For Kevin Devine, as for so many Americans in 2017, the lines between the political and the personal have become a little blurred. “Life is really sweet right now on the ground and really fucking insane in the air,” Devine says. At 37, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter has learned to balance talking about the present and his past, singing about everything from his own personal trauma to government shutdowns. But with our current climate, Devine knows it’s pretty impossible to avoid the political. “It’s so omnipresent that it can’t not sneak in, and it kind of comes in through the side, but I haven’t sat down to write my nuclear war song yet or my ‘the president is a racist’ [track],” he explains. His 2016 album, Instigator, was written largely during the presidential campaign, but was recorded and released before the actual election.
“A few of the songs that are on there that are social justice songs unfortunately have aged really well, given what happened,” he notes. For instance, “Freddie Gray Blues” focuses on police brutality and institutional racism, while “No History” reflects on how little we’ve learned as a nation since 9-11. The words still resonated in 2017 — maybe more than ever — but Devine wanted to shift tone. The result: a more contextual, stripped-down re-work of Instigator called We Are Who We’ve Always Been, released in October. “It felt like the timing was right for recommunicating those [songs] with a bit more solemnity or gravity,” he says. “Everyone is just feeling their way through how to reckon with [our current reality] and how to communicate about it, I think. I know that I am.”
For his latest release, Devine sought the help of his friend and collaborator of fifteen years, Chris Bracco. Recorded in just two days, the bulk of the album is just live guitar and vocals. “The baseline thing we wanted was no electric guitar and to keep it to acoustic guitar, vocal, and harmonies,” says Devine, explaining that he wanted the album to have a direct, spare quality to it: something akin to the intimacy of a live performance. During the writing and recording process, he was immersed in Big Thief’s latest record, Capacity, listening to it on loop. “[Capacity] is actually a spare, direct-communicator record, so I’m sure that snuck in subconsciously.”
While there were a few moments of revelation in the studio, Devine’s vision for the album was pretty concrete going in. “I was fairly aware of what we were going for when we went in, which I think helps with a project like that,” he says. “When I thought about how to make the three songs on Instigator that were already kind of acoustic something different on this record, one of the thoughts that came up was to build them around piano, because that’s never really been a primary color in my recorded music. So the three people we went to were people who we knew in very different ways, [and] were really articulate and excelled in that.” For “Freddie Gray Blues,” Devine recruited SWIVS’ Will Schalda, Jr., while Half Waif’s Nandi Rose Plunkett assisted on the cascading harmonies of “I Was Alive Back Then.” For “No One Says You Have To,” Devine recruited the Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn. The collaborations were all pleasant surprises, especially when they came out differently than he had imagined. “I think all three of them made a cool, new painting with what they did.”
Having joined forces with Atlanta band Manchester Orchestra on the indie rock side project Bad Books — and after a short-lived tour with Brand New this fall (cut short because of allegations of sexual misconduct against the band’s singer, Jesse Lacey, who is also Devine’s longtime friend and collaborator) — Devine is at least temporarily focusing on his own work again. This week he’s playing two Brooklyn shows, where each night he’ll run through a pair of his records in full: the first dedicated to 2002’s Make the Clocks Move and We Are Who We’ve Always Been, and the latter with performances of Instigator and 2006’s Put Your Ghost to Rest. But when it comes to putting out another solo full-length, Devine needs to hit reset.
“If I can not release a record for a few years, I would really like that,” says Devine, who has an eighteen-month-old daughter at home in Bay Ridge. “I have that Bad Books band with the Manchester Orchestra guys, and I do think it is likely — not guaranteed, but likely — that there would be a Bad Books record before there would be a Kevin record.” But Devine’s work ethic probably won’t stop him from focusing on music entirely: He’s admittedly restless. He’s always working on music, but he’s without a concrete plan for the first time in ages, and that’s fine by him.
Kevin Devine will perform at the Bell House on Thursday, December 14 , and at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday, December 16. You can purchase tickets here.