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Author Topic: Great David Wilcox Interview...  (Read 1676 times)

Offline Monsieur Obscure

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Great David Wilcox Interview...
« on: February 27, 2009, 01:12:33 AM »
Listening For The Song - David Wilcox Discovers the Songs Waiting In His Guitar

The names Olson, Guild, and Martin aren't found in the songwriting credits on any of David Wilcox's CD's, but if you spend any time talking with him he's more than willing to give them all the credit. Wilcox, arguably the most well-known of the brilliant crop of singer-songwriters to emerge in the late 80's, doesn't feel his strength is in making a song happen as much as in his ability to listen to the melodies inferred by experimenting in a new tuning, and being open with almost child like enthusiasm for those happy mistakes which turn into tunes.

David Wilcox has often been compared to James Taylor, a compliment to be sure, but not entirely accurate or fair. Vocally, Wilcox does have that buttery Tayloresque sound, but there is a husky breathiness more reminiscent of the late Nick Drake which permeates most of his singing. As a guitarist a comparison to Drake would also be in order as Wilcox utilizes a variety of open, and altered tunings with a technique, and touch that transcend mere accompaniment. As far as his songwriting is concerned, Wilcox moves from subject matter that seems fun and frivolous to utterly heartbreaking, or bitterly angry with empathy and honesty that never panders or condescends. Livingston Taylor once described Wilcox as, "The best act to watch, and the worst act to follow", and in concert Wilcox is engaging and captivating.

I spoke with Wilcox by phone from his home in North Carolina. He was on a short break from touring to support his latest release "Big Horizon" on A&M Records. I was impressed by his contagious enthusiasm for music and life, as well as his openness to discuss his guitar playing, and the unusual tunings he employs.


You were hardly a child prodigy with a guitar, you didn't even get started until you where in college?

DW: Yeah, that's true, and the reason that I waited was because I would see my friends playing guitar and they were playing in regular tuning and really working hard at it. I discovered Open Tunings when I heard this woman playing in the stairwell at college, and to me that really made the guitar an amazing instrument because it sounded beautiful on it's own.

What was she playing?

DW: Joni Mitchell songs, nothin but, and I learned a lot of Joni Mitchell songs. I used to borrow the guitar and sit in the stairwell myself playing her songs. The early songs of Joni Mitchell are incredibly simple to play, you don't have to have guitar fingers, and the sounds are so rich and full of resonance. We are getting used to that sound now , we hear a lot of open tunings , but back then it was rare to hear a guitar sounding on all it's strings and really full.

Who else were you inspired by early on?

DW: John Martyn, and Nick Drake, as well as this woman who was really great and taught me.

So you did have some lessons?

DW: She would show me some songs , and I think I had four lessons that I paid for from this classical player , he taught me some warm-up exercises and a fear of music.

Were you playing fingerstyle from the start?

DW: Yeah, I don't think I got into using a flatpick until much later. I was using the Joni Mitchell kind of strum with the fingernails up near the base of the neck to get that real warm , round , full-bass sound. When I started to learn fingerpicking I began with Big Bill Broonzy , and Lightning Hopkins stuff. I also tried to learn Doc Watson's version of "Sittin on top of the World", as well as some Leo Kottke stuff, it was a fun time.

When did you first get into using the "Third Hand " capo or modifying your own capos? ( The "Third Hand " capo allows individual strings to be stopped )

DW: That was around 1978 or 79 and they didn't have Kyser Capos then but I did have a capo that I could cut the treble or the bass side out of, and I really loved those kind of open voicings.

You used these capos in conjunction with standard tuning?

DW: Mostly with open tunings.

Where did you get the idea to combine these partial capos with open tunings?

DW: Watching Richie Havens , and the way he would fret those beautiful chords over the top of the neck and let the two unwound strings ring. I figured I could get a capo to do that , and I could play on top of it. The goal , for me , was to get Piano chords which are chords that have close clusters. I like having a nice little roll in the middle of the chord to get sounds that you didn't ordinarily hear on a guitar. With capos that are cut you can have strings that are a half step apart right next to each other, and get that nice little added 9th roll or suspended 4th .

Do you play enough in each of the Tunings you utilize to become fluent or comfortable with them?

