Rock and Reprise.net
A year ago, I talked with Devon Sproule about her upcoming album release, Don't Hurry For Heaven, in the hopes that it might shed light on the album and her presence as musician and person. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond her control, the US release of that album was held up until recently, scheduled now for the middle of March, 2010. Rather than attempt to recreate the interview with updated info, I thought it best to post this as is. The information is not really dated and Devon, gracious as she was to give her time and effort, comes across as the down to earth person that she is and I was hoping she would be. The videos contained herein were taken from YouTube for the sole purpose of giving insight to the persona of an amazingly talented lady and her obvious appreciation for those surrounding her. For those unaware, Devon has made great strides in her music and is greatly appreciated in the UK. One can only assume that the United States will follow suit, especially when the new album takes hold.
One reason I am enthralled by her is that she is a risk-taker by nature. In front of a camera or a microphone, in front of friends or strangers, she is a free spirit and a positive force. Like friend Danny Schmidt and husband Paul Curreri, what she says comes straight from the heart. Take notes. What she says is worth saving. Then check out her music. It is not only worth hearing, it is worth buying.
With that, I give you the transcript of an interview recorded a year ago, every bit as impressive now as it was then.
Q: Tell me about the new album.
Devon: The most noteworthy logistical part is that we recorded in England. We recorded most of the basic tracks there, primarily for practical reasons. I was there playing all these festivals and gigs and I had this band which was pretty tight. I was resistant to the idea at first, but our friend Rich said, well, we don't have to release anything if it's no good. Paul was supposed to do a tour right after mine, so he came over a few days early and produced the session. He's good at the usual production stuff -- y'know, when to try another take, when to take a break and have a beer. But even more importantly, he keeps thing creative versus moving into some kind of robotic "let's get this exactly right" type of thing.
Q: Who played on the sessions?
Devon: There was Andy Whitehead, George Vaughan (or 'G' as they call him because he is actually Graham, which we learned the hard way from putting the wrong name on a plane ticket), and B.J. Cole.
Q: B.J. Is an old favorite of mine from the 70s. What is he like, personally? Actually, he is one of only a few pedal steel players over there who play in an American style. Does B.J. Play in a Nashville kind of style?
Devon: The great thing about BJ is that he's not limited to the Nashville style, which is kind of the default for steel players, although he can play country steel with the best of them. His preference is for stranger chord changes and more 'out there' genre influences. He just finished a project, a jazz collaboration with a vibes player. He also does classical interpretations. His resume is crazy. It has people like Dolly Parton on there, but it also has REM and Bjork and John Cale and crazy weird people, too. He's a riot to work with. Definitely on the the older side of musicians I've played with, 60 I think, but he's probably one of the most adventurous. He digs the chromatic, modal stuff -- things that aren't cookie-cutter. He's played on some huge tours with some super famous people, so he is used to be taken care of pretty well, so me and my bandmates are always scrambling to make sure he's comfortable and everything. Most of the time, if he isn't hungry, he's very good-natured and funny. Make him skip a meal and you'd better beware!
Q: Does he look upon you as kind of a daughter or granddaughter? Because you've played with him how many times? At least twice.
Devon: If you count each two week run, we have done about three or four per year over the past three or so years.
Q: So he's ready to go when you come over?
Devon: Yes. He's totally into it. I talked to him just the other day and he seems really excited about the record. Once we got the tracks home to Virginia for finishing, Paul added and changed things quite a bit. B.J. played a lot during the session and he's not on the record quite as much as he played, so I was a bit curious as to what he would think about that, but he was really excited.
Q: He's played enough that he must realize that there has to be a certain amount left on the cutting room floor.
Devon: Totally. I was curious because he is somewhat unpredictable.
Q: When you're as good as he is and as long as he's played, he probably is at the point where he expects a hundred percent effort. If you're working on a project and you don't get a hundred percent effort, you get angry. It is ridiculous to be onstage and not put your heart and soul into it.
Q: By the way, how many videos did you put on your MySpace page, for chrissake.
