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David Wilcox

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Echoes

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Before closing the Underground Sound series, David Wilcox digs into the unexpected turns of a decades-long career

Veteran singer-songwriter David Wilcox. Photo: Jack Hollinsgworth.

Interview by Phil Lindeman

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If you go

Who: Singer/songwriter David Wilcox

When: Sunday, Nov 10 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Vilar Center, Beaver Creek

Cost: $25

The David Wilcox concert is the last of the Vilar Center’s Underground Sound series. To buy tickets, see www.vilarpac.org.

The last time David Wilcox played in Beaver Creek, he was convinced the crowd hated him.

At the time, the singer-songwriter was only a few years into a career now more than two decades long. Even in 1989 – nearly 10 years before the Vilar Center housed its first performance – he was already known for surprise and invention, shifting from low-key acoustic tunes to rollicking electric work with ease.  

The concert went well until Wilcox began playing “Climb Up the Sloping Titanic,” a high-energy tune with a hefty dose of political cynicism. It plays well in large cities like Boston, but small-town Colorado was different: Before finishing the first verse, Wilcox knew he’d lost the crowd. No one booed – instead, he was met with still, frightening silence, so he quickly switched gears and dug into a different song.

While recalling the story years later, Wilcox laughs warmly. More fragile musicians would’ve taken that minute or two of silence as an insult – or at least a reason to never again play in Beaver Creek – but Wilcox is far from fragile. It’s all part of his persona: He’s turned a love of music into a fulfilling career, thanks in large part to a keen eye, tough hide and a healthy sense of humor.

Since 1987, Wilcox has released 17 albums, each wildly different yet somehow familiar. Part of it is that trademark invention: Unlike the majority of singer-songwriters, he fiddles constantly with guitar effects and tunings, then pairs the unexpected results with character-driven lyrics. This approach has led to scores of loyal fans and more than a few high-profile covers, including singer k.d. lang’s recent rendition of “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song,” re-titled “My Old Addiction.”

Wilcox returns to Beaver Creek for the finale of the Vilar Center’s Underground Sound series. Before trying to once again woo local crowds, Wilcox spoke with SneakPEAK about his newest songs, growing old as a musician and his love/hate relationship with almost everything he writes.  



SneakPEAK: The Underground Sound series has featured plenty of up-and-coming songwriters, but you’ve made a living at this for more than two decades. Do you ever feel like an elder statesman?

David Wilcox: There are times when I’m grateful to work at a craft that’s so elusive you can work at it a lifetime and still feel like a beginner. The adventure is still fresh and surprising at every turn. And yet, there are times when I realize I’ve gotten so much better at the heart of what I do – just tuning my attitude and balancing my home life with the adventure of travel. It’s a sustainable thing now, and that’s where I find the real musicianship of what I’ve been doing for years.



SP: How has your sound changed over time?

DW: I have a lot of songs that are through the eyes of characters I would never want to be or even meet (laughs). It can be lots of fun to write from those characters – it’s an exaggeration of some part of me I understand, yet some of these characters are living out lives I would never want. That’s changed a lot, because in the past, I always wanted the voice of the song to reflect the parts of me I was growing into instead of growing away from. I’ve learned a lot more about the imaginative, creative process of songwriting, and how sometimes, the characters we bring to life can be like a blaze on a trail – something you’re following – but they can also be a homeopathic cure. They can motivate you to dig inside yourself and address your shortcomings.



SP: Describe one of these recent characters you wouldn’t want to meet. What makes that person interesting?

DW: On my new record, which is actually called “Blaze,” there’s a wonderful character on a song called “Sacrifice.” It’s based around a cop who is working an urban beat and has been on the late-night shift for much, much too long. He sees the horrors of city life, from drive-bys to drugs to anything. At one point, he comes to a body lying on the sidewalk in the drizzling rain, and he does his job so well – setting up the tape and taking care of the scene – that he has time to sit around and wait for the rest of the people to arrive. His heart is insulated against it – he almost sees these horrors and tragedies from a distance, like when we look at Mayan ruins, the sort of places where people were sacrificed.

The second verse is the phone call to the victim’s parents, telling them their life will be forever altered. Through all this, we see that he views killing and death as a sacrificial rite, something people do throughout time. None of it is stated as if he actually thinks it, but the images are juxtaposed within the song to show how death and tragedy happen now, and always will happen. That remove was just so fascinating to me. That coldness is something I’d never want, but we all have to steel ourselves against the day-to-day tragedies, even if they have overtones of something epic or Biblical.



