Rocky Votolato has been a mainstay of Seattle music since emerging on the scene fronting the band Waxwing in the late 90s. Back then, his music was heavier, more indebted to punk and emo. But the Texas transplant couldn’t shake his folk and country roots, venturing into a solo career that favored acoustic guitars and harmonica. His solo work would outlast the band across eight records.
Some 20 years later, Votolato is returning once again. After releasing Hospital Handshakes in 2015 and averaging 250 shows a year, Votolato took a seven-year hiatus to instead come home and be present with his family. It was also a chance for him to slow down his songwriting process, to let it come to himself organically. Over that time, songs did emerge on what would later become his ninth album, Wild Roots. As he was wrapping up the album for release, tragedy hit the Votolato family. His child Kienan was killed in a car accident. They were 22 years old.
In this time of grief, Rocky says that Wild Roots stands as a testament to the bonds within the Votolato family.
"I feel like it's the album I've been trying to make my whole career as a solo artist," Votolato tells KEXP. "And it finally came together and I'm so proud of it, and I just really look forward to everybody hearing it."
Each song is written for a different family member – siblings, nephews and nieces, and his children. It’s one of Votolato’s most tender, nuanced, and all-around lovely releases to date. I talked caught up with Votolato to talk about the writing process of Wild Roots, the family who inspired it, and finding healing through releasing the music.
Listen to an audio version of this feature and read an extended version below.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KEXP: It's been about seven years since your last full album, 2015's Hospital Handshakes, and you've had a few keys in between there, like Sawdust & Shavings. What made you decide now was the time to put out new material and what was going on for you in those in-between years?
Rocky Votolato: That's a great question. You know, after the touring wrapped up on Hospital Handshakes and finished up that album cycle, I just really wanted to be home with my family more than ever. And we got a new dog around that time and I just I really wanted to be home with him and, you know, just make up for lost time with the family after so many years of being out on the road, you know, 250 shows a year. I just, you know... I also decided I wanted to let the writing come to me a bit more organically and, you know, not rush things just for the sake of getting a record out to keep the tour machine going. You know, I feel like a lot of artists fall into that and I definitely was feeling that way. And yeah, I just ended up taking, you know, a few different contracts and freelance jobs to make ends meet in that time. And, of course, it was a pandemic. I was just doing what I could to keep the writing process pure and keep myself at home with my family. And yeah, I decided to just make being 100% happy with the record the main priority, no matter how long it might take. And just took my time with the record and didn't want to sacrifice anything in terms of quality when it came to the songwriting and the production and took a lot longer than I thought it would. Just took til now.
KEXP: Good things take time.
RV: Sometimes [laughs].
KEXP: Hospital Handshakes felt like it was going back to your roots with your band Waxwing with the full band arrangements. And in contrast, Wild Roots feels more like your maybe your self-titled debut or Television of Saints, where it's more stripped down and the sparser arrangements and your vocals veer toward the softer side as opposed to the more powerful screams I've heard from you in Waxwing or on your album Suicide Medicine. What made you want to take the approach you did with these songs and this softer timbre?
RV: You know, that's a really good point about the last album. In hindsight, I realize the Hospital Handshakes definitely could have been a Waxing record, and it kind of sticks out in my solo catalog to me a bit. You know, I think if the band was still active at that time, those songs definitely would have been a Waxing album. And, you know, my brother Cody – who was also in Waxwing – he played all the heavy-hitting electric guitar on Hospital Handshakes and was a big part of producing that record with me, [he] was there with me through all the recording sessions. And so, you know, we really should have just released it as a Waxwing record [laughs]. We were joking about that the other day, actually. But I think every record to me has always been a reaction to the last one you make. And so I think maybe that's why this album is so much quieter. But the vision for Wild Roots was always a softer, warmer, kind of handcrafted, mellow sound in my mind. So, you know, I think a subtler approach was just way more fitting for these kind of stories. And just for this record in general. And I feel like it's the album I've been trying to make my whole career as a solo artist, and it finally came together and I'm so proud of it, and I just really look forward to everybody hearing it.
KEXP: Each of the songs on the new album is written for a different family member. And I feel like family has been a recurring theme I've heard in your music in the past as well. When did this concept start to take shape for you for this album and what inspired you to take this epistolary approach?
