Thoughtful and meticulous, the songs of singer/songwriter David Wilcox belie their simple presentation. For the better part of three decades, Wilcox has been touring the States playing just about any coffee house that would have him. Wilcox hit his commercial peak with 1989's How Did You Find Me Here, but he has continued to release quality fare including 2009's wonderful Open Hand.
From his home in Asheville, North Carolina and in anticipation of tonight's show at Uncle Calvin's Coffee House, Wilcox spoke to DC9 about being compared to James Taylor and pretending to be a fortune teller at his merchandise table.
Aren't you originally from Ohio?
Yes, but I got out of there as quick as I could. Do you know anyone who likes it there? You get to speak from a state that has dignity. You are in a state that has been a country before and looks forward to being one again. Ohio was never any of those things. I got to North Carolina in 1980.
Have you played Uncle Calvin's before?
I've been there and it is a good place. I like rooms that have a good focus. There are big rooms that have a great focus and small rooms that have a great focus. Small rooms tend to stand a better chance.
You've been at this for a while. You have probably played in just about every size venue.
There have been big places and little places. They all their challenges and they're all special in their own way.
Are you working on a new album?
There is this new thing coming out in January, a regular CD. It's on a label that's a nice compromise between a large and small company. It's a services-for-hire type thing where they own the masters.
You spent some years on A&M Records. What was your time there like?
There were definitely wonderful things about it. The people who have bad experiences on big labels probably have bad experiences because the company was trying to second guess them musically. That never happened to me. I was never expected to be their cash cow. I got to make the records I wanted to make and it was lovely. I got a really expensive education that they paid for on how to not make records. There were some records that we spent 200 hours making it and the A&R guy would hear it and say, "You know, I really want you to work with this other guy and do the record again." I did meet Herb Albert. Every really cool place that I have been in my life, when I was there, I didn't know it was really cool.
You have been compared to James Taylor throughout your career. Is that a lazy comparison?
It is a good place to start if people haven't heard a lot of songwriters. I like to look at how the writing is different. That is a fascinating thing for me because I take the sound for granted. I look at what's being said. A lot of people don't listen to the words. People wouldn't listen to a politician's speech and say that they really like the way he conjugates his verbs. They wouldn't be listening to what he was really saying, but more of the way that he said it. That's how I feel about categorizing music. People see a guy with an acoustic guitar and say he must be like James Taylor. I think we are speaking about different ideas, but that is a lot more subtle than most people want to think about.
I think there is a much more pronounced Nick Drake influence. Of course, you are much less depressing.
I remember when I first heard Nick Drake in 1980. I thought that I wanted to go as deep as he did and still live. I think so much of my music now is a discipline of refining my ideas and my attitude and my philosophy. Because I get to play these songs every night, I get some shining moments of clarity. I like having music as a way to keep my focus on the kind of person I want to be. I love how that carries over and makes music so much bigger. Going as deep as Drake and living has been a simple way of saying I want to have music take me to a place where my heart is opened up to a lot of things, yet not be cynical or fearful or defeated.2005's Out Beyond Ideas is a very spiritual record. Are you drawn to any particular religion?
That album was our reaction to 9/11. It is spiritual poetry from all traditions. The experience of making that with my wife was amazing. I loved doing that with her. It's not a reflection of our spiritual path. It's more of gathering together words that resonate from the best mystics and poets from the last couple of centuries. That was an album that really changed the way I think. You write those songs out and there are so few words that go so deep. It was an interesting juxtaposition to my usual way of writing out these elaborate stories with characters and scenes. It was pretty cool to be around those songs.
Do the lyrics always come first for you when you write a song?
There are different songs that come different ways. The song is usually better for me if I do the music first. I am better at lyrics and can bend words over music.
In 2008, you won an award from Acoustic Guitar magazine. Do those kinds of accolades mean anything to you?
I didn't know about that one. It sounds pretty fun.
Besides a football player named David Wilcox, there is a blues guitarist out of Canada with the same name. Have you been confused for the musician?
Yes, whenever I play festivals in Canada. There have been a lot of interesting people named David Wilcox. There is a symphony conductor. There is crazy guy who talks new age apocalyptic stuff. He spells it a little differently, but I still get his emails.
Do you prefer playing solo or with a band?
At this level, I can either make money at music or I can have a band. For the sake of my son going to college, I better play solo. It would be really fun to play with a band and record. I've done it before. I had the bus and the band and all that. You spend so much money on hotels and diesel. It doesn't really make the night of music that much better. A lot of my stuff is story-based and the personality of the singer is up front. It is very specific. In my setting, it is not cost effective to have a band. If there was a patron of the arts who said it was time for me to tour with a band, I would love that.
Many publications list How Did You Find Me Here as your best album. What about that record made it special?
There was a moment when radio was open to that, a format that wasn't formatted yet. It was a record that was different that could get airplay. There were some stations that played it. That made a world of difference and it was wonderful. As soon as that format became the singer/songwriter thing or the Americana thing, the labels went back to expecting a formula. That record came out when there was a window for playing it on the radio. I don't think the album is better than any others. It just had timing.
Do you have a favorite album?
There are lots of favorites for different reasons. Some are nostalgic and I love the time I was going through when I made them. Some are real simple like East Asheville Hardware. Some are like Open Hand which was beautifully recorded. I have different favorites for different reasons. When someone comes up to the CD table after a gig and they ask me which one is the best, I take their hands like I am a fortune teller and look into their eyes and tell them this record is the best. They ask if that record wouldn't be best for someone else and I tell them no, no, no, no, it's only for you. Depending on where you are in your life will depend of which record you like. The album Into the Mystery is a good record for people who are going through tough stuff. That record has been to the bottom and shined a light up and out of all that sorrow. If someone needs a song that has been to the depths, that's the record for them.