SP: With a song like “Sacrifice,” did you being with an image or an idea?

DW: It started with arranging a spectacularly beautiful timed echo on the guitar amp. It had a really unique timing to the delays – there are three repeats, but they happen at strange intervals. It creates this fantastic sort of groove, and it forced me to play in a minimalistic way.

I knew the song had power and drive and force to it, since it’s with the electric guitar, but it also had something strange, with the echo. Just that word gave me a starting place. What does “echo” mean? For me, that meant something that came before and will come back, possibly in a slightly different form. I guess you could say I started with the emotion, then played the rift and tried to imagine a scene to pair it with, almost like the score to a movie. I knew there was something scary or foreboding, and suddenly we have the rain and a crime scene and sense of loss, but the echo gives you the idea this has happened before. It became pretty obvious the character needed to be someone emotionally removed from what he saw.



SP: People tend to think musicians are like wines – the older they get, the better they are – but that’s not always the case. Looking back on your career, are there any albums you aren’t proud of?

DW: (Laughs) I think that’s such a funny questions, because I have two different answers, both of which are true. I would say that all of my albums are favorites for different reasons. I’m a character, and through my career, I’ve seen the evolution of this character over time. It’s like a self-portrait – it’s always you, but it changes ever so slightly with each new portrait.

The reason I laugh is because I wonder, “Have I ever liked any record I’ve made?” Every time you make a record, there is so much to learn and know. Just the process of making a record turns you into a better musician because you learn so much through the process of writing. The way it usually works for me, right after I’m done with a record I never want to hear it again, but then I might hear a song five years later and think, “I should write that song.” Then I remember I already have (laughs).



SP: You’re well-known for intricate guitar work – your songs highlight tuning and musical elements more than most traditional singer/songwriters? Have you always enjoyed experimenting?

DW: What I love about the process of writing a song is how surprising and imaginative it can be. I want to change musically and emotionally, so part of being surprised is finding a different sound with an instrument I’ve become so familiar with. Tunings are a spectacular way of doing this, and it makes for intervals and sounds that are impossible to get normally. I’ve forced myself to do things in a new way, every day.



SP: That reminds me of Keith Richards – I just finished his biography, and he talks about the way open tuning changed his whole approach to guitar work. Do you feel the same?

DW: Well, every tuning is limited in a way. They all have a strong tonal gravity, but if you know enough different tunings, the fact each one is limited doesn’t hold you back. You just have to choose from those different tunings and decide which world you want to enter. I’ll usually try six or seven different tunings while writing, just to find the one that works. You look at what Keith did, and he was really taking a lot of cues from Bo Diddley. It’s tuning a guitar like a banjo – that sound can be so spectacular, but again, it’s limited.



SP: You recently kick-started an online magazine dedicated to songwriting. Talk about the content – is it just for your fans, or can any aspiring musicians find something to like?

DW: I would love it if lots of people found out about it through some viral thing. One of my favorite things is that it allows me to shorten the lag time between the creative process and releasing a song to people, so they can hear what I’m singing about and dreaming about. Sometimes the best version of a song is when the vocal is fresh and the emotion is surprising. With an album, it could be six months before anyone hears that. Now, I can release a song a month or week or day after finding that fresh sound. It quickens the loop between what I make and what people hear.



SP: You’re at the point in your career when other musicians are covering your songs. What’s the best cover you’ve heard so far?

DW: It was really different, but I like k.d. lang’s version of “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song,” but she calls it “My Old Addiction.”



SP: I’ve never heard her version – is that the song you would’ve picked for a cover?

DW: She was making an album about addiction, so it was perfect for what she was trying to do and how that record needed to be. For me, the song always had a personality of its own, just very emotional. It was the fastest song I ever wrote – it came out in practically the time it takes to copy the words to a page. I’m not really surprised that it showed up in someone else’s musical world.



SP: Speaking of young artists, what up-and-coming singer/songwriters impress you at the moment?  

DW: I wish I had my list of these things handy…I just heard a few in the last month or so that grabbed me, but I don’t have that list. In terms of the last five years, David Mead is spectacular – he’s been around for a while, but he’s very surprising and challenging and memorable. His songs are beautiful
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