RV: You know, that's a good question. I've never made a concept album before, and this was my first time for that. But, you know, a little backstory on it. We had 15 horses on the ranch I grew up on. And so a memory of that horse pasture is what sparked the idea for the entire record. I was on tour in Europe. This must have been, I think around 2016 was kind of wrapping up the Hospital Handshakes touring cycle. And I just finished playing a show and I went out back and I saw a horse pasture and it looked really similar to the one that I grew up on. And the vision for the entire album flashed into my mind in that moment. And I knew in like in an instant that I wanted to make a concept album and I wanted to have a song for each family member and just, you know, I saw the whole vision for the record, it's the only time that's ever happened to me. And I just knew this is what I was going to be working on.
And in a way, the album kind of tells my life story and family history through the lens of my closest relationships and that was what I was trying to do. It just kind of goes on a journey from that horse ranch in Texas where I grew up to the setting of my life here in Washington now. And there's songs like "The Great Pontificator," which is very much about the move up from Texas to Seattle or like "Evergreen," you know, obviously the reference to the state and the setting here.
I just knew I wanted to have a healing quality to [the album] and I wanted to write each song as a gift for the person I was singing for and my family. I decided a long time ago that I fall more into the camp of like the Bruce Springsteen-type of artists that want to write songs to uplift people and give them something to face the day with. I always love that quote from Gertrude Stein, the American novelist, and she said that – I don't know if I'll get it just right – but something to the effect of "the artist's job is not to give in to the voice of despair, but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence." And that just had a huge impact on me and changed the course of how I related to my art. And that's the spirit I was trying to capture with this album.
KEXP: I love that so much. And I hadn't really thought about that before. And like thinking about the arc of your music, I mean, I feel like a lot of that's always been there, but maybe the earlier [music] was a little more...I don't know if "cynical" is the right word...
RV: Totally [laughs]
KEXP: Okay, maybe cynical is the right word!
RV: Bitter. Cynical. Solipsistic.
KEXP: I mean, we all have that yet, but. There's not much at all on this one though so that's interesting.
RV: Yeah, it started to work its way out of my heart intentionally as I got a little older and realized more what I wanted to do as an artist and, you know, and I'm not faulting myself for where I was then or anybody else who's in that space now. Expressing art is a journey for everybody and it's individual and it's a beautiful thing, no matter where you're coming from. Being inspired by artists like Elliott Smith and Nick Drake and guys that were obviously very, very depressed and struggling and, you know, and dealing with those struggles myself, it's like that's really the world that I came from and kind of found my way more to my philosophy of how I relate to art now.
KEXP: You talked about family and moving up from Texas. I'm curious about your family's relationship with music. When I first found your music, I found your solo music first and then dug into Waxing and worked backward. As went down the rabbit hole, I kept finding more and more Votolatos out there in the music scene. It seemed like every time I turn around, there was another one. Like your brother, Cody, was in Waxwing with you, also Blood brothers. Your brother Sonny was in Slender Means and you two have played together. I'm curious, was music a big part of your family dynamic growing up? Where did that come from?
RV: Yeah, it really was. And have you found my nephew Peren Votolato yet?
KEXP: I did! Just last night actually I was going to ask about that. What's his band again? It starts with a K.
RV: Karōshi. Yeah. He's writing great songs. I'm super proud of him. Got him his first guitar, you know, when he was just a lot younger and yeah, his band Karōshi is great, I just went and saw him at Bad Bar the other night. And he has a song on the album. It's called "Southpaw.' So there's a song for him because he's a lefty and, you know, finding left-handed guitars is tricky [laughs]. No, I'm proud of him. He's carrying on the family tradition.
But yeah, I mean, you know, my family's always been really into music. My Uncle David, actually, was kind of where it started for me in my memory. He used to come over to the horse ranch I grew up on and he would play Beatles songs and Bob Dylan songs on acoustic guitar. Once I saw that as a kid, I was just like, "Oh my God, that's that's something I want to do," you know? Yeah. And then my dad was really into outlaw country, so, like, you know, Willie and Waylon and Johnny Cash and all that stuff, but also really into Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. That music was just on a lot, you know, growing up and had a huge influence on me as a kid.
