“The older I get and the deeper into my career I get, the more I see just how difficult it is to sustain a visibility or relevancy. But, if I was to be so bold as to examine my own career, I feel like I’m in a unique position among some of my peers. I feel like my career has gotten more relevant as I’ve aged. Not that it has ever resulted in barn-burning commercial success, but I’m not necessarily a nostalgia act.”
Kevin Devine – alongside the likes of John K. Samson and Mike Kinsella – has been a near constant in my life for the best part of 16 years – nearly half my life – after I picked up the Miracle of 86’s brilliant self-titled album back in 2000. But he’s right; he’s acquired fans throughout his journey and everyone has their own favourite album, be it ‘Brother’s Blood’ (“the closest I have to a consensus album,” he muses), ‘Make the Clocks Move’, ‘Put Your Ghost To Rest’ or ‘Between the Concrete and Clouds’.
The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter is now back with his ninth solo effort, ‘Instigator’, an album that mixes the political and personal to make yet another high-point in a career that has many standouts. It represents a return to a more traditional style of song-writing and structuring, after 2013’s Kickstarter funded ‘Bubblegum’/’Bulldozer’ efforts and 2015’s split single series.
“I think I’ll always circle back to a collection of songs in an album format as the main vehicle,” considers Devine. “I think that’s because of my age, how I grew up receiving music, how I thought about making it, so the idea of settling back into something more conventional felt appropriate and comfortable.
“But I feel I wouldn’t have gotten to this record aesthetically if I hadn’t tried to do the ‘Bubblegum’/’Bulldozer’ thing, where I split the brain. I think this record has the fuzziness – or is tuned to a very certain type of rock music that was all over the ‘Bubblegum’ record – but it has got the smoothness, to me, and the precision, of ‘Bulldozer’.
“On this record I wanted to strategically place the acoustic moments as breaths or palate cleansers of the rock songs. So instead of giving each one its own form, I wanted to bring them back together to see how they spoke to each other.”
The results is a mature indie-rock record, and one of Devine’s most assured albums to date. Although a ‘classic’ Devine album, it’s coloured by the experiences of the United States – the Black Lives Matter movement and the impending election – and changes in Devine’s own life, such as becoming a parent for the first time, to a baby daughter.
“I’ve always been someone for who writing is a filtration process and creative exercise around how I am receiving the world,” says Devine. “And she has absolutely altered how I even define the world.
“Since she’s been born I’ve only written and completed one song from front to end, and it’s informed by the current political climate in America. I’d say it’s certainly informed by how that world relates to the three- or four-month-old that is sleeping in my lap. There’s no way to avoid it if you’re communicating with yourself in any real way.”
Although written long before the birth of his daughter, the song ‘Freddie Gray Blues’ emphasises just how Devine sees the world. Horrified by the treatment of black communities in America, it is Devine’s response to how he sees the issue, yet tinted by his awareness that he was able to return “to relative comfort and unexamined, reflective privilege that I receive simply by being who I am”.
Devine’s hope, therefore, is that a song as powerful as ‘Freddie Gray Blues’ will help to open up the conversation – although he appreciates the uncomfortable position he puts him in.
“I do my civic duty by writing songs,” he reflects. “Yet I’m also aware that it is how I make a living; it’s not a charitable enterprise. But I do think, as a songwriter; if I had any idea how to write songs for commercial gain, I’d have done it a long time ago. I don’t know how to write songs and say ‘that one’s a hit’. I write my conscience, and I hope that resonates with enough people so I continue to enjoy gainful employment – but I would be doing it whether that was the case or not.
“And that’s a song; it’s not a service but I hope it amplifies the conversation. And you know, maybe in places that are outside America, it will prompt people to say ‘well, OK, who is Freddie Gray’ and what’s that about?”
Yet, while widespread commercial success continues to elude Devine, he continues to write material that resonates with fans. Last year Devine played a request show at St Pancras Old Church, London. A total of 150 people were given numbered pieces of paper, and if Devine called your number out, you got to select the song. Having asked if he found it peculiar or interesting as to the choices people made and the underlying reason for any attachment, the debate grew into a dissection of fan culture as a whole:
“Last night at a show someone showed me a tattoo connected to the lyrics, and it was amazing. I must have seen that sort of thing a hundred times or more but it never gets less ‘wow’.
"I think there’s like a Beta blocker in my mind that shuts down receiving such stuff fully,” laughs Devine. “I think I’d internalise it if I didn’t. I’d be like ‘you have such a responsibility; what if a human being ever decided to get married to one of your songs or put your lyrics on your body forever?’
“I just think about everything too much, so I just go ‘wow, that’s amazing’. I think when I’m 80 in a home somewhere it’ll all just hit at once; I’ll be like ‘that was fucking nuts’.“
By that point, Devine could well have 30+ albums to his name, with fans picking songs from any point in a lifetime’s career to attach themselves too. Fucking nuts indeed…
’Instigator’ by Kevin Devine is released on October 21st on Big Scary Monsters/Procrastinate! Music Traitors.
Kevin Devine tours the UK later this week and in the new year:
18 The Forge, London^
19 Banquet Records, Kingston^
20 Komedia (Studio Bar), Brighton^
29 Thekla, Bristol%
January 30 Bodega, Nottingham%
January 31 Deaf Institute, Manchester%
01 Stereo, Glasgow%
02 Brudenell Social Club Leeds%
03 The Dome, London%
^ = Solo Show
% = Support To Be Announced
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair). Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez.