"Sparklers," Rocky Votolato's best new song, is surprisingly simple. Its one-word title and sparse arrangement (only acoustic guitar accompanies his gentle voice) hint at the minimalism of his recently released sixth album, True Devotion. But it would be a mistake to categorize the beauty here as "plain." His fingertips swim over the strings, etching a sonic landscape that's fluid and very much alive. And his voice is a portrait of both pain and acceptance.
The Seattle-based singer-songwriter says the "sparklers" represent the transience of our world: Everything is constantly changing, and we're only here for a little while. As he tries to accept this fact, Votolato translates his struggles into songs. In a mix of autobiographical material and fictional characters, True Devotion simultaneously details his struggle with depression (a lifelong battle that got so bad that he barely left his apartment for a year) and his vivid characterizations of stories and poetry by Louise Erdrich and Sylvia Plath. "There's a lot of run-down characters that were calling to me through the process of making this album," says Votolato.
While his own experiences make the album personal, Votolato says the fictional elements keep things fresh. "It just keeps it from being a journal entry," he says. "I think it keeps it from being cheesy." Yet the autobiographical aspect allows him to express himself and communicate. That honesty makes for the most compelling songs.
"When I was younger, I worried about the vulnerability aspect of it, but I don't ever think like that," he continues. "I'm just not concerned about what people think of me as a person as much as I am about being able to connect with people. I [write music] because I feel like I need to, to kind of understand my own experience and what's going on me."
What results is not the downtrodden, tragic songs you might expect. Much of True Devotion has a hopeful bent. "Lucky Clover Coin" begins the album with a slow-burning ode to the person who holds you together, keeping you alive. It builds to an intense climax, where Votolato reaches closer and closer to finding happiness. His vigorous guitar strumming and passionate growl shoot through "Fragments," one of the many songs on the album that references the tide.
Votolato says the imagery is unintentional.
"I noticed that theme after the record was made," he says. "We were designing the artwork for the record, and my wife noticed that. She was looking through the lyrics and was like, 'In almost every song, there's some reference to the waves, or to the sea, or the ocean,' and I wasn't even aware of it. But I think that's a really cool theme flowing through there. The record ended up with an anchor on the cover. I feel like it all ties together. This record was me trying to find that center — something that when life is getting crazy, you can hold onto."
Votolato has been touring behind the album since early March, and while he's doing some favorites, he's playing a lot of the new material. The spare, acoustic recordings translate easily onstage; all he needs are his guitar and harmonica. This performance style is new for Votolato, who previously toured with a full band. And it's a far departure from his early days in the indie/punk scene when he played in Seattle post-hardcore band Waxwing. He started writing music when he was into punk and grunge, but he has found a special force in the more intimate setting.
"There's more focus on the song because there's just less going on," he says. "There's nothing hiding the intimate aspect of the lyrics and the guitar playing. I feel like it really focuses the attention on the song, and I think that's a good thing right now for what I'm doing. It really lets me have a connection with the people."