Take, for example, the aptly titled "St. Louis," a recently released B-side from 2012's Television of Saints. Inspired by a gig in town a few years back, Votolato sings, "Taping up your knuckles and climbing back into the ring/For a workman's wages slugging it out in St. Louis/Your life is not your own without the chances that you take."
"Maybe just because my name is Rocky, I relate to a boxer, and each night is kind of getting in the ring when I go do a show," Votolato says, speaking from Washington, D.C., after three nights of sold-out shows. "Some nights you get your ass kicked. Other nights, you know, you put up a good fight."
Votolato has been waging that battle in countless cities throughout the United States and Europe, playing earnest folk, rock and Americana tunes from his eight full-length studio albums. His latest, Hospital Handshakes, came out in April on No Sleep Records, recorded by former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla.
"We're old friends," Votolato says of Walla. "He did Suicide Medicine [Votolato's 2003 breakthrough], so we already knew each other. He just recently left Death Cab -- that basically happened while we were making the record. There was a lot of good creative energy around, but it was also kind of tough because we were both at a point of transition. It wasn't all smooth sailing, but I don't know any record that ever is."
Votolato, his brother Cody (a long-time collaborator and member of the post-hardcore band the Blood Brothers) and Walla scoured their contacts to find a veteran group of friends and musicians to fill out the full-band studio lineup. The group included Eric Corson of the Long Winters, who played bass, and Casey Foubert, now on tour with Sufjan Stevens, who filled in on various instruments.
"It's always different every time for me because I've never had a set, solid band. It's a solo project, so I like it to be flexible," says Votolato. "Basically, it was a group of super pro, super experienced guys who've done a lot of records."
The album came together at a breakneck pace.
"Because I trusted them all, I just let it happen. There wasn't a lot of cerebral overthinking of the process," Votolato says. "It was more kind of a punk approach to it. I wanted to make this record in two weeks, which we basically did. And it was live to tape, which is really fun. It felt impulsive and urgent."
Votolato explains that overthinking his process had caused problems for him in the past. "I went through some trouble the last couple years, sort of getting writer's block. You can shut down the creative process pretty quickly, being too critical or too perfectionist about things," he says. "But I got through that. Hospital Handshakes has been great for just getting back to work, man. I'm super proud of this album; it's going to be one in my catalog that I always look back on and feel good about. I think it will stand up."
It does. As the former frontman of a punk band, Votolato's new studio lineup finds him as energized and uptempo as ever. Cody Votolato's muscular electric guitar provides the forward momentum (see "White-Knuckles," "A New Son" or the Foo Fighters-inspired "Rumi") while his bandmate in several other projects, Andy Lum, plays drums with abandon. Votolato's vocals are as full-throated as they were in his days with Waxwing, though perhaps tinged with a bit more Americana influence -- casual listeners could be forgiven for mistaking several new songs for Ryan Adams tunes. There are notes of resignation, too, as Votolato chants, "Trust that everything happening is perfect/I'll trust you if you trust me," almost echoing his thought process, swaying as, say, a like-named champ in the fifteenth round would.
Handshakes also marks Votolato's return to a record label proper. After making his home at Barsuk Records for three albums (and Second Nature Recordings for three before that), 2012's Television was a strictly crowd-funded endeavor. Votolato considers it a learning experience.
"After I did a Kickstarter, I realized how much extra work there is on the back end to get that done," he says. "I wanted to have a label this time around. It's nice having a team of people helping."
The tour he built around that album was a social-media-driven effort, consisting of fan-hosted-living room shows across the country. Votolato continues that tradition today.
"A company called Undertow Music does [the living room shows] for me. Basically, it's sort of like crowdsourcing the houses. Anybody who wants to host one of the shows gets in touch, and fans send in pictures of their living rooms," he says. "We sell a very limited number of tickets, between 30 and 50 tickets, and they're just these really intimate shows. I love doing those tours. The people that are there really want to hear me sing. It's the most organic way you can do it. It just cuts down on all the bar talkers and distractions, and just makes it all about the songs."
Speaking of bar talkers, a digression: More than a decade ago, this writer witnessed Votolato dismiss a particularly obnoxious kilt-wearing heckler in a room of otherwise reverent fans in Kansas City. After several polite requests to quiet down, Votolato silenced him: "C'mon, man, I don't go to your job and knock dicks out of your mouth!"
He issues a belly laugh when reminded of this memory.
"That is a classic from my past," he sighs. "I learned that from my dad. He was a bit of a rough character. And I was pretty fiery as a young man, making all kinds of mistakes in life. I don't think I'd ever say that to someone now. I've grown up a little bit."
How so? For one, he's gotten better at traveling. But Votolato also says that committing to music full-time was a major step for an artist who, six albums ago, plaintively sang, "I should be singing/To earn my keep by now."
"I think we all have some kind of singing to do," he says, referencing that line. "I think that's a big part of figuring out life, if you really want to be happy -- finding what you really love to do, then finding a way to make it into your job. I hear stories all across the country all the time of people who are struggling to do that. That's just a real challenge, so I'm super grateful now to be in a place where, for now, I have a balance. I kind of made my mind up: This is all I do. This is all I do."