Dave Wilcox brings some weight to Northampton's Parlor Room
"I try to put big ideas into songs," the folk singer-songwriter told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.
With his latest tunes drawing inspiration from, for example, Viktor Frankl (author of "Man's Search for Meaning") and a friend's metaphor for depression, Wilcox will arrive at The Parlor Room in Northampton on Sunday night with some heavy lyrics in tow. But, in his opinion, Wilcox didn't always bring such weighty writing to his audiences.
"I had some really bad directions starting out in terms of my personal mythology of love and all that, so there are songs like, 'How good would it feel to be needed by me,'" the 59-year-old said. He was referencing the opening line of "Please Don't Call," a song off of his 1994 album, "Big Horizon."
"It's just this horribly, haunted song — twisted weird," he said.
For instance, one stanza in the tune about power dynamics in a romantic relationship goes, "If you would just take me, take all of me / take everything in trade for just a taste of you / until they find me lying cold / and they check my blood for just a trace of you."
Even if Wilcox cringes when recalling some of his youthful verses, his early work was critically successfully. In 1988, he was one of the winners of the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk award and, after taking in a 1992 show in New York City, Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote that Wilcox "sings with a mellow fluency that suggests a hybrid of [James] Taylor and Kenny Rankin, but he has better enunciation than either."
Wilcox, who, like Taylor, has spent much of his life in North Carolina, balks at comparisons to the folk star because of their songs' different subject matter. Still, his sound certainly evokes the man who fills Tanglewood nearly every summer in songs such as "How Did You Find Me Here," the title track of Wilcox's first album after signing with A&M Records in 1989.
That record may very well have been the commercial peak of Wilcox's career, but if you believe the artist, his songwriting has blossomed since then.
"I'm smarter now," he said.
Take, for instance, a tune called "Forest Fire" he wrote for his latest album. It stems from a conversation he had with a California friend more than a decade ago. He would call the man whenever one of the state's rampant fires made the news, checking to make sure he was OK. Sometimes, he wasn't in danger. On other occasions, he would say he was surrounded by smoke.
"It's weird because when he talked about the cloud of darkness that was lingering over his house, he said, 'Well, at least it's a cloud that everyone can see.' And he suffers from depression, and I realized that what he was talking about was that there's a lot of times when he's under this cloud, but it's a clear sunny day. And it's not the kind of cloud you can talk about. So for him, at least having this camaraderie with the neighbors about what it is they're experiencing together was kind of a refreshing thing," Wilcox said.
Writing about this revelation was a challenge, though.
"You're making a physical analogy, and the weird part of it is, what I'm saying about depression is that it is a cloud. It does constrict your throat, and it does make your eyes water, and yet it's not there. So you can do that with a story. You can do that with a movie. But with a song, you tend to want to have one person in one point in time feeling one thing. That's what songs are really good at," he said.
He eventually found the right poetic device for conveying the very real effects of depression in a figurative manner while riding his bicycle one day. An avid cyclist, Wilcox has pedaled throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, including on many roads in Western Massachusetts. The exercise's boost to his composition wasn't a one-time occurrence.
"It gives my mind a little something to do," he said of cycling. "There's enough to worry about that it takes some attention, and yet...I find myself just able to focus," he said.
According to Wilcox, this expansion of his creativity has resulted in lyrics that explore topics as deep as living fully in desperate times, a Frankl concept.
"I know how to get to ideas that I couldn't get to before," Wilcox said.
His audiences will just have to keep up.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
Who: David Wilcox
When: Sunday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. (doors 6:30 p.m.)
Where: The Parlor Room, 32 Masonic Street, Northampton
Tickets: $20 (plus $4.21 fee) in advance; $25 at the door
Information: 413-923-2800; ticketfly.com
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