Kevin Devine just might be the best kept secret in indie folk. He is the type of musician that, while singing, makes you feel like he's singing to you, telling you his secrets, his feelings, his fears and his doubts. This Friday, he'll be playing day one of Lollapalooza with his Goddamn Band but before that, he'll be hitting up The House Cafe in DeKalb for a solo acoustic show on Wednesday which, in my opinion, is worth the hour and a half-ish drive for any fan, be they casual or more devoted. Kevin is, as anyone who saw him in May at Schuba's would agree, quite stellar with his band but where he really shines is on his own.
That being said, Kevin still knows how to rock. I saw the man break quite the sweat on two separate occasions during his Brother's Blood tour and I'm sure he'll repeat the experience at Lollapalooza. But his intimate show at the minuscule coffee shop The House will surely be something special for anyone who has a passing interest in Kevin's work.
I got the chance to see Kevin on two dates of his last tour and after the second of these, I sat down with him to talk about the bands he loves, the songs he covers and his use of politics in music.
You’ve been covering Neutral Milk Hotel and Elliott Smith for years and more recently you’ve covered Okkervil River who you toured with a few years ago. How have these artists influenced your work?
Well, it’s different. There’s column A and column B. And the people that are in column A, are Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Neutral Milk Hotel, David Bazan, Built to Spill. Modest Mouse, sometimes Hank Williams every once in a while and those are people who influenced me for sure. I cover their songs because I like playing their music and because it made me learn the way to play music by playing those people’s songs. I play Okkervil or Brand New or this band Pablo I used to tour with a lot, who are my contemporaries because I really grow to love their stuff when I get to know them and know the music and know the people that write the music and it becomes kind of like a way to keep connected, to me, in my head, even if they’re not around so that’s why I cover something like Black Sheep Boy at the beginning of Just Stay or AA Bondy, I play some of American Hearts and it’s because those are my friends. It’s also a way to even the playing field between the people that are looked at as these untouchable geniuses and people that I look at as my friends, you know? Why not cover Leonard Cohen and Brand New? They’re really different and they’re really differently viewed but I love all the songs.
It always excites me when artists I love also love artists I love. It’s exciting to me that other people love Neutral Milk Hotel as much as I do.
Well, that record is a really special record. And I think it’s a record that continues to reveal itself to you the longer you listen to it.
I’ve noticed a lot of maturity in your work over the progression of your past three albums. Also, Another Bag Of Bones EP and Brother’s Blood both have strong political leanings. Complacency in life is extraordinarily easy, particularly as one matures. What drives you to write and keeps you inspired?
Ultimately all the songs, whether it’s "Another Bag Of Bones" or "No Time Flat" or "The Burning City Smoking," the songs that would be considered like social or something, they’re always born mainly out of being frustrated with myself and if you look at yourself honestly you can see a mirror to everything else. I’m not trying to denigrate those songs because they mean a lot to me and it’s clear that they connect, for good and bad, with other people. Some people really don’t like that I write that stuff and some people I’ve heard say ‘I’d really like his music if he didn’t sing about politics.’
As far as your live shows go, I have to say that "Cotton Crush" was a song I didn’t thoroughly appreciate until I heard it live and saw how excited the crowd got when it was played. That has to be an awesome feeling. It also has to give you motivation to play Cotton Crush at every single show that you play.
Well, I feel like I’m someone who tries to be mindful of both my wants and needs and the crowds and, you know, I play stuff that I want to play but I know "Cotton Crush" and "Just Stay" and "Brooklyn Boy" are the songs that people really seem to be connected to above the others. Luckily, I like all those songs a lot. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t play them every night and I don’t play them all every night. There are some tours that I do that I don’t play "Cotton Crush" every night and I haven’t played "Brooklyn Boy." You know, I know that those are songs that people love and I love those songs too but I also love "You’re Trailing Yourself" or "The Longer That I’m Out Here." There are songs that I love just as much that are not really the most popular ones so I try to even that out but I am grateful that I have any songs that people connect to on that level and I think if you’re lucky enough to have four or five of them, that’s a pretty good thing.
Do you feel happy to have achieved the level of fame that you have as opposed to reaching anything larger? A lot of indie artists achieve a more mass fame and have to deal with label meddling - Such as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fiasco - or press prying - Like when Elliott Smith started achieving fame and his personal lyrics were exploited to pry into his various problems. Are you glad that you have a very passionate, small fan base without any of the major label hassle, despite having been on a major label once, briefly?
I went through a baby version of the Wilco thing. I mean, a very baby version of it. I got signed by people who saw something in me that maybe wasn’t there. They saw me as potentially being able to crossover to the type of people who liked John Mayer and KT Tunstall...I’ve actually toured with KT and she’s great, but she’s definitely like a popular songwriter and I am a little more idiosyncratic than that. I think that I’m in a position where, by and large, I have the best of both worlds afforded to me but I also have to work really hard to make a living at this and I make a living I’m proud of but I would also love to be in a position where I was a little bit more secure and solid with certain things, financially and things like that. But, I also have a lot of freedom and my fans seem to be people who are really passionate and connected but also let me be me...
That’s not to say that if I were to get help from the parts of the music industry that have largely been ignorant about my career to this point, I wouldn’t be grateful for that too but it’s not something I’m going to go beg and plead for. That’s probably been something that’s probably been frustrating for some people that work with me because I could probably stand to do a little bit more begging and pleading. Maybe I’d be in a different position if I did. But I’m also not mindful of writing songs that are specifically like going to get me a bigger audience, I’m going to write the things I want to write and if that coincides with a larger cross section of the culture than that’s great for me. But I’m not gonna do a shuck and jive tap dance thing to get to that place.
I think that also you have the fans that when their friends ask for a music recommendation, they’re like ‘Have you heard Kevin Devine?’
And that’s all I can ask for. I’m a really lucky person...There are a lot people writing songs in their basements or their living rooms or playing at open mics or working at a desk wishing they were where I am right now. So I feel like I’m right where I should be and if I’m ever somewhere else, that’s where I’m supposed to be to.