And then we moved up to Seattle in the early 90s and that was right at the height of grunge music kind of taking over the world. I was 15 years old at that point, you know, and that's when I really was getting into songwriting. My mom got me my first guitar in a pawnshop in Houston when I was 13. And then by the time I moved up here and I was really writing songs by like 15, playing in bands and going to punk shows at the Velvet Elvis and taking my younger brother Cody along with me. So, you know, music's just always been a big part of my family.
There's a song for Cody on the record actually called "Breakwater" and that song, it kind of, you know, sets the scene of me taking him to a show. I believe it was a Jawbreaker show at the Old Firehouse in the early 90s or mid-90s. They let him be behind the barrier because he was so young and they saw him up there and they want him to get hurt [laughs]. So, yeah, it's just always been a part of my family.
KEXP: Speaking of your family, your wife April Votolato did the album artwork and the artwork for the singles. How was it for you two to work collaboratively in this way? It feels like you're two different mediums work really well together.
RV: Oh, thanks for saying that. Yeah, I agree. I just love working with her on stuff. It was a really fun process to work together on this project. It was during the pandemic, so we had a lot of time, you know, we were just kind of isolating together in our little apartment. And we spent six months searching for the cover and overall art concept as it was kind of coming together. But we were really working on it – and this was while I was recording it in my home studio. I just knew one thing that anchored it was... I knew I wanted it to have horses because the album was inspired by the horse I grew up on. And that just felt really symbolic throughout the whole process of the overall feeling I was trying to capture. And April is such an incredible painter and watercolor is her main medium, but I'm honestly just in awe of her work. I'm not saying it just because I'm her husband, but like, I mean, I guess I am biased, but like watching her work, I feel like her work's really important and it's beautiful and it's easily my favorite album artwork I've ever had or done.
She did paintings and drawings for each of the single covers as well. And I think each of them is just stunning. And then, you know, she did little drawings that went on top of the paintings. And, you know, we're going to have these up for sale on her website soon, the ones that were done for the singles. And I think it just, visually, it all works really well together. And I think she just has real and natural talent. So I hope people can go check out her Instagram and website. It's just aprilvotolato.com. Just amazing work. So I tell her all the time, nothing makes me happier than when she's painting. I joke with her that I'm looking forward to retiring when she hits the big time. I think she's the real artist in the family. So yeah, I'm looking forward to being able to just take it easy [laughs].
KEXP: You’ve already shared a few stories about some of the songs, but I'd love to dig into a few specific ones. The first single was "Evergreen." It's also the first song on the album and you wrote it for your niece, who I believe you said is the youngest Votolato. You described it as "a song about holding on to hope." Can you talk a little bit more about how that song came to be and why you wanted it to open the album?
RV: Yeah, of course. I wrote that one, like you said, for my niece, Jaida. She's just such a sweet soul and an inspiring human being. It's a song of love and encouragement for her. But yeah, thematically, it's a song about hope and I had a really clear vision for each of the four singles I chose to be released before the album came out, and it's why I picked each of these songs. So they're about hope, loyalty, forgiveness, and love in that order. And, you know, those are the overarching concepts in each of the four singles.
The album, you know, it's about family connection. But to me, on a deeper level, it's about human struggle and it's about overcoming and surviving anything that's handed to you. And we keep going on and living. Making art and hoping for the best in the face of the harshest realities that are dealt to us. And we do that to make things better for the ones around us. I think that's what being part of a family is all about. I think that resonates even more now given what my family's been through this year. Part of the lyrics for this song were inspired by a documentary about a guy named Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher. I don't know if you've heard of him before, but there's a documentary about him called Fierce Grace. And in the documentary, Ram Dass writes a beautiful letter to a couple. And the couple is grieving the tragic loss of their young daughter. At the time, I had no idea how fitting and slightly prophetic this would end up being in terms of my own life and experience. But, you know, the letter moved me deeply and I definitely recommend checking out the movie if you haven't seen it for everybody's listening to this if you get a chance. But the letter kind of, you know, really helps this grieving couple of parents find hope and find a way to go on in the face of this tragedy. And it's really inspiring. I also just think that song is one of the best ones on the record. So I wanted to lead with it. And, you know, so hopefully more people get a chance to hear it.
