all of the distraction and it leaves you there with the songs.
I was really nervous when I first started doing them, like I showed up to some random person’s house and I didn’t know what to do! Though, I’ve seen over and over how warm and receptive the fans are and it just makes for a great environment to connect to both the music and the fans.
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Interview with Rocky Votolato: Photograph courtesy of Rocky Votolato