Hospital Handshakes became the light at the end of a few tumultuous and dark years for Rocky Votolato.
After releasing his seventh album, Television of Saints, in 2012, the 38-year-old Seattle singer-songwriter found himself burned out, creatively blocked, struggling with depression and so full of self-doubt that his identity for more than 15 years as a musician seemed shaky. So he put things on pause, getting off the road, getting away from music, getting into therapy and just like that, found his way back to songwriting.
"Last summer things started breaking through and I went from writing no songs for a year to writing 30 songs in a two-month period," Votolato says. "It was a huge creative explosion for me and that's what this record is."
Looking back on that time from the other side of Hospital Handshakes, released in April on No Sleep Records, Votolato says the struggles reframed his career and his attitude toward music.
"I feel like it was a case of being way too self critical, being too much of a perfectionist," he says. "A lot of aartists get into that place, where nothing is good enough ever and I was just really down on myself, my ability to write and just what I was doing with my life. What changed it was a change of perspective, just going back to the fact that I love playing music and it's brought so many good things into my life. I have to see it that way again."
The album is joyous and cathartic, a hard-hitting, full-band record that forces Votolato’s self-doubt and depression into the open. (For this tour, he’s working with Zero Platoon, an organization dedicated to helping active-duty soldiers who are struggling with depression.)
“It’s about realizing the demons you have and trying to cast them out and the ones you can’t cast out making peace with the fact that you’ll live with them and making peace of the sit you’re in. It’s pretty heavy overall, but even though it’s dealing with depression and self-doubt, a lot of the album is about trying to get past all that,” Votolato says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s about getting back to a sense of purpose in life. For me, that’s about playing music. It’s just about getting back to work, making songs, not overthinking things and doing what I was born to do.”
To record, Votolato enlisted Chris Walla, who was embarking on his own new creative path after leaving Death Cab for Cutie. The old friends saw eye to eye on the project from the moment Votolato sent over his first batch of demos.
“Chris and I agreed that it was a band record and to keep things really urgent,” Votolato says. “It’s a part of myself artistically I’ve been denying for years. I always used to play in punk bands and I feel like I was neglecting an artistic need to express that energy. It was such an explosion itself, the writing, so I felt that was the best way to present these songs.
To record, Votolato brought in his brother Cody Votolato on electric guitar (The Blood Brothers), Eric Corson on bass (The Long Winters), Andy Lum on drums (Craft Spells/My Goodness), with Walla contributing himself on nearly every song.
“We just went with first reactions on almost everything. It was a very quick process, we spent three days with the band in pre-production and four days tracking everything live off the floor with the band,” Votolato says. “Records that are made quickly and impulsively, sometimes the energy is better and there’s not a loss of quality of you’ve got good people. That’s what was important to me, surround myself with people I trust and capture whatever came out.”