Asheville guitarist-songwriter David Wilcox has been at the vanguard of American folk music since the late 1980s. His observational storytelling and lyrical turns of phrase have earned him a loyal following throughout this country and beyond. Sixteen studio albums into his career, he’s still finding new things to say.
Today, we go deep with Wilcox about his songcraft, his vein of inspiration through the pandemic and the range of emotion he mined for his newest record, “My Good Friends.” We also get into his obsessive compulsion about a particular make and model of motorcycle.
Wilcox celebrates the release of his latest record with a solo performance Nov. 24 at the Grey Eagle.
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Matt Peiken: I know of storytellers and musicians who tell stories have utilized the motorcycle as a vehicle for their observation. Is that something that has been a seed of or an Oracle for you in terms of your observations onto the world and how you've ended up putting them into verse?
David Wilcox: I think motorcycles were there long before I was thinking about poetry and language and music Motorcycles were my main thing until I was 18 and then the guitar jumped into my lap and said hey You've got a heart. I said Oh what? I didn't understand, but gradually the guitar has taught me how to become human. I was more mechanical before.
Matt Peiken: And you said the motorcycle was there first, though. Yeah. Did you see the two as having a symbiotic relationship at all?
David Wilcox: I don't know. I felt like there was... The sense of adventure and the sense of going places I hadn't been before, one was physical and one was emotional, but more it was just the exhilaration, just the there's something new, there's something around the corner that I hadn't seen.
Matt Peiken: How many motorcycles do you have? Is this, and is this a new one that you have?
David Wilcox: This one I've had for 33 years. I have four of them. Four.
Matt Peiken: Four motorcycles. Which one did you ride
David Wilcox: here today? I rode the white one. What's the model? What is it? I have four of the same model. What? It's a Honda Pacific Coast.
Matt Peiken: Why do you have four Honda Pacific Coast?
David Wilcox: It's a 12 step program. There's been an intervention in my family, but so far I still have four motorcycles.
Matt Peiken: That's interesting. I was going to say, God, that's crazy, but I don't want to use the term crazy when there might be some sort of. Some actual medical condition. I don't want to diagnose you here. Do each of your motorcycles have a distinct personality even though they're the same model?
David Wilcox: Not really. They have different stories and the most recent one is a barn find that spent 30 years not moving. And so it's basically brand new.
Matt Peiken: You remind me of, there's a musician who died a number of years ago. A drummer named Neil Peart who was the drummer from Rush. And he was a big motorcycle enthusiast. He used to ride his motorcycles. To every gig he wouldn't ride on the bus with the band And he wrote at one point after some tragic deaths in his family. He spent 55,000 miles on the road. You know about that.?
David Wilcox: Oh, yeah.
Matt Peiken: Wow Can you relate to him in that way of the solitude of the road? and Just being in your own Head in that way, even though you're out in the world.
David Wilcox: As a way of dealing with sorrow, it does bring you to the present moment, which is sometimes the best medicine.
And it brings you to the present moment with a certain sense of consequence and danger. You have to pay attention. You have to be in the moment or you die. And so you... Begrudgingly, put aside your sorrows while you're going a hundred miles an hour and concentrate on where you are. And sometimes it takes something that drastic to shake us out of our stories of the past and come back into the moment.
I didn't mean to say that his tragedies were. something that should be just shaken off. Losing his wife and his daughter. Wow. That's, that took a lot of miles to get through. And his bandmates didn't even know where he was. I love that.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. They would just get an occasional postcard to let them know he was alive.
Yeah. You talk about the, about shaking off tragedies and I'm wondering, or is there a sense of also digesting tragedies and trauma? In a way that is both personal and communal for you.
David Wilcox: And I would take it a step further than the word digest. I would say metabolize. I would say that sorrow could be changed with the right language and there is a transformation that happens in the heart when we open our sorrows to this bigger perspective. And I don't quite know how to explain that, but I have felt it all my life with songwriting, where I'll start writing an angry song and it turns into a compassionate song. And I, honest to God, didn't see it coming.
And it's a way of... Changing a limited perspective into a bigger perspective and so I've come to call it metabolizing sorrow and it changes it into usable energy.
Matt Peiken: It's interesting that you frame it this way, that at least in terms of an example that you can go from entering with a point of anger and in the course of your songwriting.
Come out with a more uplifting or hopeful, or at least a quelled anger. And I can hear that on the new record. Is that something, do you think that has permeated that arc of your own journey within the course of a song? Has that permeated your songwriting since almost the beginning or has that evolved over time?
