It’s helpful to remember that when you hear the phrase “singer-songwriter,” there’s really only one person attached to that particular concept.
Take David Wilcox, for example. One of the rising stars of singer-songwriter consciousness in the ’80s, his insightful songs display a wryness and wit that’s easily underestimated when you bathe in the silky goodness of his warm and welcoming baritone while you listen. It’s a voice that lilts as much as it lulls. He’s great at bantering when he performs — seemingly rambling between the mundane and the profound and then back again, picking the beautiful open-tuned acoustic guitar that he articulates as an extension of his gentle id. Part folksinger and part folk philosopher, he’s particularly skilled at reining in the rambles when it’s time to get down to work and weave his singular magic, straddling axes of both troubadour and craftsman. Running beneath that voice there is the undercurrent of an edge, an edge that is a direct line that runs from the brain to the eyes down to the fingers outwardly innocuously plucking those strings, playing songs that sound so smooth. Using specially designed and altered capos created for his guitar — an insular and individual artistic pursuit in itself — he gives to his audience the totality of his individuality that’s developed and evolved over a proud three decades’ worth of music.
With sales of over 750,000 records, it would be difficult to think of David Wilcox as a solitary figure soldiering through the landscape of modern popular music. And yet, all the way from the basic act of writing a song to being up there all alone on a stage, musicianship at its core is an inherently solitary pursuit.
It’s not for nothing that the cover of Wilcox’s first album, The Nightshift Watchman, depicts a man with a guitar slung over one shoulder, looking down upon a city from a hilltop. The image is one of solitude — which isn’t the same as loneliness — and it gives insight to how he must have viewed his place in the world as an artist at the time. It’s also an image brimming with hope, because even with the uncertainty that comes with a new day, the sun still rises. It’s a kind of hope that’s evident throughout his songbook, with titles like “Do I Dare,” “Sunshine on the Land” and “Don’t Look Back” on his latest album, Blaze. It’s a record that he describes as “About feeling very much alive. . . . It’s about the point where the prairie suddenly changes, and the road drops down as the land goes from endless flat to carved-out canyon-lands.” Watching him perform live, you get a real sense that he’s been out there in those canyons and the lands beyond. He describes himself as primarily a storyteller; and over 30 years, the places he’s been and those experiences unique to him as an individual are distilled and given to his audiences like rare gifts.
As of last year, Wilcox has started a service called Custom Built Songs, a situation that begins with a telephone call between him and one of his fans. The conversation that follows, and all the inspiration that that implies, takes the form of a song specially tailored to the life experiences of the other person down the line. These keepsakes, as cherished and treasured as any family heirloom, represent a rare moment in time during which artist and subject come into close, intimate contact with one another. While the concept of artists creating art for patrons isn’t a new one, the fact that it’s so specific and focused is new to Wilcox’s world. In this way, the people for whom he writes these songs have their own feelings heard and transformed. That their stories are committed to immortality by virtue of becoming a song is one of the most transcendent things that art can accomplish.
It makes you feel less alone.
David Wilcox appears at the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club on Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. (6 p.m. doors). Tickets available at Ojai Coffee Roasting Co., Studio Sauvageau and Ojai Creates in Ojai; and at Cardinali Bros. Music in Meiners Oaks. For more information, call 665-8852 or visit www.ojaiconcertseries.com.