He grew up entrenched in what he calls "that whole Jackson Brown thing," taking courage from the lyrical honesty of songwriters like Joni Mitchell.
"It was a new idea to really be honest," David Wilcox recalls of his formative years during the peak of the singer-songwriter era, speaking by phone with the Indy from his home in North Carolina. "To offer up the best of what you've found and give people a view into your heart and soul, the way you see the world ... you could actually get to know somebody through their music. You can listen to everything Frank Sinatra ever sang and not know anything about Frank."
Wilcox took what he learned and moved to the head of the class, setting the standard for a second generation of singer-songwriters. He's never shied away from revealing truths about himself, and, in doing so, he has struck universal chords in his listeners by touching on the kinds of characters and experiences they've shared.
"The goal is to sing the soundtrack of people's lives," says Wilcox. "In order to do that a song has to be quirky and strange and specific. It just doesn't read emotionally to speak in generalities. It doesn't really do anything unless there's blood, real life in it."
Finding his own identity was a gradual process of evolution that began as he internalized the songs of his musical role models. "There was a time when I was just learning other people's songs, and it felt really powerful, it felt strong," he remembers, his voice filling with nostalgic enthusiasm. "I felt like changing little bits of the lyric here and there, because it wasn't entirely true for me. Then I wound up writing a different verse. And then I found myself with a new lyric to somebody else's song. Then I would find myself writing songs."
Bear in mind that this process culminated in the middle of the '80s in the wake of MTV, punk, techno, dance club, and pointy-boob pop. Though it may have been an inauspicious climate for a return to "wooden music," Wilcox contends that the popular trends gave his music "that wonderful revolutionary feeling that you can't trust the professionals. Music is too important. We need to take music back into our own hands. That's why it was acoustic, because it was cheap, because it was light, because you could carry it on to the sidewalk and be a street musician, and you could move people with language and stir people's hearts."
Long before the critical accolades and popular approval met his work, Wilcox surprised himself with the power of the process. "At first, only a good song could make me feel that good, but I wanted to find work that would make me feel that good and a lover that would make me feel that good and a place to live that would make me feel that good. Little by little I just kept following that one compass, that one direction of trying to sing my life and live my music, kind of stir them all together."
These days, Wilcox is able to fully live his music by taking off for writing retreats to work on new songs. He recently returned from a productive retreat, and he is enthusiastic about his new songs and the feeling that he has finally hit his stride as a songwriter.
A relentlessly self-analytical artist, Wilcox describes his songs as emotional snapshots from fleeting moments of sanity and clarity. "When you bring back your photographs from your vacation you look through and you say, 'Ah, look at that turquoise blue water.' Or you look at the vista from the mountaintop when you hiked all the way up. It's powerful how I can get back inside an emotion that I had a year ago if I put it really honestly inside a song. Then I can remember a perspective that I really wanted to hold on to. A perspective of 'Oh I see, I'm here. I'm going there. I was there.' The mountaintop perspective is one that's hard to hold onto, but the song can keep it there for me."
After spending most of his career writing songs driven primarily by lyrics, Wilcox has recently begun experimenting with letting the melodies serve as the catalytic force in his songs. "I can shape the words around a melody much better than I can shape a melody around the words. I can sometimes find myself with phrasings that are not necessarily conversational, but they have layers, and the words have a playful jaggedness to them that can really open up a lot of other meanings. So lately I write the melody first, I harmonize it, I make the melody as interesting and singable as I can, and then I start messing with the phrasing and finding words that fit the phrase. From there, ideas will kind of trick themselves out of my self-conscious and I'll find myself suddenly focused emotionally and I'll know what the song is about. I used to think that a song was a good idea that you sing. Now I think it's melody first and the melody draws out the emotion."
Another significant change in approach for Wilcox has been to step back from what he calls the "daring emotional kamikaze thing that I was doing. I would be so insanely open and honest that it was disarming. There was something cool about that, and yet, in some ways, it's kind of rude, you know?" He's using humor more, relying on subtlety and letting his listeners make the connections. "I think songs work better if they don't have to come barging in and demand all your pity," he explains.
Ultimately for Wilcox, all roads lead to the live stage. "I've always considered the albums to be an invitation to the show," says Wilcox. "The vibe for me on a live show is getting tuned it with the energy of the crowd, getting them ready little by little to stretch more and more emotionally. There's a sea of souls out there. That's the instrument you're playing. You're playing a room full of emotions. And everything else is really just nothing compared to that. See, it's the subtext, it's the intention, it's the sensitivity to the vibe of the audience."
Wilcox's Colorado Springs concert, part of a short winter tour before he returns to songwriting, is his first of the new year. When asked if his concert will be Y2K compliant, Wilcox erupts in laughter. "That would be great," he says. "I would love that. Sudden malfunction. I start singing Barry Manilow songs. That would be great."