David Wilcox: It is, it has been with me for a long time. And the most important thing, the thing that I value the most, is that it has permeated my life and I'm able to feel that kind of emotional shift often when I'm in conversation, not just when I'm writing about it later.
Matt Peiken: Do you think that's because as you're writing, you're not just expressing, you're receiving?
David Wilcox: That's definitely the way it feels, and a lot of writers describe it that way. I like to think of it as, as finding something that's there. And maybe that's just a device. To somehow sustain the audacity of believing that your tiny little fragment of an idea could actually be something worth digging into.
But it's archeology where you find a little shard of something and you trust that the rest of it is under there somewhere. I
Matt Peiken: have to imagine, you tell me if I'm wrong in this, that would have to be essential for you to feel confident and open. Many decades now into your songwriting life to continually mine those gems that you have to be receiving and your radar has to be up all the time, even in the course of songwriting, or else you would just hit dead ends.
Am I wrong in that?
David Wilcox: What makes me laugh is I would think so too. I would think there, there, I would somehow have exhausted whatever vein I had been mining and yet it seems to open into beautiful Perceptions of plenty and I'm writing more than ever now, and it feels to me like I've learned how and it's taken 40 years or whatever it's been, but I've actually learned my way around the wilderness of this writing and what it feels like now is I Used to be able to find my way just by wandering. I would have a particular idea for a song, but I didn't quite know how it would work. So I would try this and try that. If you were given a wilderness challenge, and you were dropped in the middle of a forest somewhere. They took the blindfold off and they said, Okay, find your way back home.
Good luck. I would find my way, but it would take a couple weeks and I would have to, go downhill to the river and then follow the river downstream and get to the road and find the road. But now it feels like I can be dropped anywhere in the forest and basically smell where I have to go.
I just know it. I can make a beeline for. I know where this song is going, and I know how to get there. And it's a weird sort of sense of... It's not so much that I've learned how to write songs, it's that I know my heart. I know the complexity of an emotion, and I can feel... The character that would be feeling that emotion and I can imagine the scene that would bring out that Catalyst of change or whatever it is that the song is about and it just comes to me now It's really fun.
Matt Peiken: You said a few things there I think is really eye opening one of which that you're writing now more than ever. Yeah, you mentioned a sense of smell. You can smell where this is. I don't hear songwriters often talk in terms of their sense of smell. And maybe you were just using that as a metaphor, but I do sense in your writing that it's not just conceptual, you're not just using concepts to find your next step ahead, that you're finding, you said, seeing, you can see a scene, you can smell a scene, is that something that takes years of craftsmanship? Or is that intuitive? Is that something somebody has or they don't or senses that can be developed through consciousness?
David Wilcox: I think it's both. I think it definitely developed in me. And there are people who just had it. And it's haunting when you listen to the way Bob Dylan described how he Had that thing and doesn't have that thing and this was decades ago when he was talking, people would ask, why don't you write a song like "masters of war?"
And he would basically say, have you tried it? He said, that was a thing that came through me. I don't know what it was. I can't do that anymore. I can do this. So he describes it as, this possession of some sort of magical thing that came through. And, he was basically typing out these songs in the time it took to type them.
And I love that that happens. But to me, that's the lottery mentality. It's not sustainable. It's not something that you could continue to strive for, hoping that will happen. So I'm much more satisfied just trusting that. tHe conventions of song were not invented arbitrarily.
They came out of human experience. And if I delve deep into my own heart and my own experience, I can reinvent the way the song has to be. I can reverse engineer from my life experience, how The song should have an analogous pattern. I think most of songwriting is really just knowing your heart.
And if you're going to set a particular emotion in a story. Then the most important thing is in that story, who's the characters, like who is talking to whom and why? That's the crucial part. The why, because if someone's going to, burst into song, they must have a powerful reason to do so, and I imagine.
That when you know these characters, it's like fiction authors talk about, I just got inside those characters and let them go.
Matt Peiken: Do you see it the same way in your songwriting? Do you see sort of disembodied from yourself as you're approaching this from a vantage of a different character?
Sometimes not yourself.
David Wilcox: Oh, well said. Yes. I do think that There are songs that reflect what I'm going through, but I sometimes don't know it until weeks after the song is written and I've been singing it and suddenly I realize, Oh, this is a mirror. I didn't even know that. I thought it was a window.
But yeah, it's fascinating how songs can turn like that.
Matt Peiken: and you teach songwriting workshops at your retreats. You talk about songwriting to people who want to learn from you. On one hand, you're being very specific, and on the other hand, it's so elusive to find this. Way of tapping into other characters to sense whose story you're telling and who you're telling it to you also mentioned that this is through years has developed over years.
