Holier Than Tao

Rocky Votolato finds the light on Television of Saints


This show has been canceled.

They call it "artistic sensibility." It's synonymous with making choices that are incomprehensible to most of us. It's the type of thinking that might lead someone to shelve a perfectly good, fully recorded and mastered album months prior to its rollout.

"It didn't sound like me," said singer Rocky Votolato en route to Boston in support of his seventh studio album, Television of Saints. "It wasn't my vision."

Votolato has made music for years--first in Seattle high-school bands and later with his younger brother Cody in Waxwing.

His self-titled solo debut came out in 1999 and channeled an intimate, somewhat ramshackle acoustic singer-songwriter style similar to Elliott Smith, which would prove profitable for acts like Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes.

Votolato's bright airy tenor draws listeners in like a whisper, as he wrestles with existential ache and spiritual restlessness in heady but understated songs.

"It takes a bit more of a commitment from an ADD world. So it's more of a challenge in that way," he said. "I've always thought of my records as you're going to have to listen a couple times ... because if you're able to totally get and digest an album on the first listen, there's not a lot to it."

But in the follow-up to his most striking album to date--2010's harrowingly personal True Devotion--Votolato apparently got ahead of himself, heading into the studio before the material was ready. The bigger, full-band, alt-country answer to its more intimate predecessor just didn't come out right.

"A lot of it was, 'This is happening too fast.' It didn't feel organic and kind of felt rushed. When it was all finished, I felt like, 'Shit, I didn't nail it,'" Votolato said. "I had to tell my manager, my wife and everybody around me who all thought I was nuts that I wasn't going to put this record out. We had a release schedule. We were already talking to [prior label] Barsuk. I just dug my heels in and said, 'I'm sorry, I know this is really going to mess up everybody's plans and my life is probably going to fall apart a little bit, but I can't put this record out because I don't love it.'"

Out all the money he poured into two weeks at the top-notch Bear Creek Studios, Votolato returned to the drawing board. He went back to tracking all the instruments and constructing everything himself, bringing in Casey Foubert (Damien Jurado, David Bazan) when it came time for mixing.

The approach is sparse--even compared to his other albums. But backing vocals and instrumental touches peek out judiciously, augmenting these slow-burn numbers.

"That's where I fit and where I'm happiest--when I'm done working on these very sparse, concise kind of songwriter-ish pieces," he explained. "It was clear to me I just wanted this record to be songs which communicate in a less-is-more way."

Lyrically, the album comes out of a much happier place than True Devotion, which found Votolato on the brink of suicide. Though Television of Saints is not necessarily a happy album, it is a generally positive release that doesn't so much dismiss the bad times as refuse to allow them to define him.

"Let the pressure turn your charcoal heart into a diamond reflecting the light / Don't let it get crushed into dust," he sings on "Ghost Writer." Later, on the loping "Sparks," which recalls the Glorytellers' beautiful road anthem "Awake at the Wheel," Votolato peers into "the dark looking for sparks of recovery" and reassures the listener, "everything's alright we'll be home in just a few more miles."

After struggling with the pressures of a higher profile following his 2006 breakthrough Makers and 2007's full-band follow-up The Bragg and Cuss, Votolato sank deep into depression, alcoholism and drug abuse before releasing True Devotion. He was self-medicating heavily and had sunk so low that he considered suicide. Votolato was concurrently exploring philosophical texts hoping to reason his way out of his depression when Taoist Lao Tzu's book Tao Te Ching and its paradoxical meditations lit a candle.

"The book really opened my mind to a lot of deeper issues in life and just a wider perspective of looking at things," said Votolato. "It started there but went on to every spiritual direction. I read Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian texts. Some Muslim stuff, and then I started reading about and meditating on my own."

"I'm thankful for all those dark experiences because the life I have now is so awesome. It's like this secret and once you know it everything looks different."

Like everything in life, it comes down to the proper perspective--and for that, we have to rely on each other. That's something Votolato has taken away from the whole experience.

His fans financed Television of Saints through Kickstarter and he has received lots of positive feedback. Fans wrote things like, "Your music has given me so much joy and so many fond memories over the years that I will be forever indebted to you," and "Such a talented, humble and dedicated artist. I cannot think of a more deserving person to support."

To reward contributors, Votolato has been playing private shows, recording exclusive, at-home versions of songs and taking some fans out to dinner before his shows.

"It was really humbling the outpouring of love and support among all my fans. And the comments on the Kickstarter page were almost more overwhelming than the financial part," he said. "There's a service aspect to society that makes me feel good about what I'm doing, and when I hear those stories like on Kickstarter and from my fans, it keeps me going through small shows or whatever the hard shit I'm dealing with on tour."

And that is a symbiotic relationship.

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