Devon: Well, isn't that the best way to see what I do?
Q: (laughs) That's what I get for not checking back on a regular basis. Here I checked recently and there are slide shows and videos all over the place.
On your video of 'Don't Hurry For Heaven', you're playing, but it's kind of a jerky video in terms of the filming of it. Was it the way you filmed it or was it my computer?
Devon: The one where I am in a floral print dress and I'm playing by myself? That was at the Americana Awards in Nashville and it was filmed by a fellow musician, Laurie McClain on her little white camera.
Q: That came out pretty good for being on a little camera.
Devon: Yeah, she actually found a model that had a decent built-in recorder and pretty good sound. She's great. She comes to all my shows and puts me up when I'm in Nashville. Have you heard her? She's really good.
Q: How do you spell that?
Devon: That's Laurie with an 'ie'...
Q: Just a second. I dropped my pen. That's what happens when you get old. I'm like B.J. except I drop pens and he drops picks.
Devon: Yeah, his eyes are funny. He wears thick glasses and needs the lights up high when we're onstage so he can find his way around.
Q: His eyesight isn't as good as it used to be?
Devon: I don't know if it's ever been any good. But it adds to his look!
Q: Well, I was looking at the pictures and thinking, well, that doesn't look like B.J. Cole, but every picture looked the same and I thought that's got to be B.J. Cole. He's the only old guy around there.
Devon: Anyway, Laurie McClain is also a great songwriter, in addition to being a sweet, generous friend and fan. When you hear her songs you think how can a person sing so sweetly, so innocently, and actually be for real, but then you meet her...
Q: I hear that a lot about you. It is not that you have a sweet view on life, but the fact that you're always up.
Devon: You mean, optimistic?
Q: Yes. In terms of your enthusiasm for other people and in terms of supporting the music and trying to keep others on a positive plane. Are you that way?
Devon: I think so, yeah. And I think that in the last five years or so, since my music has started to naturally reflect that, it has been more obvious. When I was a teenager, I had a really healthy upbringing, but I was listening to a lot of people, especially women, who weren't very healthy, so I was influenced in this darker direction. I think that back then I wasn't being true to my nature so much.
Q: You were following the musical trends, I would assume.
Devon: Absolutely. And I still do, to some extent. Now, my influences have changed and I have gotten better at sort of digesting those influences. Now they are John Hartford instead of Ani DiFranco or whatever.
Q: How much did Paul have to do with that?
Devon: A lot. His influence, and the influence of his record collection, is huge.
Q: You guys are still married, right? (laughs) I'm kidding.
Devon: We're going on four years in May (going on five years now! woah!). And I think that will be seven years of being together and eight years of knowing him. When I met him, I pretty much became a fan of his right away, when he gave me those demo recordings, The Red and the Blue, or Green...mine looked green, but yeah.
Q: I didn't even know about those and Paul sent me an email just last night saying that when he got to Charlottesville, he had these four-track demos that I was passing around I called the Blue and the Red. That son of a bitch didn't mention that before and he didn't offer to give me any, and I'm thinking, this is weird. Nobody has mentioned that. Even Danny didn't mention it.
Devon: I think Paul goes back and forth thinking that those were the best and the worst things he's ever done. He's real torn on it. They're raw -- just popped out of him. Really killer stuff.
Q: How do you feel about your early recordings?
Devon: Similarly self-conscious. And with mine, they didn't really pop out. I'm way less natural of a songwriter. I was a really musical kid, but didn't start writing until I was about fourteen. Now that I teach songwriting a little bit--- I just have a handful of students--- I realize that if you start when you are up to eleven years old, you're pretty set as far as being a natural writer and if you start when you are fourteen or fifteen, you are kind of screwed in that your inner critic was born before your inner muse.
Q: Take Silver Shined. When you wrote those songs and you played them for, say, Paul in their very rough stages, was it daunting for you to take criticism, or do you look forward to the chance to throw things out there and listen to what other people say so you can work the song out in your own head?
