Without artists like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, it can be difficult to decide who might be considered a “political” artist in our generation. An overdose of pop and saturated love/anti-love songs flood the airwaves –not that they’re all bad. At the same time as I enjoy listening to a bubbly pop song or a moody indie one, I find myself gravitating towards artists like Kevin Devine, a Brooklyn-raised wordsmith who makes poetry out of political statements. Sound Of Boston had the opportunity to chat with Devine about politics, social media, and his new Splits series.
Devine announced the Devinyl Splits Series back in February, promising six releases, each with two songs –one from Kevin, and one from a guest. Devine had just released two albums –Bubblegum and Bulldozer, which had both been funded through Kickstarter – just before he announced the Splits Series.
“I wanted to try and figure out a way to do something that was a little different, that was still a way to get music out, that was a little less connected to a traditional record cycle,” Devine told me over the phone. “I liked the idea of a split single. The series allowed me to connect artists you might not immediately associate with each other, with me.”
Next, Devine had to choose who to work with. Devine says he has a “long list” of people he’d like to work with in the future, but the series began with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf.
“He was the first one, and I thought, if he’s into it, that will springboard me into action with the rest of it,” Devine said.
Caws agreed to work on the project, and the series developed from there.
“It was a one single at a time thing, so the fact that it’s gotten this far is really cool … Each single has it’s own story … they each have their own way to get from a kernel of an idea to actually holding the album in your hands.”
The fifth installment was released last month, which featured Owen frontman Mike Kinsella. Devine says he plans to do the series again in the future, but it’ll be a few years before he picks it back up. Until then, Devine is working on his own music, which, as any seasoned fan could tell you, is rife with political attitudes. This past summer, he posted a video of himself playing a song he had written in response to the death of Freddie Gray. Bubblegum features a song called “Fiscal Cliff” –covered by Caws on his split –which discusses the economy. On some of Devine’s earliest albums, there are songs that discuss refugees, anti-war sentiments, and so much more, all of it still relevant today.
“I’m talking about what it’s like to be a person, and part of what it’s like to be a person is living in the larger world, too,” Devine said, on the political nature of some of his songs. “You try to be as authentic and honest with your audience, and let the rest fall where it’s gonna fall. There are people who write songs and will never write a word about any social justice issue because they know it will endanger their fan base. I try to write about this stuff in a way that’s responsible. People aren’t monsters in general, so I try not to write songs that turn them into monsters. I have thoughts and opinions, and if people don’t want to listen to my music as a result, they have other options, other things they can listen to, and that’s fine. I can sleep at night.”
What’s interesting about Kevin Devine as a musician, aside from his political tendencies, is the variety of genres he could fit into. New York is a city filled with niche genres, and though Devine calls himself “very much a New York artist,” he doesn’t feel associated with any particular scene.
“I always felt too folk to be punk, too punk to be folk, too pretty to be punk, too noisy to be pretty, too indie to be singer/songwriter, too singer/songwriter to be indie. I’ve never really squarely fit in this one spot. I’ve never felt like I was in [a community here].”
Yet, he finds solace in the camaraderie he’s developed with fellow musicians –in New York and otherwise –as well as the inspiration he draws from them.
“There is a community between bands that’s more geographically stretched than just New York,” he said. Citing bands like The Front Bottoms, Brand New, and Manchester Orchestra, all of whom he’s worked with in the past, he added, “The trick is, you hope to grow up with people and that they grow up with you. I would say that that community is very strong, very supportive. They keep writing music that pushes itself and pushes against itself and doesn’t just take the easy way out.”
And Kevin Devine certainly never takes the easy way out. He just finished up a quick, weekend tour celebrating the Splits series, with all guests in tow and a special one for each location. Brooklyn saw Laura Stevenson, Philly got Jesse Lacey, and Boston was graced with Brian Sella. The set was broken up non-conventionally, with a slew of songs from Devine, followed by the introduction of his guest, who played their own short set, before returning to another short set from Devine. He compared the structure to a “variety show”. It was unlike any show I’ve ever been to before, and that made it that much more dynamic and, well…amazing. Seven artists shared a stage at the Sinclair, each one in awe of one another. Though the artist shuffling placed a pause on some of the most energetic parts of the show, it all felt worth it in the end.
“This way felt more living, organic,” Devine said.