David Wilcox interview transcript : Part 2

This is the transcript for the interview in Episode 5. If you listen at the same time you read, you may notice a few minor differences. That’s because I did a little editing to make the audio flow better. You’re welcome.

– John


DW: And so, what else are you afraid of?

AF: Well, I wanted to ask, when you were my age, when you were starting out, at some point when you had this life, this street-performing life, you were traveling and playing for anyone who would listen, did you ever find someone that served as a mentor or to guide you?

DW: Yes! There were thousands. And most of them were not musicians.

AF: Okay.

DW: I’ll tell you one. I’m a street musician, I had just packed up my guitar after the lunch hour. I’m walking down the sidewalk and I’m feeling kind’a torn inside. Because I’d just had this conversation with my parents and they were kind of shaming me. My mother was saying, “Oh, David, are you still doing that … that music thing?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I’m really enjoying it.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “What? What do you mean, sorry?” “Well, I … I just … it’s just such a shame. If you keep doing this, you know, I mean … I just want you to be happy.” And I said, “Mom, I said I was happy.” “Yeah, I know, but you know, musicians … it’s just not … you know, in terms of respectability, it’s just like one step above … house burglar.” I swear to God she said that. Actual quote. And I said, “Well, at least I’ve got something to fall back on.” (Laughs) But I said “I really feel happy and I don’t know what you’re so worried about.”

And so I’m in the middle of hearing the echoes and repercussions of this conversation in my head and I’m thinking “God, I really want to do music. I don’t know how, but I really want to do music. I have this feeling like it’s not gonna hurt me, but there are people who seem to be hurt by it. How do I reconcile all this?” And I’m walking with my guitar case and I’m just stopped at a light waiting to cross the street, you know? And I’m just asking, I’m like praying, I’m like looking up and saying “I just don’t know if it’s right, like, should I do it? Should I not? I just…” And I hear this voice that says (slurred speech) “You … you go ahead and do it!” And I look around and I don’t see anybody. And I mean, that was just the question that I just asked in my silent prayers, so I’m looking all around. And I hear it again. (slurred) “You do it!” And I walk back a few steps and there’s this guy in a doorway and he’s kind of slumped over. And I say, “Are you okay?” And he says “You do it!” And I say “Do what?” And he says “I dunno.”

And so I went back to the corner and I looked up at the sky, and I said, “Okay, so maybe a burning bush wasn’t handy, it’s a city. But this guy was available, he had a perfectly good larynx, perfectly good voice, maybe… maybe you just spoke through him. He might not even know it.” So I looked up at the sky and I said, “Okay.” And the little walk signal changed and I started walking. And that was my answer, and there’s thousands and thousands of those when you listen.

So yes, there were mentors. There were people who, y’know, would say to me, “David, you think you have a choice. When you talk about getting a real job, you kind of … your head sinks down and your eyes get kind of furrowed, narrowed and you just kind of start sounding unhappy and when you talk about music you just have this light in your eyes. So you think you have a choice but there’s … there’s just an obvious path.” And so I would hear people say that and it would sound frightening because I would say “Am I sort of doomed to this fate? You know, no choice, what do you mean no choice?”

And yet, when I heard it the way he was saying it, I was remembering that, well, yeah, when I’m letting myself trust in how it makes my heart soar to be around the place where I feel like I’m sort of made to do this, this is the thing that makes me feel alive, then it’s an easy decision. And over the years it just keeps feeling new and keeps feeling like I … I get it at deeper and deeper levels of sort of why I do what I do. It feels like, at this point it’s, it’s just the simplest way to … yeah, I guess I’ve said it, to stay true to where my heart’s telling me I’m headed.

AF: So like you said earlier about the manager, at what point did … Okay, here’s something that I wanted to ask you.

DW: Yes.

AF: Well, I feel like also another part of what I’m going through now is I’m handling my own business, quote-unquote “business”. And I feel that that takes so much of my creativity and my wanting to write and listen as you say. Did you run into that in your career, like in your early career, in your starting out. Did you … you know, finding the manager, trying to book your shows, working with the business aspect of it, did you … did you have to fight like I feel that I’m fighting?

DW: I think what’s miraculous about music is that when we write our songs that are from our truest sort of sense about who we want to be, they not only attract the audience that we want to find, but they attract the people that we want to work with. And the same reasons that you come to music, people will come to you. The same reasons that make you want to work on your songs will make people want to come work with you and for you. And so the people that are drawn to work with you are drawn to you for the same reasons that you’re drawn to your music. And so it’s this miraculous sorting that happens where the people who come to you and say “I really believe in what you’re doing, I’d love to come work with you”, you’ve already sorted through the other thousand people who wouldn’t have been right. The people that you would have gone to because they were successful, the people who maybe didn’t get what your specific thing is, but they thought they were good at what they did. Instead you’ll find people who are good at helping you do what you do and I think the decisions become obvious.

