“I had a conversation with a girl, a very drunk girl, who made her way into the backstage in Kansas in May that essentially told me I shouldn’t be doing music anymore because I was suppose to be really popular after my first record,” singer Kevin Devine said over a plate of vegan chocolate cake at Blackbird Parlour in Williamsburg. “She was a promotions person for college radio.”
A Bay Ridge native, Mr. Devine, 29, has traversed a rocky road of existence in the modern recording industry.
“I’m not popular or wealthy enough to surround myself with people that are yes men,” he continued, pushing a lock of red hair from his face. “But everybody in the room was like, ‘Don’t fucking listen to that. That’s insane. Don’t even dignify that with your headspace.’ But I totally sat there in the van for three hours the next day not articulating it but going, ‘maybe she’s right.’ I mean, I’m five records in, and I’m like, ‘Yo, do you like what you do? Do you enjoy doing it? Do you still have things to say? Do you still feel like you have more songs to write?’”
The answer was a resounding yes, despite his experience on a major label. After a two record stint on independent label Triple Crown, Mr. Devine signed to Capitol Records in the summer of 2005, after an A&R rep saw his CMJ performance in the fall of 2004. It was around the same time the label signed the Decemberists, and Mr. Devine got to work recording his fourth album, Put Your Ghost to Rest.
However, in February 2007, he was dropped, along with a slew of other nascent bands when the label merged with Virgin. His criticism of Capitol seems constructive for the industry at large.
“I have nothing bad to say about Capital outside of the fact that they took a chance signing me and didn’t follow through on the chance because they did what they called a soft release. That means they pressed less records than an independent label would have. They pressed like 2,100 copies of the record, did nominal public publicity push and I was out on tour.”
Then, he continued, “The president of Capital got let go, 90% of the company got fired over the course of like, 6 months, and like 50 bands got dropped.“
The bad news kept on coming.
“My A&R guy went in and told them ‘We should keep him around. He’s self-sustaining. It’s growing. He’s a no-hassle artist,” I think was the phrase he used. ‘We asked him to get things done. He gets them done on time and under budget. He deserves a shot.’ And the guy was like, ‘Thanks for your input.’ Than I assume he just cross-referenced me on a spreadsheet in Excel, than found the cell in which it said that I’ve sold 2,100 records, didn’t look at, ‘Oh, we only pressed 2,100 records,’ and I got dropped.”
The singer, who spent time growing up in both Bay Ridge and Staten Island, and presently lives in Bay Ridge, found refuge at Favorite Gentlemen with the release of his fifth effort, Brother’s Blood, earlier this year.
“I think the recording industry is falling apart because they took their consumer base for granted for a really long time. People want to be entertained; they want to escape. They want to connect. Whatever it is that music, literature, paintings or movies do for people, it opens them up and gives them a mirror. It makes them forget. It does all of that stuff. People are always going to want those things.”
It’s certainly been Mr. Devine’s mission to make people want his musical experience. His fan base has grown incrementally over the course of releasing five records, and as the son of a cop and a nurse from Brooklyn, he says, he’s made sure to work hard for it. Though he adds, his is “certainly not any sort of short-term business plan for wild success. If you’re willing to play, put out music and tour a lot and operate from the grassroots level for 5 or 6 years to get to the place where you can make a living as a touring artist without much help from the industry and you’re playing clubs to ballrooms.”
His DIY attitude is a product of a childhood spent in the New York City punk rock and hardcore scenes, when Mr. Devine played in local band Miracle of ’86 (pictured). Though his melodies are more soothing these days, his words are not necessarily. Mr. Devine’s lyrics are often political, and always trying, searching to make sense of a world that can be at once so warm and so cold.
In the third verse of Another Bag of Bones off Brother’s Blood, the Brooklynite croons:
It’s the species disappearing, all the birds fly south/In a January heat wave and a pulsing crowd
It’s an African militia, kids with sub machines/It’s a conflict diamond on your bride to be
It’s the dispossessed lining up at every gate/It’s the facts worth facing, faced way too late
It’s the mission of modernity, go get what’s yours/‘Til there’s nothing leftover to get no more
And it’s not what were owed but it’s what we’ve earned/And it’s closer than we realized that it’s time now, to burn
Though his message might not be so popular with corporate label honchos, his honest and insightful expression has allowed Mr. Devine to travel around the U.K., Europe, Japan and Australia. And besides, even without label support, he says his fans “will come see your show. They’ll talk to you at the show. They’ll buy a hoodie. They’ll do what they can do to keep that afloat.”
The difference from overnight success, he posits, is, “The people who come to see you, are going come to see you every time you ever play there, and then they seem to always bring 5 other friends.“
“It seems like it’s something that’s slow and then when it does hit someone, it seems that they really connect to it deeply, which is something I feel really happy about because that’s how I’ve always received the music that I’ve loved.”