The Heart of Every Song: A Conversation with David Wilcox

By Brent Thompson

In a career spanning 18 albums and more than 30 years, David Wilcox has melded James Taylor-like storytelling with the dazzling, open-tuned guitar sounds of Michael Hedges into his own unique style. Along the way, Wilcox has garnered an extremely loyal fan base that has few rivals. On Friday, March 9 (his 60th birthday, no less), the singer/songwriter will return to Birmingham to perform at WorkPlay. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his Asheville, N.C. home.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. Where are you right now?

David Wilcox: I leave tomorrow. I’m home right now in my studio and we have a gentle rain here. I not only have a new riff that’s just kicking my imagination, [but] in the shower I got an entire chorus [laughs]. The lyrics are all there and I transcribed it on my phone and I can’t wait to write this song. It’s going to be so fun.

Birmingham Stages: In looking at your touring schedule online, it seems that you have a found a nice balance of time at home versus time on the road.

DW: That has always been the case and I really have to attribute it to my lovely wife, Nance. When we first got together, she said, “You have to be home more than you’re away – otherwise, it can’t work” and she was right. I look at all my musician friends who have tried to do it other ways. Unless they’re actually playing music with their spouse onstage, the relationship won’t work if they’re out more than half the time.

Birmingham Stages: You have a large catalog of songs at this point in your career. How do you go about determining set lists for each tour?

DW: That is a spectacularly good question [laughs]. What I’m looking at it is the set list that I just drew up for this next run – I’m going to Denver. What I do is browse through 10 or 20 set lists that I have archived on my computer. Not the sequence of songs that I play, but a collection of songs that I’m just curious about and curious what they do to my heart. They can be old songs, but I go through a bunch of set lists and I think, “What are the songs that move me?” So I put those songs down and be sure that I know them because some can pop up that I haven’t played in 20 or 30 years. On my set list now – which is why I’m laughing – is a song from my first record, The Nightshift Watchman – and I haven’t played it in 30 years. It’s amazing [laughs]. What’s wild to me is I came back to that song now because my dad died a few months ago so I have this song suddenly full of this new intensity, so that song feels like an important song for me to play. I think I’m a better person when I’m reminded of that song and what it does to my mind and heart.

So, I have this collection of songs on a list and right now I have 65 songs on this list. In a given night of music, I can play 22 if I don’t talk a lot but that’s a two-hour set. I can glance down and every song would be an excellent choice. In terms of how I weave the set together in a given night, I’m finishing a song and singing the last few phrases and I let my mind wander to, “Where do I go from here?” I glance down at my list and one of them will jump out at me and I’ll go there. It’s interesting how the song before sets up this current song that I’ve chosen and I realize that each time I put songs in a new order there’s a different story line. I’m lead to see things in different ways. Sometimes the same song can serve very different purposes in the set. I love stepping into that place where a song is holding me accountable to a vision that I had about how I want to see the world and that’s what the songs are good for.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

DW: The way it works now is I have a steady practice of taking whatever idea is on my phone and sitting with it – trying different melodies and imagining all the different ways it could go. It’s sort of like playing Chess 10 moves ahead – you’re thinking of the strategy and how could it be arranged. Who’s the character? Who’s speaking to who and why? That’s the heart of every song. I love collecting these little seeds and fragments that might turn into a song or they might just be silly. It’s a practice of catching those seeds and seeing what I can make out of them.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your “Custom Songs” program that provides personalized songs for your fans.

DW: That started with a request. There was someone who really was moved by a lot of my songs and he had a really tragic childhood in the first 12 years of his life. He’d done the work with therapists and journaling and he wanted me to re-frame these events with a different story to it that wasn’t such a dead end. I worked on it and I got the information and I found a way to re-frame that story and I delivered it to him. He said, “What does that cost” and I said, “I have no idea what this worth. I could just tell you the time I put in – it was four days of working at it.” It’s such a privilege to be trusted with someone’s vulnerability and to trust that the music will have some beautiful evolution and healing that we hadn’t anticipated. I told some people about it and people started saying, “I want a song, too.” So it sort of became a thing one person at a time.

David Wilcox will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Friday, March 9. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $20 and can be purchased at

Photo Credits: Jack Hollingsworth & Lynne Harty