And it’s sort of like, many years ago I was on a rafting trip and we were on the Salmon River, we were on the Middle Fork and there’s a point where there’s this turn that happens, when the Middle Fork joins the main Salmon River. You’re going through this canyon and you can look straight ahead way up ahead and see sort of this mist in the air and the wind kicks up and you hear this whirling sound. And so you’re kind of fearful, you realize change is coming, there’s a cacophonous sort of whirlwind around you, and suddenly you’re going to be thrust into this big river where there’s three times as much water and the waves are really high. And so when we were on this raft trip, the guide was sort of warning us about this and he’s saying to the people in our little raft, “Okay, so we’ll be making this turn and the current will just kind of sweep us in and we’ll make this turn and suddenly the waves will be higher than you can see over and it’ll just be this beautiful big rolling ride.” And there was one guy in our boat that was, y’know, wanted to be ready cuz he knew that there was a turn to make and so he said, “So, uh, I want to be ready, which way am I turning?” And the guide kind of smiled and he said, “Well, I think if you just kind of watch the current it’ll be obvious.”

And in so many decisions like this, you can’t make the turn until you get there. You can’t know which way is right until you’re feeling it in the flow, and somebody comes to you and says “I really believe in what you’re doing.” And it’s just obvious, it’s just like, okay, now the river’s twice as big. We’ve just made a turn. I couldn’t have planned that. But it just happens, and luckily it is all in this wonderful sympathetic vibration, the same beautiful harmonics that you’re creating with your music also create the opportunities and draw the people to you for the right reasons.

AF: Well, I feel like so many new artists my age, the more people that I talk to are very focused on money and that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you about that, focused on getting every single dollar for their CD and that’s what’s keeping a lot of people from getting something like a record deal or any deal of any kind. All I want to do in my career is to become a successful and respected songwriter and a musician.

DW: Congratulations. You’ve done that. I respect your songwriting.

AF: Well, thank you,

DW: So when that happens, when you play a song for one person that moves them and they hear it and they go, “Oh my God, that song, that made a difference,” then it doesn’t get any better. It can just happen again to another person.

AF: Well, my job isn’t over. I do want to be accepted and … I have specific people …

DW: I know, I’m playing with you.

AF: Oh, I know you are.

DW: But at the same time, I realize that a lot of what we want when we’re sort of dreaming of success is want to like walk down the street with this feeling in our hearts that says the world comes to me and says “Thank you for existing. Thank you for being on this planet. Thank you for being who you are. We couldn’t have done it without you. And that’s what we want. That’s the success that says what I’m doing is necessary and useful and y’know. And so that is success, right? That feeling like belonging. Ok, well here’s the interesting twist. If you look at all the musicians that sell out stadiums and kill themselves, you have to wonder why don’t they feel that? The reason why is because that feeling of knowing that you belong and having that feeling of satisfaction, like you’re part of something, like you … the fact that you are alive is a mandate to be your unique self and it’s necessary, it’s a part of this whole thing.

That feeling, walking down the street, feeling like you belong is something that you can have today, right now, and tomorrow and the next day. But it’s not something that you could ever try to keep. It’s always something that you get with this bizarre sort of opening. With this kind of realizing that, okay, yes, you are part of something, but you can’t hold that something. It doesn’t come from you. And so the people who get all that acclaim and the numbers and the volume of that attention, you would think that they would wake up in the morning and know it. But they don’t. And so the practice, if you want that feeling of success, is learn where that feeling comes from, learn what takes it away, and that will lead you to be a mystic. That will lead you to a deeper, more playful understanding of, y’know, sort of what we’re a part of. And I think whatever language you find for that, if it’s your language it will work and it will take you to that place.

And the reason why it’s so important to get that is because in any career, you know, a career has to grow. It has to grow like a tree. It has to grow up. It has to try to reach for higher heights, you know. You have to try more complicated musical things. You have to try and, you know, write a play. You have to try and write, you know, songs that have interesting time signatures and epic lyric and … So the tree has to grow up. It has to strive for excellence. But a tree also has to grow out. It has to reach, like, try to cover more, reach more. Like offer more. Like if it’s an apple tree it wants to send apples this way and that. And really, like be a big glorious tree. So yes, you want your music to spread out and reach more people.

But mostly, a tree has to grow roots. It has to grow down into your life. Music has to come from a place where, when you are ready to walk out on stage and you’re scared cuz you feel like, oh, man, I don’t have it tonight. I don’t have that sense of mystic wonder. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve gotta know where to get it. You’ve got to have roots. For the dry times. And that is the discipline of finding out what gives you that feeling of belonging, of being part of something, that sense of wonder, that sense of awe, that sense of beauty, that sense of this kind of effortless open … kind of just let the song play itself.

So that practice is gonna be so satisfying. Because as much as you practice your instrument and practice your voice and practice your writing, you know, what’s much more important is practicing your connection, practicing where that all comes from, practicing your remembering of the reason why we do music, not just how to, but why to. And it’s the why to, the roots of it, that will give you the strength in the dry times. So success, that feeling of belonging, being part of it, being a sense of like, “Man, I’m so glad I did what I did with my life because it turned out so well.” That’s something that you can have right now and you can have tomorrow, but, you know, each time you have to open and let it come to you. You can’t grab it and keep it and own it. It’s not something that the world can give you. It’s a practice of growing deep deep deep roots.

