A Q&A with David Wilcox
By Geoff Gehman
David Wilcox regards his songs as “little tools that put my heart where I want it to be.” He encourages listeners to use his tools to rearrange, or arrange, their feelings. One of his toolboxes is “Musical Medicine,” a Web page of his compositions organized by subject/mood. “Red Eye” is good for addressing complicated heartbreak. “Secret Church” is good for understanding faith outside religion. “After Your Orgasm” is good for enjoying good sex.
The 60-year-old Ohio native and North Carolina resident continues his pilgrimage on his latest album, “The View from the Edge,” released in May by Freshly Baked Recs and funded by Indiegogo investors. He explores depression in “Forest Fire” (“I made a dark cloud out of a clear blue sky”); physical/spiritual awakening in “We Make the Way by Walking” (“I made you laugh when I said our path may be a road someday”), and ending generations of parental abuse in “Chain of Anger” (“I will make it clear/You rage again and we will disappear/Your father’s chain of anger stops right here”). The latter is the first recording of a favorite of Wilcox fans, some of whom have told him it’s helped save their life. He likes to tell spectators that he intended to keep “Chain of Anger” to himself until his dad told him it demanded to be shared.
Wilcox has other places to place his other tools: settled, searching singing, sparkling, sparking guitar playing; open, open-tuned stageside manner. He leads the Wilcox Weekend, an eight-year-old retreat for creative, communal, “mindful” living. He co-leads the workshop “Medicine Stories” with Gareth Higgins, co-founder of the zero28 Project, named for the area code in his native northern Ireland, where he helped replace angry graffiti slogans with apologies.
Wilcox will perform on July 20 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in an email interview, he discusses a collection of ancient mystical poems he recorded with his wife, Nance Pettit, a singer, songwriter and acupuncturist; his refreshingly personal version of a Four Tops hit, and the first album he didn’t make that told his story.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out? Mine was the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” made sweeter by coming from the radio in a ’65 Mustang convertible.
A: The first song that surprised my heart was “Sit Down Old Friend” (1970) by Dion. Some years after this song, Dion had a Christian music phase that to me seemed more predictable and less vulnerable and real. But when “Sit Down Old Friend” came out, I was just a kid, and the wisdom he gave seemed humble but strong. It was about what really matters in life. I know now that it must have been a time for him when his life had come apart, and the things that once had seemed valuable now seemed trivial.
I’ve always had a love for songs that start with the absolute: life and death. Sometimes that’s what it takes to take my attention away from the superfluous busyness in order to concentrate on what makes a life worth living.
Q: What was your first favorite album, the one that not only told a story but told your story? Mine was “American Pie” (1971), made sweeter by the fact that Don McLean and I grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y.
A: I think the first record that I kept coming back to because it told my story was Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly” (1982). It has a beautiful arc from start to finish. That record is so good at getting inside the imagination of a high-school kid growing up during that time [the 1950s]. And–it has a cover of a Dion song! Fagen’s version of “Ruby Baby” is spectacular. But all the songs are great. There are complex characters and emotions, and songs with an unreliable narrator. There are feelings of youthful invulnerability amidst the fears of nuclear destruction in the song “New Frontier,” which is about having a high-school beer party in the backyard fallout bunker.
Q: Your version of “It’s the Same Old Song” is more quietly soulful than the Four Tops original. The singing is more personal, the feeling more meaningful. What compelled you to cover a Motown hit and were there other Motown hits that didn’t make the cut?
A: I loved Motown growing up. And even at 11 years old I knew that it was James Jamerson playing that bass. I used to love singing that particular Four Tops song because it contains such a sense of the power of music to meet us where we are. I love that in the song the listener hears a different meaning that he missed before. It’s like seeing the rising moon out the side window of your car as you are driving along. It’s so far away that it stays with you.
Q: “Chain of Anger” is one of your longtime concert staples and one of your most influential songs. So why did it take so long to record?
A: I recorded “Chain of Anger” many times for different records. It just took a while to get it right. I recorded it three times for this record. It’s the only song that has a different arranger. I just had to get the emotion of the production right.
Q: You broke your recording pattern with the 2005 album “Out Beyond Ideas,” scoring ancient mystical poems and collaborating with Nance Pettit, your wife. Did the project change your attitudes and latitudes—your songwriting, your way of looking at the world, your spousal union?
A: “Out Beyond Ideas” grew out of a practice that Nance and I have of singing together in the evenings. We find wisdom that we want to keep in our hearts and minds, and then we work together to make a melody, so that by repeated singing we memorize the poetry, so that we will have access to it when we really need it during hectic times such as these. Our fellow travelers who walked the Spirit Road hundreds of years before us can keep us company.
When friends heard us sing the songs, they said: “I would love to see these songs become a record.” And little by little, that happened. Our friend [guitarist/composer] Ric Hordinski came to our house and offered to produce it as a favor because he believed in the value of these songs. Many musician friends like [drummer] Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful Dead offered to play for nothing. And before we knew it the project took on a life of its own.
Q: Can you put your finger on three truly memorable moments/episodes from the Wilcox Weekend?
A: No. What happens at the weekend stays at the weekend. Sorry, just kidding. This is a gathering of a community of people who have my music in common. There are lots of fun activities and workshops and music, but the whole time there is all about learning how to sustain a creative life long-term.
Q: Why do you like sharing “Medicine Stories” with Gareth Higgins? His zero28 peace-building organization is very impressive. I especially like the apologies that replaced nasty graffiti in his native Belfast.
A: Gareth and I have been friends for years and I love working with him on the Ireland trips we do, and also in workshop settings in the U.S. The workshops can be a powerful catalyst in people’s lives. The limiting stories we tell about the past are what keep us from our best future. Gareth and I work in different ways to accomplish the same thing: a way of consciously telling our stories so that they give us a future as well as a past.
David Wilcox: The Scoop
He won the New Folk Award at the 1988 Kerrville Folk Festival.
He was interviewed by comic Kevin Nealon for a 1993 issue of Spin magazine featuring interviews by cast members of “Saturday Night Live.”
His song “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song” was recorded by k.d. lang, who retitled “My Old Addiction.”
Proceeds from the sale of “Out Beyond Ideas,” his 2005 album with wife Nance Pettit, funded programs sponsored by the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management.
His 2006 album “Vista” was shaped by traveling America with Pettit and their son in an Airstream pulled by a bio-diesel truck.
His song “Chain of Anger” empowered musician Danny Ellis to write more meaningful lyrics, which empowered him to create the solo show “800 Voices: Growing Up in an Irish Orphanage.”
He regards his songs as “the blazes on the trail, the stuff I need to hear in order to remember on a daily basis.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. He digs David Wilcox’s decision to illustrate his concert calendar with photos of venues, a very rare practice among musicians. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.