When Fernando Viciconte's friends found out what he'd been doing during his yearlong sabbatical from music, he could hear the shock and disgust in their voices. "Every time they'd run into me, they'd go, 'Property taxes? Really?'" says the 41-year-old singer, musician and, yes, tax consultant. The reaction is understandable: After a decade-plus as one of Portland's brightest songwriting talents, for Viciconte to retreat into what appeared to be an early retirement represented something of a defeat for the scene as a whole. He'd taken breaks before—usually for health reasons—but in this instance it seemed the mental hardships of living as an artist had finally broken him.
In his defense, he had a good excuse for wanting some time off: Expenses from touring, recording and attempting to buy back the rights to his albums from his old label ended up putting him $20,000 in the hole. So in 2008, instead of putting out the new material he'd been working on as an official record, Viciconte opted to offer it exclusively through his Web site and spend the next year writing and focusing on his day job. But it's hard to keep a guy who's been playing and performing half his life shackled to a desk for very long. Thanks to some goading—and, perhaps, a bit of shaming—from the likes of musician-engineer Luther Russell and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, Viciconte decided not only to formally issue True Instigator, his seventh record, but to dedicate 2011 to touring behind it.
"If it wasn't for those guys pushing me along," he says from the downtown Stumptown, a streak of gray hair shooting through his dark brown curls, "I probably wouldn't have gotten back into it."
After a foray into Beatles-inflected pop on 2006's Enter to Exit, True Instigator is a return to the eclectic Americana of Viciconte's earlier work. (In fact, five of the songs date back to the late '90s.) Inspired by his reunion with the band that recorded 1999's rollicking Old Man Motel, the album alternates between stomping roots rock ("True Instigator," "Wander"), downcast country ("Strange Look") and wounded acoustic balladry ("Selos," "Remember Me"). Mostly recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs, the record vibrates with warmth and immediacy—even with the specter of death looming over it.
"A lot of the record thematically has to do with the loss of something," he says. "The loss of love, the loss of faith in something—like society or human beings—or the loss of your self-control."
Although he says most of his songs contain only fragments of autobiography, the concept of loss is certainly something Viciconte knows personally—especially back in 1994, when he was living in Los Angeles and had everything crumbling around him. His band's developmental deal with A&M had fallen through, his marriage was imploding and he was battling drug addiction. That's when he decided to flee Southern California, his home since his family emigrated from Argentina when he was 2 years old. "Contrary to what everyone says," he says, "it is good to run away from your problems sometimes."
He moved to Portland at the suggestion of a friend, getting a job as a parking-lot attendant and busking on the side. He eventually transitioned from the streets to actual clubs, forming a folk duo with Dan Eccles of Richmond Fontaine (who plays guitar on True Instigator) and becoming a regular at Satyricon. In 1996 he released his first solo full-length, Season in Hell, a collection of depressed country-rock tunes. Each album since has been different from the last, weaving from '50s-inspired garage rock to dreamy alt-country, all receiving widespread critical acclaim.
Of course, respect from critics and peers can only go so far, and the returns of being a cult figure diminish exponentially the older you get. Now in his 40s, Viciconte admits he sometimes questions how long he can keep touring and playing live. But he says the healthiest way for him to approach music these days is to look at it as a hobby. And hobbies don't have a retirement age.
âPeople do crossword puzzles,â he says. âI write songs.â
SEE IT: Fernando releases True Instigator at Dante's on Saturday, Feb. 5. 9 pm. $10. 21+.