AF: That’s wonderful. How over the years, this long career that you’ve had, do you think you’ve been able to retain your originality and finding new ways to express yourself through your songs, and new songs, just finding new songs? I think you kind of have answered my question in this earlier, by saying “Continually listen” and there’s always new things to say in the world.

DW: Well, I think for that I am grateful to people like you, because output equals input. And if you really want to be inspired and believe in the next song you’re gonna write, you have to go hear other songs. You have to hear people who are reinventing the wheel and making it brand new and kind of remember that, you know, there are no rules and you can write about stuff you didn’t even know it was possible, that you didn’t even know a song could hold an idea like that. And you hear people who are, you know, one verse to the next are staking out huge territory in a song and having a chorus that puts this amazing spin on it as if suddenly the camera’s in an aerial view and you have a song that isn’t just sort of the way you expected it to be, it opens up. And so I come away from these song circles and I realize I haven’t begun to scratch the surface, and I have to come back and be humbled about what music is asking of me to imagine. So in terms of … over the years as you get better and better at doing what you do, the inspiration always has to be output equals input. And I’m grateful that I get to come hear people like you.

AF: Thank you so much and Kerrville has really served as … I feel like an energetic, re-energizing of me and I feel like it’s kind of like you said, reawakened or made me feel like I haven’t scratched the surface of writing and wanting to write new songs because I’ve heard so much. I guess that’s the key is to just keep listening.

DW: Yeah, listening at all levels.

AF: I think one of the other things I really, I really love family and I love being, sharing relationships with people. And being on the road for so many years and playing so many shows, do you feel like you’ve had to give some of that up?

DW: Great question. No, you don’t have to give it up, but what you do have to do (laughs) is you have to find somebody who has been in a relationship that didn’t leave they room to breathe, and they are the kind of person that needs to reconnect with who they are and what they love. And so they choose to be with someone who travels some. They choose to be with someone who will go do what they do and be happy doing it and come back with stories to tell and a big smile. And while they’re gone the house gets empty and it gives them a chance to remember, okay, who do they call? And what do they do? And what do they read? And what movies do they go see? And how do they make their life complete?

You don’t want to find someone who wants to sort of be your manager and surround, you know, make their life about your life. You want to find somebody who wants a good life on their own. You want to find somebody who has a sense of who they are. And so when you go, they’re not calling you up and saying, “Oh, it’s so lonely here!” I call home and it’s like, “Oh, Scott and Amy are over and we’re having this potluck and tonight we have the, you know, this and that and we’re going to see…” And I think, Wow, they’re having so much fun! And yes, they’re having fun. And Nance is so kind about scheduling all that stuff for the times that I’m gone. Because when I’m home we do stuff together and we have a lot of time together and it’s wonderful. And when I’m gone, life goes on. And that’s a great thing.

And it, the travel is a beautiful rhythm. It’s a time of appreciating both sides of my life. And there’s this beautiful sort of pendulum swing where the gravity of each attracts me when I’m in the other. And so when I’m home and there’s two days until the next gig I feel like, aw, man, I just wanna be home, I love being home and I love raising this boy and he’s so wonderful and I love being a part of all this and I love fixing stuff around the house and I love, you know, just doing the stuff that needs to be done. And then as it gets closer to the gig time and I’m feeling like, aw man, it’s gonna be such a drag to have to leave. And then it gets to be the time to pack, and I make sure the sound gear is all there, and it feels kind of fun. And I get my clothes ready, and I realize I’m good at this. And as I’m rolling the suitcase out to the car, I think, man, I love what I do! And then I’m in this whole other sort of Road Warrior mode, I’m in this different mindset. I’ll forget to call home for a day and a half and I’ll call home and I’ll just be, oh my God, I heard the greatest song! You know, and Nance will be excited and we’ll talk about stories and … So yes, you do need to find someone who chooses to be with someone who travels. And they’re out there. And it’s a beautiful thing when it happens. And it actually helps you appreciate what you have and not take it for granted.

AF: Well, do you have advice for me in my going out, when I leave Kerrville? Do you have any advice for me that I should go do this first, or …

DW: I would say if you want to like write the song that changes the world, write the song that changes you, and if you want to write a song that will kind of move everyone, write a song that moves you. If you write a song that will try to kind of be all things for all people, it’ll be nothing for nobody. But if you write a song that is quirky and wonderful and specific, and just grabs you, then people will feel that transformation, people will feel what that song did for you. They’ll feel it in the way you sing it, in the affection you have for the experience that it gave you. And they’ll connect not just to the song, but to the trust that you have in the whole process. So if you want a song that will kind of take you to the farthest reaches of the world, then go home and write a song about the most interior part of you. And the more specific it is, the more universal it will be.

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