KEXP: "Little Black Diamond," you wrote for another niece and you referenced it being about keeping promises. There's also a story about her helping you find a rock you used to carry around. What was the rock and its meaning to you, if you can share?
RV: So this is a song I wrote for my niece, Carissa. It's about loyalty, which I shared when I posted the single. It's kind of about keeping your word and telling the truth and what that means to the ones closest to you. So I went to a shaman in Seattle to do some deep childhood trauma healing work. And this is around the time that Hospital Handshakes came out. Since you know that record, I mean, you know by now it's a lot about dealing with trauma. This shaman told me to go out and find a little rock or a little stone and to carry it with me and let it be a healing influence and help me remember my priorities and why I'm out on the road in the first place. And so my niece and I took a walk one day, and she helped me find this little stone. And it was really special to me. I kept it in my front pocket for years on every tour I did. I still travel with it now. It just reminds me of why I'm trying to keep doing this difficult inner work that we're all doing at some point in our life to try to become a better person... We all at some point start that inward journey. So that's really what that song is about.
I just wanted to each of these songs... It was so tough, it just took so much time because I wanted them to be perfect for the person. It's different when you're writing a song, just kind of like to express yourself and it's not like specifically addressed to someone. But I think that's part of why the record took so long, because I just, I was like, "No, it's not quite right yet." And I would go and just rewrite and rewrite stuff. But in the end, I mean, like I said earlier, I'm just I'm really happy with the way the record came out. So glad I took the time.
KEXP: You've mentioned spiritual practice a couple of times. You don't have to talk about it, but I was curious if that's a part of your artistic process in your life.
RV: Absolutely. It is. Yeah. It's such a big part of my life. It's funny, I was talking to John Richards there from KEXP about it a couple of years ago. And I know he's also a deep meditator and talks about meditation on his show all the time. Even if you just get in 5 minutes in the morning, it's really helpful. But yeah, in 2008 I started meditating and I do it every day now and it's a serious practice for me. I feel like it's like a positive addiction. I need it to be able to just manage my emotions and keep myself stable and going forward. I kind of describe it as like taking a shower for my emotions or my inside, you know? It just helps me feel ready for the day. I definitely am grateful that I have that tool in the toolbox, you know.
KEXP: The album's closer, "Texas Scorpion (The Outlaw Blues)," you describe as being about your father and forgiveness. And it's conveyed through this narrative that you wrote of you two talking to each other. And forgiveness is something that I feel like it's really easy to admire but is much harder to do. I thought that song does a great job of showing the light at the end of that long road...
RV: Oh, thanks.
KEXP: Of course. I'm curious how the song came up and how did you work yourself up to that forgiveness?
RV: This song, it's definitely one of the most meaningful to me on the record, I think. You know, that's why it's the closer. I feel like it's definitely a song about forgiveness like you said, and having the courage to forgive people that may have wronged you in some way. But, you know, to me, it's not as much a condoning of mistreatment that I think people think forgiveness is sometimes when they don't understand the concept as well. It's not being a doormat or saying it's okay what somebody did to you. I think of it as something you do really for yourself so you can heal and be free of that experience and cut the karmic cords and move on.
I realized forgiveness, in this instance, the song is like my version of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son." It kind of mimics that back and forth. And there's a deep reason for that, too. That song is really, really the biggest song between my dad and I. We listened to it so much together as a kid, and we just always knew that was our song together. I think that's why it had such a big impact on me. I've always been such a huge Cat Stevens fan.
I forgave my dad years ago for everything that we went through, you know? I mean, he was, and still is, in a gang in Texas. And we had a pretty tough upbringing. There's just so much there. And when we left Texas, my parents had divorced and a tornado had hit our house and my mom remarried – and that was to my stepdad, who I talk about in "The Great Pontificater." And we moved up to Seattle. But, you know, I just think I really wanted to forgive – not just for him, but for me. And I tried to capture that feeling in the song. I wanted that message to be there with it because you can forgive and at the same time put strong boundaries in place with people.
I posted about the song when it came out on Instagram and I was struggling with how to include that part. That's the other side of this coin to me that I want to communicate when I talk about forgiveness. It's not being a doormat. It's much more about healing yourself. And it's good to have those strong boundaries in place and recognize people for who they are and what they've done. And like, you know, if they lose their place in your life, then so be it. That's what they've earned. But you can forgive someone from a distance for yourself and not hold onto the story. And that's kind of what I was trying to do with that song. I think there's a lot of strength and courage in forgiveness. It's not weakness. It takes a lot of strength. And yeah, I guess that's about all I have to say about that.
