A longtime favorite of Swallow Hill Music audiences, David is returning to Daniels Hall for two shows in February. We caught up with him via email as he was preparing to hit the road for a stretch of shows in February, mostly in the western United States.
You’re originally from Cleveland, a lot has been made of the “flyover” areas of the country in the wake of last year’s presidential election. Many of the characters who populate your songs seem to live in these places as well. Do you think we really are that divided as a nation, or do we want the same things, with different ideas of how to get us there?
Lately in my concerts, I sing about topics that divide us, but I do it in a way that leaves room for curiosity and compassion. Many people use divisive anger as a way to avoid feeling the sorrow that’s beneath it. Hopefully my songs give people the courage to go deeper.
On a related note, do you ever wonder how your characters – Johnny from “Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again” comes to mind – are doing now?
The cruising that is described in the song you mentioned happened every weekend on Patton Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina. But that character was only describing my own frustration with being so shy. Music has taught me how to be brave with my heart and say what I need to say before it’s too late.
You told No Depression about picking up a guitar for the first time and how you “knew right away (it) made me feel more alive.” The quote reminded me of your song Guitar Shopping, where the young man wants the “old and righteous” six string, while the older man realizes he wants a new guitar “shiny as a hearse.” What kind of guitar do you want in 2017?
The Guitar I travel with now makes the best sound for the audience of any guitar I have found. Plus it can’t be broken by the airlines. It’s a David Wilcox signature edition Rainsong jumbo with a whole choir of transducers installed. The carbon fiber is so strong and light that I can install a dozen different pick ups in the guitar and it still comes out weighing less than my old Guild. I carry a digital sub mixer to get the best out of each pick up and eliminate all the weak spots.
It doesn’t have the cool associations to great musicians of the past, but if the real job of a guitar is to make great sound and not just look cool, it’s just the right tool for the job.
Your Custom Built Songs project, where fans commission you to write them a song, is an intriguing component of being a working musician. When did you start doing that? What has it taught you about songwriting? Have any of those songs made it into your set list?
The custom songs began when someone contacted me in hopes I could create a song that would re-frame traumatic things that happened in his past. He had always been moved by my music, and he was hoping I could craft a song for him that would work like therapy but faster when he needed it.
It’s the same songwriting skills I have always used to know my own heart, but now I turn those skills toward serving other hearts and stories.
I usually play one or two custom songs in performance and I give some backstory about the situation of the person who commissioned it.
You are involved in various songwriting projects and workshops. Who is a contemporary songwriter who might not be a household name who inspires you?
Returning to our tumultuous times, as a songwriter who tackles topical issues, how do you balance the personal with the political, the grave with the humorous? Do you approach that consciously, methodically, or does it come out more naturally?
I try to feel the specific needs of the people I’m playing for, and each night is different. For me, music is a powerful tool that can heal the heart and clarify a vision of what life can be. I don’t like songs that dig a deeper hole. If a song is going to deal with tough issues, it has to shine a light through and show the way forward.
This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.