DW: I hope not, I think what I aim for is to always have that beginners mindset, to always be starting. To me the thing that guitar gave me was that I wasn't just playing it I was listening to it, and it was playing things I couldn't play , and I love that feeling. I like to get lost and find a new way home by being totally lost , and that's why any time I start to know my way around a tuning, I change it. I used to think I couldn't write a song without a new tuning, and that's often the case, but I think there are more songs than tunings. (laughs) What I am currently enjoying is playing in the key of G while the guitar is tuned to Open C, or playing in the key of G while I'm in DADGAD tuning. Ry Cooder has been doing that for quite some time , but I didn't know, so when I learned "Tattler" of his "Paradise and Lunch" album I thought it was in double dropped D (Tune down both E strings to D) when it's in Open G (DGDGBD) , and it's so much easier in the right tuning, but I never thought that he'd be playing in a different key than that of the open tuning. I think that there are some wonderful voicings you get when you play in an open tuning outside of it's tonic center, and I really love using a major key open tuning but playing it so that the song is in the key of the chord that's maybe on the second fret , so it comes out in a sort of modal, minor, fun thing.

Did you ever try to figure out any of Nick Drake's tunings?

DW: Sure, yeah, I stole a lot of riffs from him. On my first record, "Nightshift Watchman" the song "Come Away To Sea" is from a Nick Drake song "Place To Be". One of the best Nick Drake tunings is like the sound you would get in Dropped D tuning and made a regular D chord but pulled your finger off the G string, so instead of having the 5th you had the fourth, he tuned it two frets lower so he ended up with CGCFCE.

Is your first record going to be issued on CD ever?

DW: Yes, I just got the call !

I read some where that you always start with lyrics first when you write songs?

DW: That's not true, I did read that too, but it's not true. Mostly songwriting for me is based upon my belief that the guitar knows the song. If I listen to the guitar, put it into some weird tuning and begin to experiment , it will play me some melody. I will say to the guitar "Wow , that's beautiful what's it about" and the guitar will reply, "How does it make you feel?" , and I might say that it makes me think about this or that and the guitar says "Well that's probably what it's about then." At that point I ask what's next and the guitar will usually respond by saying "It depends on what the lyrics about , why don't you start writing , and I'll tell you the rest". So I start writing ideas and the guitar says "Stop right there , this is the part , you gotta put these words with this phrase " and I say "Oh guitar , your killin me! " so I'm just listening to the guitar. It's kind of like the monkeys and typewriters thing , where if you have enough monkeys playing on enough typewriters one will eventually type out the sonnets of Shakespeare, and that's my method of songwriting. If you're writing songs you can have a lot of talent or a lot of time and I choose the time method. I think that if you know what you like, and have a way of creating interesting mistakes that will give you new variations, for me it's the open tunings, then the laws of probability are in your favor. You will have an endless supply of new ideas that if you continue to sort through, and store on a tape recorder, you can gather these great musical ideas , as if you had the talent to make them up , when it was really the guitar of course that writes all the songs.

So you owe Jim Olson royalties?

DW: People ask me why I like Olson guitars, and I tell them that they have more songs in them, and it's really true they do.

You rarely write without a guitar handy?

DW: Only three or four songs, but they are some of my favorites. "Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song" was written down in the speed it would take to copy it , and I didn't change it , it rhymed and everything , it was really nice. That was right when I woke up and I imagined the melody without picking up the guitar , but that's unusual for me.

Have you ever been shocked or surprised by a song that the guitar has brought out of you ?

DW: There is a new song, which may be a bad example because nobody has heard it, but it's one of my favorite songs. It was a guitar thing that came out full-blown , and I new it was very sad but I didn't know what it was about, so I decided to write a "monster" which is something I'd heard of as being a French technique for getting the lyric going by listening to the phrasing of the melody and writing some syllables that have the right phrasing. I decided to write a "monster" and have these ideas come out and kept going for pages, and pages. A couple of days later I went back, and read it , and kind of played connect the dots. It was really fun because the images were so wild, and it's a real gripping, heartbreak kind of a song. The first line of the song is; "Ah that tattered old kite" but that might not be the title, it might be "I know the way it feels" which is the last line of the chorus.

The song "Language Of The Heart" is in DADGAD tuning?

DW: Yes it is , and that was stolen from an Archie Fisher song and changed around a bit. Whenever I would play his song it moved me so much , that I knew there was a song for me somewhere in that riff. One of my favorite things to do when I get a new album from a band I've never heard is to read the lyrics first. If a lyric grabs me I'll write a melody and a guitar part, then I'll listen to the record to hear what they did with it and it helps me get inside their music a little more.

Was "Leave It Like It Is" written after the guitar part?

DW: Yeah, I was doing that little riff at the end and it was a goofy, dissonant, little riff, and I felt the whole mood of the song was dictated by that riff. It was kind of a weird , tonal mess so I thought what would the song be about if that was it's center, and that kind of inspired the song. The first verse of that song was written last, and a lot of my songs are like that, where I know where I want to wind up, so the third verse is written first. It's like going off of a diving board; you walk to the end, check your spring, and then you back up two verses, so that when you finish the end of the bridge and your ready to press the song to it's full strength you come off of that bridge and into that last chorus, and wooomp! You gotta check out where you want to wind up first, so that when you get your verses happenin at the right pace you'll wind up where you want to be at the strength of the song or the best part.