KEXP: I appreciate that distinction. I think that that isn't, I don't know, maybe not always known or conveyed enough. Not to overshare on my own anything, but having a strained relationship with my biological father as well... especially the father-son dynamic, to me, it's hard when it's a broken relationship.
RV: It is. It's a tough one, isn't it?
KEXP: It was really meaningful to me to hear someone talk about it in the way you did in this song. I haven't got to where you're at yet, but, being a father myself now too, it's on my mind more and more. So I appreciate that.
RV: Yeah, no problem. I'm glad that it's had some kind of meaning for you and is relevant in some way to your experience with your dad. And I think this is something a lot of people feel with their strained relationship with their father. I mean, so many people I know that it's just... it's like you said, it's a father-son dynamic that can be so difficult. And, you know, especially a lot of times just ends up broken in some way. I hope that a lot of people will get something out of the song and I felt such freedom when I was able to let go of the story and just forgive my dad for everything he's done and just, you know, what happened to our family.
And, you know, we found out that he had another family when I was a teenager. So yeah. So it was kind of like this moment where it's a total typical gangster story, you know. I mean, it sounds like from a movie, you know, like Goodfellas. It's sort of like that, but it was in real life and it's much less glamorous. So that was when my family that I thought I knew was gone. And then, you know, we started the journey. We moved to Houston and then my mom remarried and moved up here. And in the end, these were all things that are a huge blessing to me. I mean, can you imagine what kind of musician I'd be if I was still living in Texas? I'd probably be playing in some country bar or blues bar and I never would have got past like the Stevie Ray Vaughan influence [laughs]. But I am grateful. And that's kind of what the song's trying to say. It's like, I get that these things happen and they were really difficult. But they made me who I am. That line in the song says "the strength of the iron is forged in the fire." That's the meaning of that song to me.
KEXP: Another thing I wanted to talk about was the song "Becoming Human," which you described as being the most meaningful song you've ever written. You write it for your child, Kienan, who passed away last year. I saw you mentioned on Instagram as well that you were able to play the song for them. As much as you're willing to, could you share a little bit about that song and what it means to you?
RV: Yeah. I'll try. I just... I'll just start by saying that I'm much more functional now, but this is obviously still quite difficult for me to talk about. I want to talk about it, though, because, you know, Kienan was so excited for the record to come out and for everyone to hear their song. And I know they'd want me to be brave and keep going forward, you know? And that's what I'm trying to do. But, you know, losing a child is just such a devastating experience.
And, you know, it's the little things. It's like seeing raspberries... Just knowing that was their favorite fruit or, you know, thinking of... there was a little forest where we used to go on walks. We had plans to clean up their room and go on a walk in the forest right before they died. It's little things like that. That's the hardest stuff. But I do take a lot of comfort in knowing that they got to hear the song before they passed and told me how much they loved it and they knew how much I loved them unconditionally. I think the song communicated that to them. And one of the kids, I think it was my niece, Ivy – she has a song on the record called "Bella Rose" – but she told me just a few days after Kienan died that "grief is just love with nowhere to go." And I heard the truth in that.
I know that our hearts have been absolutely shattered because of how deeply we love Kienan and that that deep love was a gift. I hope the song coming out can help to express some of that love. And I hope everyone will listen to it and help celebrate its release with me, because I know that's what Kienan would want. And the song is really about that deep love. And I hope everyone can feel that. I hope the song reaches people out there that may be grieving and it helps them find the strength to keep going like we're trying to. I'm obviously still deeply grieving and know I will for a really long time. But my wife and I are determined to honor Kienan's legacy by focusing on the gift that their 22 years of life was to us instead of focusing on the tragedy of how they died. You know, that's what that song means to me now.
KEXP: Of course. Thank you for sharing. My heart broke for you and your family. I won't get into it anymore. Just to say that you're in my thoughts and your whole family.
