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Happy Birthday, David Wilcox!

| March 9, 2011 | 2 Comments

For David Wilcox, music is a personal compass for finding his way home. Lining it up with something deep inside, his words become image-filled poetry that dance to an internal rhythm. Challenging situations, elusive ideas, and long-suppressed feelings are directed into inspiring metaphors of hope. Coupled with a seamless melody, it is all delivered in the language of his heart.

A perpetual self-taught student of music, Wilcox maintains his creative approach and simply lets the sound guide him. “When I’m writing a song, instead of pretending that I know what I’m doing, I imagine the guitar knows much more,” he says. “I just want to be a good servant—just to listen and tell myself ‘the guitar knows the song.”

To celebrate David’s 53rd birthday today, here are bits of a conversation I had with him in 1993, when he was 35. I love his approach to learning and honoring music, and re-reading this I’m inspired all over again. Thanks Dave, for all these years of sharing your music and your muse, and happy, happy birthday.

When did you first pick up the guitar?

In 1977, when I was a student at Ohio’s Antioch College, I was listening to a woman playing in a stairwell and I’d never heard anything like it. She was playing Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain” and I told her that a friend of mine was trying to figure it out. And since it was in open tuning I couldn’t just ask her to write down the names of the chords because it was a different way of playing. But she said that she could show me, so I just learned the fingering so that I could show my friend. Then she loaned me her guitar and I stayed up all night trying to find that sound. It still surprises me how it knows my heart so well.

Did you ever take guitar lessons?

I think I took about 4 or 5 lessons, trying to find someone who seemed to be playing for the same reason. It was very frustrating. I met a lot of people who thought that you should approximate music and it was hard to find people who had the same attitude of just wanting to enjoy music. Falling in love with the sound of the instrument and respecting that that music is present tense, it’s right now. And if it’s just the instrument and me, that’s an audience and that’s great. So I considered myself a listener even though my fingers were encouraging the guitar to make that sound. It was not so much “look what I can do,” it was “look what this guitar can do.” That was hard to find a teacher that had that kind of attitude.

Do you finish most of the songs that you start?

There are songs that I come back to work on again and again, songs that I tend to keep writing to get right. Those songs don’t necessarily ever get finished. But what they are is the discipline that gets me thinking musically and emotionally inside the lyric and when I get opened up like that then another song usually pops out quickly. So the songs that I write are not the ones I start out trying to work on. I think it’s a good combination to keep slugging away at the songs that you know are in there somewhere but they keep breaking the line and getting away. Meanwhile there’s some that just jump into your boat.

How do you work through writer’s block?

Someone said that writer’s block is a truth indicator. If you have some structure going and you feel like you have to finish out the rest and it just stops, it’s because it’s not the right direction. Something inside you says, “that’s not true, I can’t say that,” and so it just stops. And if you admit that you need to tear some things down and rebuild—that you had the house half-built and it wasn’t on the right foundation—you tear it down and move it over and do it right. Then everything goes fine. If you insist on going on and trying to force that, it’ll push back. It’s just a way of keeping you honest.

Is there a certain method that you use to bring your melodies and lyrics together?

I collect a lot of musical riffs just stringing up the guitar. Not tuning it right, but just listening to where the strings are when you crank them tight, and kind of tuning each string to the nearest half step and trying to find some way to play it. Finding ridiculously strange open tunings where everything you know is wrong and you have to start over. And I like finding riffs like that and putting them down on a cassette. And I also enjoy keeping a journal of ideas that are moving me, stuff that I’m learning about, stuff that I’m believing in, so as I keep these musical ideas coming there are some that remind me of ideas that I’ve been writing about. And I kind of see them as wallflowers on either side of a dance floor. And when the two of them get together they waltz their way into a song.

Do you avoid playing the melody notes on your guitar?

If you have a nice guitar riff that has a melody and then you sing that melody, it’s like a choir that has too many unisons and not enough harmony. You’ve got seven parts—six strings and one voice—and it’s fun to respect the fact that you can do some pretty fancy orchestrating to give each one a part that really stands on its own.

When did you start experimenting with tunings?

Joni Mitchell’s tunings came first for me, so the regular tuning was really about the fourth tuning that I learned. From listening to her records I learned a lot of open tunings and just kind of got the ear for experimenting by trying to find them. A lot of times I would figure out a song and find out it wasn’t the right tuning, but mine was pretty interesting, too. So it keeps me in that beginner’s mindset where I’m really appreciating the instrument and not starting to think that I can control it. But wanting more to be surprised by it. Wanting more to just fall in love with some new inversions and voicings.

You are a very inspiring musician because you seem to stay in a perpetual state of learning—as soon as you learn something, you change everything you know about it.

I like being playful with music, not telling people that there’s a right way and a discipline and only one path and all. I feel like letting yourself re-invent musical instruments by changing them around makes it so much easier to stay creative. You don’t have the editor in your own mind telling you what you know and what you don’t. Just believe that the instrument makes beautiful music when you pick it up and sound the strings and to start from there. That’s the music right there in your lap. If it’s just for you, that’s enough. For someone that you love, that’s a privilege.

Can you describe what music means to you?

For me it’s like a compass that lines itself up with something I can’t feel directly. But if I line myself up with the music that feels the best, that will somehow keep me in line with where my life ought to go. I feel really lucky to be able to feel music so deeply. And I hope that everybody can have something that they feel that deeply. That they love so much that it can guide them. Whether its kayaking or the study of the migration patterns of butterflies. Whatever it is there’s always an inside to it, there’s a place where the deeper knowledge connects, metaphorically, with everything else. And if there’s something that you’re really willing to work that hard at, like if it’s archaeology and you’re really willing to dig that deep, you’ll find that it opens up and you’ve found deeper places in yourself.

—By Lydia Hutchinson

Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 2, September/October 1993

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (2)

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  1. Lydia says:

    So glad you enjoyed it — re-reading it brought back so many great memories for me. That was one of my first interviews after I started the magazine, and I remember driving 5 hours to Asheville to meet him at a little health food restaurant. We talked so long that I ran out of room on my cassette tape, but was too embarrassed to tell him so I just kept going; I was totally flailing my way through this new world of owning a magazine without really having a clue. Then he invited me back to his house to listen to some of the songs that were going to be on Big Horizons — Nate was just a baby and he was there with a sitter. Then we sat out on his back porch and I showed him my new guitar that I brought and was so proud of, and he played a songs on it. I was in heaven. Then I got in my car and drove the 5 hours back home. I love that no matter how much time or life passes, I’ll always have these little memories to look back on and be so grateful.

  2. Elizabeth L in Apex, NC says:

    This was a great article, and I’m looking forward to going back to the original, too. Thanks for publishing on one of my favorite artists of all time!

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