"Eye Of The Hurricane" features some flat-picking...

DW: That is a response to a ten second riff that I played over and over. The intro riff was something I played for a long time but when I finally tried it with all down strokes it set. I had been playing it fingerstyle but I really wanted it to rock! I thought a lot about it and listened to other players who really drive it hard , and I discovered that like so many things it's not what you put in but what you leave out. I decided to play it really fast and with all down strokes using my cracked pick method, named because I would rip the triangular flat picks in half being a little overzealous, and it got the energy going that pretty much wrote that song.

What prompted you to record the instrumental piece by Bach as a tag on "Heart Shaped Medallion"?

DW: I was listening to that Bach piece and it stuck in my head , and the way I tune the guitar to play it is EAC#EAC#. That tuning just soaked up that song and it was almost automatic to play for me , and it's all one and two fingers, real easy.

Did the song "Advertising Man " come out of the guitar part as well?

DW: No, that was an idea I wanted to express and I found the music to say it. That song took a long time to write because the verses I was writing were so angry! I had to get a sense of humor into it while I still felt I was slapping them hard enough, but I didn't want to slap the audience, I wanted them on my side.

Do you think that the kind of fun fingerpicked guitar part you play takes some of the edge or anger off?

DW: Yeah, it's got some of that Arlo Guthrie funny thing going.

Since you had the lyrics first on "Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song" did you push very quickly to find the right music?

DW: I wait until I get the real emotional reaction, and that's what I trust. When I'm choosing a melody I either have to get goose bumps or the tears or some other real strong reaction that lets me know I've found the melody. On that particular song I tried it in many different tunings and none of them were real happy about it , so I kept experimenting until I came up with a variation on Open C , CGDGAD with a capo on the fifth fret stopping the first five strings only , so the low C is not touched. I really love the sound of a guitar that is capo'd way up , but without a bass player you've got to have a bottom end. That tuning is an example of me trying to change where you hear the guitar in your ear. If you could capo it way up and have a bass string way low you could maybe have a guitar sound come into your ear and land in a totally different place.

On your new CD "Big Horizon" you have a song "Block Dog" that has an unusual guitar part, where did that come from?

DW: Listening to African guitar inspired that triplet time riff. I had been wanting to write a song about resistance to commitment, and that song needed a sense of humor because it was confessional and it was a great song for me to sing about me , and to me but who cares? I decided to drop the cute metaphor and make it more real or even the center of the song, so instead of saying that I felt just like a dog I said , lets take it from the dog's point of view, and that made it easy.

"Please Don't Call" features a strong backslap and string snap attack on your guitar part, was that little more aggressive playing in response to the nature of the lyrics?

DW: That's a good question, and I think that the riff was the seed crystal that the song grew out of , and I think that the attitude in the playing came later on after I realized what the song was about and had the lyric done , but needed to develop my interpretation. The tuning I used for that song is CGEbFCD which is really fun.

You presented fresh arrangements of a couple of pop "classics" ; "It's the Same Old Song", and "Missing You" on your latest record, how did that come about?

DW: When I am experimenting with new tunings I always find chords that will remind me of certain songs, and when I am learning a new tuning one of the best ways to find my way around it is to learn whatever song that is, and sometimes I hear chord changes I wouldn't normally think to do inspired by the tuning. My favorite thing is when you have a melody you're familiar with and you put a different bass note under it , it kind of changes the lighting , like the room is the same but you've never seen it that way. So I'll take a familiar song and put a new flavor to it emotionally by changing the way the bass is underneath the melody, for me it just comes from listening to the guitar.

Your live shows have an energy and a feeling that is unique , have you considered a live album?

DW: Oh yeah, we are doing it now. The record company has furnished me with the equipment and we have been recording shows.

Do you have to structure your live set around making small adjustments to your tunings rather than based on what songs you'd like to put back to back based on their own merits?

DW: I have to do that if I'm in a place that's really noisy so I'll make the tuning changes in stages , changing one string at a time and gradually changing from one tuning to another , because their are a lot of tunings in between. If it's quiet, it's really all in the wrist , you can crank it really close in just a second and dial it in quickly, so if it's quiet I really don't have to structure the set around tunings.

Do you remember when you realized that you would be able to make a living with the instrument you love and singing for people?

