"I think I write about social issues in the same I write about love, or family, or sex or drugs. I feel like it's something I have to get out of me" – hmv.com talks to Kevin Devine
Currently in the middle of touring his new two new albums Bulldozer and Bubblegum, we sat down with singer-songwriter Kevin Devine to talk about using Kickstarter to fund his records, working with Brand New's Jesse Lacey and why he's unafraid to take on the big issues in the world…
You funded your albums throughout a Kickstarter project, how much did you agonise over that decision?
"I thought about it an enormous amount. I talked about it with my management a lot, I thought it was risky and I thought you do it wrong; it's such a bad look. If it doesn't work and you don't get what you need then it's an incredibly public failure and even if you achieve your goal you still have to figure out how to do all the work you said you would do."
"We spoke to two labels and had a quiet conversation with a few, all the offers were a bit backwards, none of it was exciting or inspiring, it was very muted. This seemed like a risk, but luckily it's ended up being a real breathe of fresh air. My career has taken a lot of weird turns and I guess this is another one. I know I'm not famous, but I'm visible, I can get people to shows, I thought that might put people off, but luckily it didn’t."
How hard is it to place a value on your time? Is it difficult to add up what you feel like a lot the more personal rewards are worth?
"I think I have a tendency to undervalue my time. I love what I do so I'm willing to do whatever, but loving what you do doesn't mean that it isn't work. You can love your work, it's still work. With the incentives, I really didn't believe that people were going to do some of the things on offer. I come from punk rock, I've played tonnes of house shows, I didn't think anyone would spend $4,000 to have me play a house show, but it went within 24 hours. I went and did it and it was awesome."
Did you have any examples to look at when you're thinking about rewards?
"I was putting this together around the time that the backlash over Amanda Palmer and the dude from Animal Collective was swirling around and I took a lot of inspiration from this band called Murder by Death, there's was very successful and they went about it very responsibly, that was good base for me to look at."
Obviously when you go into record, you do so with the knowledge that lots of people have already bought the album; did you feel more under pressure as a result?
"I said in the essay that accompanied the Kickstarter that I could not guarantee that people would like what we make, because no-one ever can. But I could guarantee the amount of thoughtfulness and passion I would give it. I can honestly say that I didn't think about how people would react once; I think it's a wonderful coincidence that these have been the two best-received records of my career."
You worked with Jesse Lacey on Bubblegum, who most people will know as the frontman of Brand New, what was he like as a producer?
"He was really enthusiastic, he brought a lot of excitement and energy to the process, we all kind of like that, excited, and that's infectious. He's a very gifted songwriter and knows his way around arrangements, he knows how to write incredibly compelling rock songs and we were making a rock record. He did an outstanding job and he's a big part of what's successful about that record."
You've worked with him on a few of your records now, would you look to work on any of his albums in the future?
"We did this thing where we came up with a new, country style shuffle version of 'Jesus Christ', which they asked us to do for this B-sides thing. During the writing of 'The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me', me and two of the others from the Goddamn band (Devine's backing band) were over to their studio and helped him work out how to record 'You Won't Know', but I don't think that came out. I'd be happy to, but I don't think they really have guest performers on their records, if he asked me, I'd do it."
Can you give us any clues on what they're up to?
"I haven't heard anything from that corner of the world aside from the fact that they're sort of writing. I've not got a timeline on that at all."
The album's got some weighty lyrical topics; you've tackled Hurricane Sandy and the situation with Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning, who handed over the largest number of leaked documents in history to Wikileaks), why did you decide to do that?
"I was there for Hurricane Sandy, I was surrounded by devastation and I saw lots of friends' houses be destroyed, it was hard to not to feel motivated to write about that. As for the Chelsea Manning affair, it's an epically fantastinating story and such a sad one for the justice system. I feel like it's using a hammer to unlock a door, putting this person in prison for 35 years is quite self-defeating. It's a fucking crazy story, it's a real life Shakespearian tragedy."
A lot of artists stay away from political topics, did you fear a backlash?
"I think I write about social issues in the same I write about love, or family, or sex or drugs. I feel like it's something I have to get out of me. Over the 120 odd songs I've realised, maybe 15 have been political, I've had people tell me that they don't like me, both in person and on social media because of those songs. If you can write off a person's career because you don't like a tenth of it, that's fine, you don't have to come to my shows, there are plenty of artists who won't ever do that."
What does the rest of 2014 look like for you?
"I've got a few shows in New York during April, then a big tour with Manchester Orchestra and Balance & Composure across the US, the summer will probably bring some festival stuff in the US and over here. Then we're going to do another US tour, focused more on Bulldozer."
Finally, what were some of your favourite records from 2013?
"I thought the Vampire Weekend record was the best thing that came out. The singer always been a clever lyricist, but this album felt a bit more weighty and dealt with real issues. I thought the Kanye record was interesting and I really like that Speedy Ortiz record is great too."