I had imagined just through life experience. You just Have deeper bank to draw from then you could have in your twenties or thirties.
David Wilcox: Yeah, I've heard a lot of stories and known a lot of people and been through a lot of things myself that give me a sense Of direction in the emotional compass.
Yeah, that is a really nice way to say it That's just felt so many things in my life
Matt Peiken: And it's interesting though when you take the industry as a whole the music industry It values youth. It values young artists coming up, and I love young artists coming up. I'm a fan of many, but it's so difficult for artists of a certain generation who've been around a while to have a relevance, a mainstream or popular relevance with their Yeah.
It's really different. Why do you think that is? When you would think that your life experience and the richness from which you're drawing from can only strengthen your music, why do you think there is such an emphasis on youth? To the, if not detriment, to the disadvantage of seasoned artists like yourself in terms of getting new music heard and be, being seen as relevant to the current times.
David Wilcox: I think there's some presuppositions in your question that I would disagree with. I think listeners do need to hear fresh new characters, fresh new artists. It's hard to find fresh new old artists. So we tend to. Love the people that were just hearing for the first time and they happen to be young.
I think the reason why that is is because, I'll speak for myself, I love to hear a song not from a person, but I love to hear the right song at the right time that comes to me by a miraculous coincidence over the airwaves when the radio station's almost out of range and I'm driving through some godforsaken wilderness.
Now, To me, that is timing with a capital T. That is a song coming from this beautiful muse that I have trusted my whole life. And when I don't know who it is and I don't know their story, then the song can seem like it's much bigger. It's not just someone's idea. It's a song that seems like it was just for me, and it came through this miraculous coincidence.
Now, I love that. And when I hear a new song, like when I'm listening to my... Little recommended stuff on Spotify. I'll hear a song that moves me. And I'll be tempted to say, Now, who is this person? I should Google this person. And then my heart says wait. Before you Google this person, Let the song be huge.
Let the song be mystical and mysterious. You don't know where it's coming from, and I want to enjoy that and get all that I can out of that. And that is such a crucial part of what music can do for us, that I think we say to ourselves, Yeah. Maybe the artists will be better in 40 years, but in 40 years, I'll know who they are and I'll have some sense of like, yeah, that makes sense that they would write this song.
Whereas if a song comes out of nowhere, then suddenly it's like a message in a bottle that confuses and fills your heart with wonder.
Matt Peiken: You're also speaking to something that transcends a sense of time and age, where you're just closing your eyes and listening and You don't know who this artist is, you don't know how old they are.
You don't know how long they've been around, what their journey is. You're hearing something in the very present, in the moment that's resonating with you. Yeah. Is that's wonderful that you can still take in music in that very that sense of wonder and a and aliveness right away. Do you do that with your own music wish?
Are you able to
David Wilcox: do that really? I wish. I,
there's this quarterly publication for years that I got Lapham's Quarterly, that would, each issue would be on a particular topic, and there would be writers that would be identified not at the beginning of the article, but at the end of the article, and you would be reading these words, wondering wow, Who is this?
And where is this from? And when is this from? Because the writings were drawn from, 2000 years ago, all the way to now, from all over the world, translated from all of these languages. And the wisdom. was close and curiously familiar and that sense of wonder is rare in publication. I used to love not peeking at the end to find out who or when this article came to be.
But more just relying on trusting what I was getting in that moment. And yeah, I wish I could do that with my music. I wish I could hear my songs as if they were mystical transmissions from my subconscious, like dreams or something. But usually I have Much too much information of how that song came to be.
Way too much information on the cleverness that was involved. And the, and, oh, that was just a rhyme. People come to me and say, Oh, that's such a powerful line, man. You know, A tank full of minimum wage. And I say it's a rhyme dictionary and they say, what
Matt Peiken: do you utilize tools like that?
Oh yeah. That's surprising to me because at least listening to the music, the span of music I have from you, including the new record that you seem to come in. Waves of thought that it doesn't seem and perhaps this is just the craft of Seamless songwriting that you can't tell that you looked up something in I love when that happened.
David Wilcox: Yeah
Matt Peiken: One of the things that struck me about the new record Is how live sounding it is. And this is something else that strikes me about your best music is that it seems to come from that is if you're sitting right in front of the listener and just performing. It's as if you're telling a story in front of that person, you're not performing a song you've performed a hundred times.
You're performing right there for that listener. Are you being deliberate in terms of how you deliver your music? On record is that a deliberate talk about that?
David Wilcox: Oh man, there've been so many ways to try to get that freshness of that miraculous one to one communication. There have been records that I have recorded in a studio, but with a live audience.
