Still Searching For Sugar Man: A Chat w/ Sixto Rodriguez

Jake Uitti
Rodriguez at Sasquatch 2014 // photo by Sally Gray Mahon

The phone rang a few times and a woman picked up. “Hello?” It was one of his daughters. I could recognize her tone and cadence from the now infamous documentary, Searching For Sugar Man. I didn’t have a chance to ask for her name before she passed the phone along to her father, Sixto Rodriguez, the famed songwriter and star of the film. With a sweet, patient voice, Rodriguez asked how I was doing, to tell him something about myself. In the moments before the call, nerves shook me, but now, I was having a conversation with the writer of the songs “I Wonder” and “Cold Fact.” Throughout the chat, I also got to ask him about how he learned to write music, what it was like playing those first big shows in South Africa, and what he thinks about first when he wakes up in the morning. 

KEXP: When you wake up to a new day, what do you find yourself thinking about?

Rodriguez: Self-improvement, that sort of thing. What I have to do in the morning, what I have to take care of every day. All the basic stuff. I’m 1942-born and I have to take good care of myself. In September, I’m going to be at the Royal Albert Hall and both shows have sold out, so that’s a triumph. I’m contemporary, man. Detroit has 20 FM stations and 20 AM stations. And out of all that knowledge, you look for wisdom. Everybody knows things but it’s those other things that we learn about — and they’re not in schoolbooks. 

Do you remember when you discovered singing?

My family is musical. We’re Mexican and Mexicans sing together. It’s basic stuff. I learned on my brother’s guitar. I’m self-taught and I play by ear so if you just play, I can find you. It’s either major or minor chords. You know, guitar is the easiest thing to play and all you need is one hit. It’s all global now. And global means you don’t have to justify yourself to the neighborhood; there are no dioceses. When Spotify can get 55 million hits a week, that’s big. 

How did you develop your songwriting chops?

I read a lot. I got a lot of respect for the English language. I went to libraries and I’m glad I did it at the beginning because as you get older, your sight goes. I have glaucoma, but it’s a treatable condition. Any problem can be solved. 

What music were you listening to at the time when you wrote "Cold Fact" and "Coming From Reality"?

Anything on the guitar. Anyone out there that takes that instrument, I’m listening, man. I call it musical riffs, or, in classical terms, progressions: the number of chords that you do that have lasting value. 

You worked construction and labor for many years. Is there one project that sticks in your mind?

It’s all meaningful stuff. 

What have you learned about yourself as an artist since playing those first big shows in South Africa?

He conquers who conquers himself. I got a degree in philosophy but there’s a whole lot you don’t learn in school. Youthfulness doesn’t guarantee longevity. You only got so much time to figure it out. That’s my direction. I tell people to get a passport and get a bank account. I want to live to be 100 — no, 350 years! But like you I can only do it one day at a time. If you do one good day, that’s what it is. 

Do strangers ask you often for life advice?

I wish I had it to give, man. I’m saying, okay, no matter how cerebral your ideas and thoughts are, no matter how celestial your ideas and thoughts are or how ethnocentric — you only have so much time to figure it out. 

I heard there’s a large unreleased catalog of Rodriguez music somewhere in Detroit. Do you have any plans for it?

If I want to release music, I want to get in the studio because it has to be clean. It’s got to last 40 years or more. May I tell you why I think the music surfaced in South Africa?

Of course!

O.R. Oppression and revolution. 

Is there something that still amazes you when you think about the documentary?

I’m in that movie for 8 minutes and I didn’t have anything to do with the making of it. They came to Detroit four times and I saw them making the film and I thought, I have to do something, man. It was a great film and a great director. But there are still some questions for me. Clarence Avant hasn’t paid me a penny but I ain’t got no time for the guy because I’m out on the road. It’s a brand new day for me. People are asking me to play and I’m game. 

Rodriguez played an incredible show last night at The Moore Theatre in Seattle. He plays Tuesday, August 14th at Revolution Hall in Portland. See all upcoming tour dates here.

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