David Wilcox: Feeling Cracked Open Means Loving Life, MusicDec 02, 2014
When you ask singer/songwriter/master guitar player David Wilcox a question, it should come as no surprise that you get an answer that is as rich and complex as one of his very intimate live performances. I had a chance to chat with Wilcox before his November 16, 2014, show at the Kessler Theater in Dallas, and he graciously led me through the journey that began with the delightful discovery of playing a guitar for the first time to his current place on the map. As he describes it, that place is a view where a sense of wonder and discovery permeates every experience, good or bad, and has the potential to reveal itself in another song that invites listeners to join him on a road that leads to their own adventure.
You first picked up a guitar way back in the mid-’70s in college. Do you remember what that first moment was like?
There was something about the accessibility. The fact that here was a thing that was the domain of experts and suddenly there was this entrance level. There was a door in, and I had a sense of home. I had a kind of sense of hope and just an openness, I guess.
Did you know at that time that this fascination with a guitar would turn into a career that would span some 38 years and produce 20 albums?
I knew music would always be in my life. Yes. I didn’t expect that it would be something that I would do for a living, but I knew that it would bring me life. It was very satisfying.
You have this ability to be whimsical, yet still communicate profound personal and spiritual insights. What’s the process of writing a song like for you?
It’s really just a trial and error and gathering things that feel like they open my heart to that feeling. Starting with something that moves me. It could be a riff, a phrase, an idea, a question. What I’m doing is finding ways to amplify that particular emotion, and the way that I amplify that emotion is gathering music that feels like that. Musical elements that go together according to…if they’re on that same frequency, that same emotion.
Vehicles and the theme of being on the road are a recurring theme over the course of your career. What is it about a car, a motorcycle, a bike, or an Airstream trailer that captures your imagination?
There are times when I think if I have an idea that could sound sort of too complex, I want to put it in a simple analogy. There’s something kind of humble in a vehicle metaphor. There’s something really…it can welcome people who would ordinarily, I think, be suspicious of a haughty idea. That’s sort of why the personification of looking at the old car is the attempt to sort of singing that first person, from the point of view of that character, that car. It gave it a sense of humor that made it more about just wanting a second chance.
It’s clear from listening to your music that you’re familiar with pain and difficult times, but there’s always a sense of hope to your music.
When I play these days, a lot of people comment that, ‘Wow, you seem so happy!’ which is odd because there’s a lot of tragedy. I’m cracked open now. I have this ability to appreciate life . . . I think my discipline of music helps me be vulnerable to that. But where I am now is grieving in a way that leaves room for beauty. Grieving in a way that leaves room for wonder and not just getting stuck in my little stories of what happened and why and stuff like that.
Do you get the sense that you’ve found some of the answers about life on this journey and that your music invites listeners to come along and see for themselves?
I know that I’m a lot happier. I know that I have—kind of song-by-song—held myself accountable to these recorded moments of bliss, these sort of emotional snapshots of joy, and I…like last night, I started playing and between the start and end of the concert, the songs were sort of . . . beautiful medicine for my heart that gave me a better perspective and opened my imagination back up to seeing the joy. So I think that, for me…yes, I definitely have learned some things. I would hope that it serves but I can’t know that. But I know that for me, it definitely works.
I have experienced the way healing works in a human heart. That odd thing about time is that in itself [it] is not healing, but the willingness to go back in but with the imagination to reframe the old events into a bigger story. That can be really healing.
There’s a big fascination these days with shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol.” Do you think this is something that is healthy for music?
It’s a kind of a lottery aspect to it that I think satisfies the audience’s yearning to imagine that their lives could change. Sort of like romantic love where someone comes along and sees you deeply and knows you and convinces you to see it too, and makes you a star, so to speak. I think that it would be nice if that could happen—but it doesn’t really. People have to make the journey, and so I think those kinds of shows where there’s this kind of gatekeeper that gives industry acceptance to an outsider are attractive, but it’s very different from thinking of music as a language that could serve each individual in his process of listening to his own heart. Because when you’re listening to your own heart, you’re not depending on some exterior transformation. If you have your internal GPS turned on, if you can feel your own heart, then you can find your way to a place that feels like home and you don’t need anyone to come find you. You’re on your way. It’s a very decentralized way to think about music.
What about the place where you are right now? What is it about your music—about music in general—that still gives you this passion?
The thing that changed my life was when I discovered that music was that accessible, was that sort of egalitarian, revolutionary. You can carry your instrument and set up your stage on the sidewalk and move people. You can have people hear and be daringly honest and speak the truth that transforms you. I love that music it’s this beautiful tool that lets us feel more deeply and discern our feelings more accurately—and through that can help us find our way to the most important things. It seemed to me when I first started, that the promise I heard in that first simple sound that the rest of my life could feel as good as that first song did. Music has not let me down. It has always been a way to navigate and find the joy.
Here's the complete audio interview with David Wilcox prior to his performance at the Kessler Theater:
To read more about David Wilcox just check out his website: www.davidwilcox.com.
And make sure you download one of his live performances to get the full experience of his musical storytelling abilities.