Interview with Kevin Devine: The Power Of Playing Softly

Kevin Devine has a lot to be excited about these days. With the release of his newest album, Between the Concrete & Clouds, in early September, a revamped website launch just weeks ago and the completion of a full Nevermind (Nirvana) cover—available for free download on said website—the Staten Islander is keeping pretty busy.

Just a few weeks into his current tour, Devine, who will be back in New York for the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon, sat down with me to talk about the latest recording process, the inclusion of a full band on his solo album and the misnomer of the word “mellow.”

Between The Concrete & Clouds is the first album in which you’re fully backed by a band—what spurred that decision?

I’m feeling now it was more a cosmetic thing than anything else, because all the records that we’ve made have had some backing, you know? I think since Make The Clocks Move they’ve all had increasing amounts of backing—of musicians. I mean before, it was kind of back and forth. There were certain songs that I wrote that just felt better as… I don’t want to say “folk” songs because I don’t think just because you’re playing an acoustic guitar it’s automatically folk music, but you know, solo pieces. This time, though, the songs just felt to me—even the more mellow ones—they felt like they worked better with other players. So it was just kind of something that happened.

I went in to do 15 or 16 songs in the summer and then a couple of others between August of last year to January of this year. And when we started to sit down and actually flesh out arrangements, it just felt like we should have other things happening. I guess more succinctly to say, I hear the songs as I think they should be in my head before I play them. It’s like you have to have a map in your mind. And this time, the map just always seemed to look better and get there more expeditiously if there were other people playing too.

That makes sense.

Yeah, I just felt that, well, there’s no law that says a solo artist always has to be playing by him or herself, you know? I don’t think there’s ever been a song that Bob Dylan’s played since his very early recordings where he played guitar, bass drums and piano, you know what I mean? He’s an auteur; if he wanted to, he could have never had another person join him in song arrangements. But that doesn’t mean every person who records music under his or her own name has to do that, you know what I mean? It’s okay to have other musicians besides you play on your record, even if the record is released under your name. There’s no rulebook about that.

I think I let go of a lot of preconceived notions of what I thought—this is a career-long thing, by the way—what I think the notion of a solo artist is. The way my project works is hugely driven by me, so it’s just letting go of all the bullshit and being okay with working with other people.

Sounds like your view of vocals has shifted, too—the emotion in them is still there on this album, but they’re a little more toned down.

I think the songs dictate the performance. I didn’t shout very much on Put Your Ghosts To Rest either. If I was screaming over “You’re Drowning Yourself” or “Brooklyn Boy,” I think it would have sounded bad, and maybe a little embarrassing. I think there are more ways to convey feeling than just yelling about it. Brother’s Blood was on the whole more aggressive, but those songs, I felt, required that kind of treatment.

I don’t ever want to be someone who’s just a one-ear writer. I want to be a songwriter, and I want the songs to be treated the most responsibly, I guess, as possible. “Off Screen” doesn’t sound like it maybe, but I think the way I sing it has changed over time. But that song works because I’m pushing as though I’m screaming, but I’m actually singing a little bit cleaner, and from the singing side it feels like I’m screaming there a little bit, so I’m trying to do something different. I guess in the song “Between The Concrete & Clouds” there’s more of an aggressive dynamic in certain parts, but I didn’t feel like I needed to go there vocally. It felt like the register of the song was cutting enough, so it didn’t need to be me shredding my throat to match the guitar solo.

It’s funny, I got an email yesterday from somebody asking me about New York being this really vibrant and active place, while my music is very mellow, and how I write like that—do I go to some calm place or something? And I have no idea, really. I don’t hear music that way, so I don’t know how to answer the question. I think a lot of people mistake form for meaning or something, like they say “Oh, he’s playing an acoustic guitar, it must be chill.” Like, they equate anyone playing an acoustic guitar with Jack Johnson, and to me, the acoustic guitar is a musical choice. For me, it was a decision born out of necessity because I was in college and I didn’t have my band around me, but also, most of the people I’m drawn to who are “acoustic” performers are, I think, super badass. Not to diss Jack Johnson, but it’s, you know, when guys like me play, it sounds almost heavy.

