Being from Brooklyn, reading novels, and playing music for 18 years is just who Kevin Devine is. He loves every part of the job that that he can control, even the odd things. Staff writer Sammi Chichester recently got a chance to talk to him about all of that, his new release Between the Concrete and the Clouds, and what it is like in the end.
MEB: This is the first record you did being fully backed by a band. Besides the obvious, how is that different?
Devine: It’s not super different. I guess it’s more of a cosmetic difference. The last record was pretty band-saturated too. In the past there would only be six or seven songs that were acoustic- like solo, so to speak. There’s none of those on this album. So in a sense it is the first full band album I’ve ever made. It didn’t feel crazy different because these are people I’ve spent so much time with, in some cases for eight years. They are people I’ve entrusted a lot with in the creative process. I mean it’s definitely my thing but it’s also definitely something I allow a lot of trust. I guess it’s like “the buck stops here” but I’m open to suggestions. So the record was very collaborative.
Reading some press, you said you felt songs in the past were lyrically “overstuffed.” Why did you decide to simplify it now?
I don’t know. It just sort of occurred to me. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m dissatisfied. I think it had to do with some of the music I was listening to. I was listening to a lot more folk, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen– songs where the lyrics are almost first and melody is second. That’s a natural arc for some songwriters where you get to it at certain points. Right now I realize there’s a whole slew of amazing songwriters who achieve the same thing lyrically without writing 11 verses to get there. Sometimes you do have to write 11 verses to get there because sometimes that’s the song. Also, Dylan and Cohen don’t do that every time. I don’t know why things dawn on me the way they do, I wish they would dawn on me sooner. Not just in songwriting, but in life. The last couple of years I’ve been thinking more about just getting back in touch with music I really like a lot and find a place in the middle where I can live.
One of my favorite songs off the new record is “Awake in the Dirt,” and lyrically it seems like it’s about Vietnam and the war. Can you give me the back-story to it?
Thematically it’s about terrorism/freedom fighting and how people make choices. Or about how people’s options and choices to others are seen as revolutionary. I think it’s really interesting and not as clear-cut as we have made it out to be. That song is about a character named Merryy Levov in a book called “American Pastoral” by Phillip Roth. She is the daughter of a Vietnam-era businessman in New Jersey. She gets indoctrinated in the radical politics of that time and in her naivety makes a decision that re-routes everyone in the book’s lives. I think in his mind she is the American dream gone wrong. I don’t know, it’s complicated stuff so I tried to write about it. I just feel like the world we live in isn’t clean and clear. I think it’s still very much alive today with struggles for democracy.
Maybe it’s politics, but is there something outside of music that inspires what you do?
Reading. Keeping track of the news. That is something I don’t do nearly as frequently as I used to because I kinda got freaked out by it. So I try to keep track, but not in a way that will make me crazy. Having conversations with friends and people I respect. Really everything you can take in in the course of a day. What stokes your brain can become fuel for what you write.
You talked about going on tour; what’s the toughest part of being on tour?
I think as you get older it’s the lack of privacy. Not having creature comforts- your friends, girlfriend, family, and home. For me, those things have become, and they weren’t always, a really positive thing in my life. Being away from them for long stretches of time- I’m not nuts about that. But I also love going around and seeing things I wouldn’t if I were just in my apartment. The only frustrating part is when there’s something beyond your control like sound issues or people who pay money to talk loud in the show. In general, if it was a pie chart, there’s more of the pie that I like than that I don’t. I really love doing it still, even the things that would be turn-offs to people: the long drives and the stops at random truck stops somewhere in Wyoming. But it’s the best job that I’ve ever had, but make no mistake, it is absolutely a job at some point.
You’re from Brooklyn. What’s the best and worst part about living in Brooklyn?
I’ve lived there for 22 out of the 31 years while the rest was spent in Manhattan. Obviously most of it is great. I like the energy, the people, the food…I just like being there- it’s home. But the worst part is the energy, the people. This hipster kind of explosion- it has its merits, but it can get a little exhausting sometimes when everyone who walks on the street is the coolest person on the face of the earth [laughs]. But I guess you get some good cafes out of it, right?
Is there anything going on in the music scene that bothers you or something you want to get off your chest?
I try to stay as divorced from the music scene as possible. I love music. I love playing music. I love listening to music. But I’ve never really been someone who has had a super strong affiliation with like “a scene.” I don’t want to be a negative person. I would like to believe that people who are making music are doing something they care about and present it the way that feels right for them. Even if I’m not on board, it doesn’t mean it’s invalidated. There’s a lot of music I don’t like and a lot of music I choose to not listen to. I feel like if I had to pick one thing, it would be more about the culture. The blog culture that has contributed to this spin cycle where every new band that comes out is the coolest band that’s ever written a song and three months later you never hear from them again. That is both detrimental to both music and artists. I get why those things are important but it hurts building a career. It just weirds me out for a guy who has been playing music for 18 years and hopes to be playing it for the next 60. But the rest of it- I just try to keep my nose clean and do my work.
If you could choose your famous last words, what would you want them to be?
In some respects I feel like the second half of the song “I Used to Be Someone” on the record is something of a self eulogy. I kind of had that feeling when I was writing it. I was trying to boil “you” down to your essence and after everything goes away. You were somebody who used to be a kid, if you were lucky enough to have a family, to be someone’s brother. I’ll stick with that because I can’t think of anything better.