When David Wilcox talks about the music business’s penchant for hype, his speaking voice is as subtly reproachful as a raised eyebrow — almost eerie in its disciplined calm.
His singing voice, however, is an altogether different matter. Its mellow yet emotional resonance has most often drawn comparisons with James Taylor, but Wilcox shrugs them off. Though he names Joni Mitchell as a primary influence, he doesn’t really think of himself as a folk singer, or seem to have much use for the singer/songwriter umbrella that most often shelters him.
“I don’t think about it,” he maintains. “The music [business] does silly stuff, according to fashions. When you sell music that way, it’s sad.” Instead, Wilcox views his music as something wholly original — a direct channel from his soul into his listeners’.
“I play music that moves my soul [about] issues of the heart,” he says. ” It’s fearless music. If [someone is] telling the truth, it shines through.”
The truth, for Wilcox, is born in nakedly sentimental songs — sonic valentines that explore love, relationships and self-discovery.
That said, he’s more than willing to shake the clutches of his subjective muse, in order to get the job done. His prowess for sizing up a crowd, the singer allows, means fans rarely leave shows unmoved.
“I try to shape each night to fit the crowd, sort of coerce where they’re ready to go,” Wilcox explains. And geography, as well as individual personalities, seems to influence his choice of songs. Audiences in Iowa, for example, may be less receptive to songs that went over big in, say, Colorado — and vice-versa: “In different towns, the music feels different,” he relates.
Wilcox’s lucid assessments of his audiences’ needs may result from the self-therapy he enjoys during the songwriting process.
“There are times when the music tells me what I’m going into,” he offers. “There are things that come clear in music first. Whatever you love the most, what you get inside, it can open up your perceptions. It’s not venting. It’s more respecting the way my heart navigates in the world.”
Venice, a band named for its Southern California hometown, is helping Wilcox “navigate” musically, these days. They first teamed up several years ago at a Colorado folk festival, and Wilcox has been singing the band’s praises ever since.
Venice is a family outfit. Kipp and Pat Lennon and their cousins Mark and Michael Lennon comprise the seasoned quartet, a fixture in the L.A. club scene since the early ’80s. For his part, Kipp Lennon sees a lot of good in working with so many family members: “We’re one person when it comes to our goals, [with] definitely the same ideas.”
The group’s themes and lyrics harmonize nicely with Wilcox’s, but Venice’s ear-friendly fare exudes a laid-back, lighthearted charm that screams (or, rather, croons) Southern California.
The sunny-sounding band has weathered its share of storms over the years — including a failed major-record-label debut in the late ’80s. But, as family, they’ve survived what would surely have sunk another band. “You tend not to break up, [because] you see each other all the time,” Lennon explains. “You all have the same [career] goal; you grow and change together.”
And, through it all, they’ve garnered continual praise from such heavyweights as David Crosby, who has called Venice “the best vocal group in the country, and one of the best bands of any kind I have ever heard.”
Lennon considers the group’s latest CD, Born and Raised (Vanguard 1997), to be their most heartfelt. Recorded in a secluded studio high in the California hills, the disc reflects their newly stripped-down style.
“In a [traditional studio], the clocks are ticking; you’re spending thousands per day,” he points out, adding, “It’s not conducive to the emotions of the song.”
Venice is frequently likened to such groups as Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, and Lennon seems pleased — albeit a bit skeptical. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he observes. “They’re always comparing us to some really great groups. Not that many groups do harmony. But we’re not trying to sound like those groups.”
And some of that resemblance, says Lennon, may be purely a function of geography: “It’s a Southern California [thing], the sound and the sentiment. We’re proud of it, but it’s not calculated.”