DW: Yes, I was a street musician before "Nightshift Watchman" came out and I was making better money than I would have with a minimum wage burger job, and I realized that I was working at what I loved , and I would survive. I realized that my music would not hurt me , if I trusted my music and followed it I would not starve to death or something. At that point I realized that I was very wealthy because what wealth is can be defined as getting the time to do what you want, and I realized that with discipline I could do what I loved. The discipline came because you had to lower your spending to match your earnings, you can buy your freedom with the money you don't spend. If I wanted to live the life that felt most true to me I could do it if I would give up all the silly things, and foo foo stuff like having a car that was all one color, and an address, and more than one pair of shoes , which were all unnecessary things compared to working at what I loved. No matter how long it lasts you only count the time where you're living your true life, the one that feels best , the one where you're not kidding yourself, so if I start off giving it my all and it lasts for ten years, that's great! Lately music has come to me and said "David , if you want to have a family , that's possible" and I'm floored, because music has brought me the joy of being able to work at what I love and now I can have other things in life I can enjoy like a family. The point in time when I realized I was going to be fine , however, was when I was still playing on the street.

Are there any other acoustic guitarists you are currently inspired by?

DW: I really want to emerse myself in other stuff and see what happens to my guitar playing. I feel like I have done what I originally set off to do , and I have captured some emotions I wanted to capture when I first imagined what I wanted to do with music. I had an album that had the songs of escape and of wanting to create a new life somewhere else and forget the past, I've had albums of dealing with tough issues and fixin the stuff that needs to be fixed and facing the stuff that needs to be faced, and this latest album is about expressing the best ideas I can come up with, kind of my testimony or theology. I really enjoy playing the stuff from my new record live because I feel that this is the best that I have come up with. If somebody was in big trouble and really scared or hurting I feel that these are songs that can stand up to that kind of scrutiny and searching , and when everything looks like bullbolagna what do you hold on to ? what makes life worth living , and why? this is what I wrote my last album about. Now that I've said that , what's next? I am writing new songs that are surprising me . The next record is probably going to be pretty goofy! but I'm looking forward to it.

Any advice you have to offer?

DW: If I could contribute anything to guitar playing it would be this notion that it's not something you do to the guitar, it's something it does to you. You need to listen to it , and give it some leeway, and let it play what it wants to play. Get your fingers off those strings and let them ring, don't always be trying to wrestle it to the ground. I love the attitude of let's hear what the guitar wants to play , and get into that beginners mindset again, and really enjoy the sound of it. I am so grateful for the enjoyment I've gotten out of the sound of the guitar, it really saved my life.

Some David Wilcox
Tunings and Capo Positions:

Eye of the Hurricane
Open C (CGCGCE) - capo on the third fret.

Language of the Heart

Leave It Like It Is
Standard tuning, capo on the fourth fret.

Come Away To Sea

Burgundy Heart Shaped Medallion

Advertising Man
Standard tuning in the key of C

Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song
CGDGAD with a capo on the fifth fret
stopping all but the sixth string.

Covert War
CGDGAD with a full capo on the first fret
and a partial capo covering the first five
strings at the sixth fret.

Strong Chemistry

Big Mistake
Standard tuning with a full capo
on 3rd fret and a partial capo covering
the A, D and G strings on 5th fret.

Block Dog

Missing You
CGDGBD - capo at the fourth or fifth fret

Please Don't Call


Notes for the transcription of Strong Chemistry (DADGAD tuning)
While the recording of this song is primarily acoustic guitar in almost a solo setting, Wilcox wrote this song on an electric guitar with lots of distortion and compression and is a riff that he says sounds great when it's really nasty sounding. "It is the basic bending of the Bstring at the 8th fret while holding the high E at the 7th fret and then the following little pull-offs at either the second or third frets starting at the first string and moving across the neck. It's a really easy riff but a lot of fun to play." The thing that really makes the song in his opinion is the 4 chord which is simply accomplished by barring all the strings at the fifth fret, and that chord really sets the modal edge to the song. This is another example of a song generated from a guitar riff.

Gear Box
Wilcox plays a concert size Cedar top Rosewood back and sides guitar made by Jim Olson (11840 Sunset Ave. Circle Pine Minnesota, 55014) Wilcox feels that Jim's guitars just have more songs in them than any others. The strings that Wilcox uses are D'Addario phosphor bronze, the J19 bluegrass set, with the bigger bass strings. On stage he utilizes a Pendulum stereo preamp to mix the sound coming out of the two pickups in his guitar, one is a LR Baggs saddle pickup chosen for it's bass response and the other is the Acoustech which he feels really helps with the mid and high frequencies. Wilcox also carries two microphones, a AKG 535 for his vocals and an AKG 460 for his guitar which he mixes with the pickups at 50 to 60%,  depending on the venue. For fingerpicking Wilcox keeps his fingernails just a little longer than the flesh of his fingers.


~ Christopher

"...cultivate eloquent silence..."
- St Gregory of Sinai


~ Christopher

"...cultivate eloquent silence..."
- St Gregory of Sinai