And this time I was recording with some musicians that have such amazing ability to listen with their souls. This drummer, Bill Berg, he's such a mystical man, and he can feel what I'm thinking. But not only that, he can sense where the song is going. So there are first takes, there are recordings of him playing along with the song the first time I played it for him, and him just kind of like... sussing out, okay, I can feel a bridge coming right here and bop, he stops right at the moment that I stop. Whose thought was that? And I feel like with ears like that, with that deep listening that he can do it was as if he contained multitudes of audience. When I was singing the song for him, the song had that freshness and so these recordings even though they're relatively, simple it's bass and some overdubs, but not much, and just me and the drummer and I'm singing, playing guitar at the same time but he's in the big room.
I'm in the small room here at At the church room at Echo and and those drums sound so good with those ambient mics. And so I thought that my isolation in the studio would allow me to fix stuff if I needed to fix it. But every time I would come across something. That thought, maybe I could fix this.
I would listen to it again. And I thought, no, it's perfect.
Matt Peiken: And you said there's some overdubs. I'm even surprised to hear that because you mentioned some of these are one take. Do these songs were they written?
Within a certain window of time,
David Wilcox: They're pandemic songs? Most of them.
Matt Peiken: Yes. Yeah. Some of them are very obviously about that. Like "Jolt," I listened to "Jolt," and some aren't. And because they're pandemic era songs, did that also communicate to you, you want to keep this a very raw recording, a very raw, simple, intimate recording.
David Wilcox: Yeah. I think, momentum was the key with these and it's through Michael Selvern, this wonderful producer and a mystic lover of music. And he had introduced me to Bill Berg and we set up these sessions at Echo Mountain that were so inspiring. And there is something so fun about making that.
That nervous, got to do it right now moment so intense when you're in a studio and it's beautiful and it's expensive at home. I have all the time in the world, which is not necessarily a good thing.
I mentioned Michael Selvern, we're working on a longer term project that actually started before this record and we thought was going to come out first, but It's a more complex, more orchestrated record, and we're mixing it now, and it's very beautiful.
The one that's coming out next year. Yeah, and so that, the second record, next year's record, was actually going to be the first record, but then it took so long that this record sort of jumped the line, because this record was done so fast, we thought, okay let's just put it out now.
Matt Peiken: That's interesting to me, that you can take this body of songs, That you're working on this record that's taking a long time. And then this whole other body of music comes to you. Did that relegate the first batch of songs? Did that sort of make them out of date?
David Wilcox: No, it didn't. Fascinating. A song that nobody's heard is still a new song. And I love that they are. Just cooking longer, it's the kind of meal that has to simmer for, like a year.
Matt Peiken: I can make, you can make music both ways. You can work in the immediacy and get, do this and not overthink it. And then you can take another batch of songs and work them and marinate them over time. And one isn't preferable to you than the other.
David Wilcox: No, they're both beautiful in their own way. I love taking my time and getting it right and listening for how the songs want to evolve.
Not just what I do, but what they want.
Matt Peiken: Anything on the new record Or the one even that's coming out 24 that broaches or breaks new ground for you.
David Wilcox: Oh, yeah, interesting stuff. I'm trusting that when a song idea comes to me, I should follow it, even if I don't understand it yet, there was a song that started by noticing an emotion that I had and.
Describing that emotion to someone as man, it was as if I just pulled my heart back from the situation as if I was so cautious of getting immersed and getting fooled in this situation. My heart kind of rose up out like a crane shot in an old movie. And I noticed that. That sort of physiological experience, that emotional experience of my heart kind of pulling back out of a situation and equating that to the visuals of a crane shot where the point of view of the camera gets higher and higher till you see the tops of the buildings to me, that was such a lovely image and I thought, I wonder if that's possible.
I wonder if a song can make that somehow Something that's understandable emotionally. And so I dove into this song and I felt like, oh, it must be a story about a noir film where somebody shows up and they think they know the story and then there's some huge surprise. Like the kind of movie that once you see the end.
You have to watch it again because everything's different than what you thought it was. Like the film, like The Usual Suspects or something like that, and I love that in this song, there's this guy who is just completely befuddled by how wrong he was. And at the same time, he has this experience of his heart pulling back.
And he almost has to smile because he thinks to himself, Oh, this is the usual cliché. This is the way the movie ends when, the guy gets betrayed by his best friend. This is not original at all. Everyone has felt this. What song was this? I think it's called. This is how it ends Maybe it's the last song. Okay. Yeah.
Matt Peiken: You mentioned how it came from an emotion there was a situation But you mined the emotion of it.