RV: Thank you so much, Dusty. I appreciate it. Yeah, I know we wouldn't be standing without the love and support of our community and all my fans around the world. My friends, and my family here have supported me through the darkest days of this, and it's been a hard year. So, yeah, I hope everyone out there can have patience with me as I try to get back to work. And, you know, I'm not as on my A-game. I just, it's hard standing up after something like that. But I am very grateful for everyone's love and support. And thanks for being a part of that, man.
KEXP: Of course. It's a beautiful song and I'm thankful that it exists.
RV: Well, thank you. I know Kienan's smiling and shining down on us right now hearing you say that.
KEXP: I was curious with the process of finishing and releasing this album, what has it been like for you? I know you were working on the album before they passed, but along with all that, the songs all are so personal and they do dig into these so many different types of relationships – some sweet and some difficult. Has there been any healing or enlightenment through finishing and releasing the album or any other emotion or aspect you have on it?
RV: That's a great question. All of your questions have been so thoughtful. Yeah, you know, I would say it's definitely been a healing and a cathartic experience. The day Kienan's song came out, I was so overwhelmed. I was just so overwhelmed with love and support. And it's really been healing. I mean, I think I worked on the record for so long and so it's just been it's been a really emotional process to get ready... and a vulnerable process to hand it over to the world, you know, publicly and just release these songs after so long. And knowing that Kienan's song is out in the world now for everyone to enjoy was just huge for me. I think that love and hope is really what I want to share with people. And I hope that other people have a healing and cathartic experience from listening to these songs as well. You know, that's really... That was the goal when I started making the whole record and took me way longer than I thought I would. I mean, you've been following my career. You know, I don't really take seven years between records, but it just had more weight and it had something really meaningful that I was trying to communicate. So I hope I did that. I know I did my best and I hope people like the record. I think it's the best thing I've done in my career. I'm really proud of it. And I want to, you know, I just stand by it and I hope people will give it a chance and take a listen.
KEXP: Absolutely. It's such a special album. I've loved all your different albums for different reasons, but this one… Even if I was stripped away from any context, there's something about this record that feels so, so personable. It's interesting just to think about how personal these stories are and how relatable I think they are, at least. The emotions transcend, you know.
RV: Oh, thanks for saying that. That was actually the goal, too, was like, cause I didn't want it to feel like so specific that it made people feel alienated. You know, I wanted the songs to have a universal feeling so people could apply it in the way that, you know, until, like, you're your father's relation, you and your father's relationship or that kind of experience. That's really what I was. That was my intention. So I'm hopeful that people can feel that in the songs.
KEXP: Absolutely. And you're heading out on tour soon. How are you feeling heading into that and what can people expect from the shows?
RV: Oh my God. I'm a little overwhelmed right now… I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm a little scared. I hope people will be patient with me. I'm definitely, like I said, I'm a little bit more fragile. It's going to take me a minute to kind of get on my feet. But that being said, I've been rehearsing and I think it's going to be a good show. I really feel so excited to sing again to people. It's been so long. I haven't done a show since... I mean, I can't even remember how long ago it was. I hate to even use "a year" because somebody will just come on here and leave a comment saying, "That's not true!" [laughs] But it's been a lot of years. I want to say 2018 or 2019 was my last show... I think it's going to be fun. The living room shows are intimate. I think it's the best way to see these songs, to be honest, because it's just so up close and personal and quiet and a nice listening environment. I'm really excited to get back out on the road.
And I've got 27 shows on sale right now, 24 living room shows and three are club shows. And I'm excited for the club shows because I'm gonna have a band for those. My friend Abby Gunderson, who I have to give a shout-out to, I don't know if you're familiar with her music, she's so incredible. She's a big part of this album. She played on pretty much most of the songs, all the backup vocals and the strings and piano, and just such a beautiful contribution to the record. So I want to say thank you to her. And everybody go check out Abby Gunderson. She's got an amazing new EP that just came out, it's called Out Walking and it's just a piano-only instrumental EP, but it's beautiful. I'm such a fan of hers. So she'll be at the shows playing with me and singing with me, and I'm still kind of putting the band together for those, but expecting to have a full band. Tacoma, Portland, Seattle, early November. I think it's November third, fourth and fifth in that order. Tacoma, Portland, Seattle.
Wild Roots is out now via Spartan Records. Rocky Votolato is currently on tour, tickets are available here.
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