Rocky Votolato with Ha Ha Tonka and Taylor Gary
7:30 p.m. Sunday
8911 N. Western
Success can be a killer if you're not prepared for it. Just ask Kurt Cobain, or fellow Seattle resident Rocky Votolato.
While he never reached the Nirvana leader's level of ubiquity, after building a solo career for eight years, Votolato broke through with his critically acclaimed 2006 album, "Makers," but things spiraled from there. A year or so later, the singer/songwriter was scanning the Internet investigating ways to commit suicide.
"I was dead serious about getting out. I was over the whole delusion of this life," said Votolato, now sober, happier and playing Sunday at The Conservatory. "Through doing that and taking time to ... just kind of let the dust settle and look at things with sober eyes as an adult, I was able to figure out a lot of what I think my mistakes were in perception, and then apply that. So far, it's worked out with really good results."
His strummy, downcast folk and airy tenor croon often earned comparisons to the melancholy music of another late Northwest Pacific peer, Elliott Smith. Angst, longing and existential ache are frequent subjects that echoed Votolato's depressive cast of mind.
This is, after all, a fellow whose 2003 record was titled "Suicide Medicine." That's exactly what alcohol and prescription pills became for him. Touring with hard-drinking rockers Lucero, Votolato began to slide toward oblivion.
"I don't think I have the tools to deal with the type of success I was having. I'm not saying that it was on some massive, world-changing scale, because it wasn't. Everything is subjective and relative to what you can handle with your delicate fragile human psyche," he said. "For me, I had to change course. I realized I was drinking to self-medicate severe depression."
After 2007's country-flavored "The Brag and Cuss," Votolato took a couple years off to decompress. He began reading books by Eckhart Tolle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, and the Tao Te Ching. He began meditating, gave up meat and embraced forgiveness. Coming through the storm, he emerged as a stronger person.
It's a spirit that energizes his new disc, "True Devotion," arguably his finest release to date. While it's still consumed with the shadows that flit about the edges of our lives, there's a hope and a resilience that run just as strongly throughout.
"I feel like a happier person in general. I still struggle to keep the career going, but I'm feeling happier about it," he said. "I'm just interested in getting back to digging and uncovering that artistic truth, because that's why I got into doing this in the first place. That's what was therapeutic to me and hopefully is what had any impact on anybody else's lives who've experienced my music."
In the meantime, it's all about looking forward. He's hoping to self-produce his next album, as he did this one, and apply all he's learned about building a song track by track. He's begun playing with a drummer on a few tunes each night, after playing solo much of his career.
For Votolato, it's as if the sun's emerged from the clouds, and is forecasting a brighter day.
"I'm trying to get to a place where I'm measuring my success by the quality of my life," he said. "And not by the material acquisitions or fame or what other people think."