I mean, if you look at Elliot Smith, he can sing very soft, but what he’s singing… I mean, people who hear Elliot Smith’s music—and this still happens all the time—but they’re only hearing the whisper and the finger-picking. They’re not hearing what’s actually going on in the song, and sometimes I think that happens with my music, too. But I also realize I can’t, like, make someone hear it any differently than they do on their own. You can only make what you make and the rest is out of your hands.

But that’s the long way of saying that I didn’t think the songs required screaming. That opens up a whole other interesting conversation about what the word “mellow” means, because, you know, you could say I sing soft or quiet, but at the same time the songs could be super intense—and I’m interested in that dynamic.

And I definitely get that. I saw you at SXSW last spring; it was just you and the guitar in a chapel, but there was still plenty of intensity despite the fact that you had just a guitar.

Well, thank you. I thought that concert sounded so perfect because it was in a chapel—they’re made for maximum acoustic performance, to throw your voice around. So that was really fun.

This is a bit of a jump, but I just came across your cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Can you please tell me about this?

About two months ago, Chris Bracco, who produced Between The Concrete & Clouds and almost every record I’ve ever made, was like, “We should do Nevermind! It’s the 20th anniversary, we’re all huge fans.”

Nirvana’s, like, the one band that everyone in our generation agrees about. They’re—apart from the Beatles, I guess—pretty much the only band that everyone thinks about and says, “Yeah, they’re awesome.” And Nevermind was that record, the one that got me wanting to, in a serious way, be in a band. I don’t think I wrote songs before I heard Nirvana. I played the guitar and sang, but I was like 12 when I heard that record, and that’s when I sat down and actually started learning chords so that I could write some songs. We’d all had that kind of experience with that record—it was the reason, in a lot of respects, that we kind of discovered the music scene.

So anyway, we thought it sounded fun, and we were going up to do these shows in August with Manchester Orchestra around New England for a few days. We went up a day before to Connecticut and did all the drums, and “Something In The Way” was done that day. Then I went up the week before the new record came out and did all the vocals and guitar in one night, then Chris played the bass during a weekend at home. That was it. We wanted to get it out there just because we’re pretty certain that a bunch of friends and fans feel the same way about that record.

It’s funny, because I try really hard to stay away from reading reviews of my own music (I think it’s kind of an unhealthy habit), but I definitely peeked on this one for sure. To me, it’s really clear what this recording of Nirvana was. We were trying to play perfect songs in a spirit of honor, I guess, because they were important songs to us. It’s like being 13-year-old kids in your garage. We put it out there for free because we thought it would be a cool thing to share with people. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but of course you start to find the people who are like, “I don’t get it, they didn’t do anything new. I can’t get down with this.” And my first thought is—this is an unhealthy thought, but—then don’t get down with it. It’s a free download on somebody’s website. You don’t have to get down with it.

And further, it seems to speak to the time we live in, that you could find complaint about something like that. It’s Nevermind! I don’t want to release, like, a Zydeco or bluegrass version of Nevermind. It’s perfect—the point is to just play it and have fun, to get together with your friends in their basement, play it, and put it up on the Internet.

Right, to just genuinely share the music.

Right, exactly. So that’s my two cents of griping about it. But in general, totally an amazing experience to get to go back and live with that record. In some respects, I have been rehearsing for that since I was 12. I used to have a Gorilla guitar amp and a Gremlin guitar, and a little portable microphone and mic stand. And I’d come home from school every day, go into the basement and just play those songs over and over again. I’d play Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam, too, but Nirvana I could at least play the chords of every song. So it was super fun to get to do that again, and it was really cool to see how people responded, too.


Kevin Devin will be playing a CMJ showcase at Highline Ballroom on Oct. 22. For more information, go to