David Wilcox: Oh, actually I started with the emotion. The situation was a composite character figuring out how to see that particular emotion.
So I had to find the character.
Matt Peiken: Is that a normal pathway or is that a common pathway for you?
David Wilcox: No, that's a departure. That's really different. It's, it was really fun. Usually I start with, I know who the characters are, but this one, I had the feeling, and then I thought. Okay, this is an intense feeling. Now, who would be feeling this and why?
Matt Peiken: One thing that, you know, I first met you several years ago when I went to one of your retreats and I was fascinated with this community of people who are not only devoted to you as an artist, but to a certain way of thinking creatively and wanting to open themselves up to you.
And so I want to tell my listeners now about this camp, this retreat you do. How long have you been doing this?
David Wilcox: I guess it has happened. I don't know. More than a dozen times, but I don't know if it will continue to happen in the way it has before now We're doing these other adventures. There's a castle in Italy that we're gonna go to again.
That is Spectacular and it's the same kind of feeling. It's just a more inspiring setting
Matt Peiken: Oh really? So it's still taking songwriting at its core and music at its core But just moving it elsewhere and no longer at Lake Kanuga?
David Wilcox: Right, it doesn't feel like it's about songwriting to me I mean, that's my path But there are a lot of other kinds of artists that are there that want to talk about inspiration.
Matt Peiken: Tell me about what was the initial genesis? Why did you start having these retreats? And how has that evolved to the why now?
David Wilcox: Yeah it's fascinating because the first retreat happened when I wasn't even there. People who had this music in common and were an online community decided to meet in person.
And, they invited me, but I was, apparently I had a gig or something. And then the second time it was happening, I said I got to find out what's going on with these. And so I went And then I realized that, wow, it is fascinating seeing the kind of people that come through the filter of my music.
They're interesting people. They're people that I would love to get to know. Because I've put so much of myself into the music that the people who find it and like it we have a lot in common and actually I didn't start this idea. I followed it.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. And now there are about several dozen who come to this retreat every year, right?
So what have you learned about your music through them that you would not maybe have known on your own?
David Wilcox: Yeah. The most surprising thing is when I have a lyric that is written second person. And it turns on me, and I feel the same lyric being spoken to me from the music, from the people who like this music.
If there's a song of compassion that's speaking to people about like, I see your true self and I see that you're going through a lot, but you should know that, you have this sort of beautiful integrity to your personality and your spirit. And then when that lyric comes back at me, that's humbling and it makes me smile.
Matt Peiken: It comes back at you through your fans who are. holding onto that line in a certain way. In a way
David Wilcox: that, what happens is, I sing a song that I think I know, in the presence of people who are feeling it in a way that I hadn't expected. And through their response, through their, in the moment, their emotion, It transmits to me and I hear the song in a new way.
It's happened several times, but it always surprises me.
Matt Peiken: I know you have the show coming up at the Gray Eagle. What are your tour plans or what other plans do you have afoot beyond the 2024 album?
David Wilcox: There's a lovely West Coast tour coming up that I'm going to do with Jean Rowe. She's opening the shows and it's a lot of stops along the way. I think it's just going south to north all the way up the West Coast. So that's gonna be really fun.
Matt Peiken: Will you be on your Honda? Will you be on your motorcycle?
David Wilcox: I wish! You don't tour with that? I have gone to a couple gigs with the guitar on the back of the motorcycle, but it's not very aerodynamically efficient.
Matt Peiken: Are you taking the full band out for this tour?
David Wilcox: No I've only toured with a band one year and that was many years ago. Oh, why is that?
Matt Peiken: Because some of your records, obviously a lot of your records is made with a full band. Why do you decide to perform largely beyond economics? I know economics play into it, but is there also another reason that you do this beyond the money?
David Wilcox: Yes, there is. Years ago when I had a band and, two guitar players, bass player, drummer, it was a lovely band.
We were so good. And the people who love my music would respond on, the internet and they would say, we just like to see Dave solo. And I'd say I just spent all this money on a bus and diesel and five hotel rooms and it doesn't make it better. It made it fun.
It made it exhilarating. But it didn't make it better. Not at the heart level. It was weird. And so I just decided, wow I guess this storytelling, this personal thing, this sort of person to person thing, it really has to be this close focus thing. And, I love the challenge of playing solo. And I'm much more agile in terms of what I can play when the band always wanted to have a set list.
So it's much easier just to respond to the song that I need to play right now.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. Is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like your audience or people listening to this to know about where you're at right now?
David Wilcox: I'm grateful for what you've covered and it's really fun talking to you. I love how you have listened so deeply and I'm grateful. Thank you.