Devon: I know what you're asking and I tend to not play them for Paul until they're done, which doesn't mean that he doesn't help me with them afterward. He is more likely to play a song that he is excited about that I am. He will play it for me when it's half-done. He's not nervous about it at all. He'll just want to play it for someone. I think he likes to hear what I have to say, but I think mostly he is just excited about it. And then me, of course, I will pore over a song for a few weeks and finally get it to a stage where I feel that it is worth someone hearing and then offer it up. But Paul does help me fine tune my songs a lot. So, yeah, I am a little more closed in terms of the process.
Q: Do you play around Charlottesville much anymore?
Devon: Yeah. I play every two or three months at the Gravity Lounge.
Q: Paul mentioned that he played maybe five or six times a year compared to the old days when he used to play a lot and that he really misses it, but playing Charlottesville is the only time he gets nervous. He said, I'm never nervous when I play, but when I play Charlottesville I get anxious. I guess he's wondering if anyone will show up or if they will like him. Because Charlottesville is his home.
Devon: Yeah. There is a fair amount of good music going on but there are not a whole lot of people here, so it is hard even for us longishtime C'ville musicians to always get a big crowd. Totally different than anywhere else we play. It means a lot more to us. Also because Paul and I both grew up in Virginia and are artistically inspired by the state.
Q: I've noticed in all of the music coming out of Charlottesville, even in some of the jazz things, that odd old-timey feel to it. That if you don't listen hard you can't hear but when you think about it, it floats to the surface. Do you find that to be the natural state of how music is there?
Devon: Probably, yes, but I don't think we notice it ourselves. I have this friend in Philadelphia, Carsie Blanton, who used to live in Virginia and when I listen to her I think, ah, sounds so Philly. But no, I'm not surprised that it's apparent here too.
Q: It is so different, looking from the outside in. And I got a dose of reality last night. Bobby Read talked to me about the jazz scene and he was a bit negative. I understand that you can't be positive all the time, but he stopped three or four times and said I have to work on being more positive. And I said, you really do, because if you think that way, it's in all probability going to be that way. I have this very ideal vision of what the Charlottesville scene is and I'm finding out that it is not exactly the way I was hoping it would be when I first started this. Yet, at the same time, there is something there that I can't find anywhere else. For one thing, it seems that musicians tend to support one another more there than in other places.
Devon: I don't know--- Paul and I tour more these days, I guess, and we don't go out as much when we're home, so we're not as involved as we used to be. I guess Danny Schmidt moving away was a big part of that.
Q: Was Danny a bit of a catalyst for people getting together?
Devon: For sure. He got Paul out of the house more than anyone. I think they played frisbee two or three times a week and Paul always protested but always loved it. Danny was the only person who could get him to do that. That and eat Vietnamese food more than once every two or three months.
Q: Danny and Paul have a really good relationship. What is it that attracted them to one another? Was it the music? The personalities? What I got out of Danny when I talked with him was a respect for Paul, an immense amount of respect.
Devon: Paul hadn't done a lot of finger-picking when he moved to town and Danny was already an adept finger-picker, which inspired Paul to give it a go. He's since grown by leaps and bounds, of course. Paul was sort of on fire when he moved to town. I brought him to the party where he met Danny for the first time and they hit it off. They are not real similar, personally, I don't think. Maybe it's like you said, there was respect, and there is, but there is not a lot of tiptoeing around each other. Paul had half a dozen crushes on people when he moved to Charlottesville ... I'm not saying that he would have dated Danny, but he definitely had a thing for him. The relationship is different now...and not just because they live so far apart. They're both dealing with more serious issues now, more serious lives. Once they get all of this 30-something difficulty and business out of the way, I hope it can go back to being the way it was before.
Q: That's what Danny was saying. He said there were clashes there but when he looked back on it, he thought, man, if Paul wasn't there, this would be completely different and not necessarily in a good way.
Devon: Totally. Danny is the most controlling, detail-oriented, argumentative and stubborn person I've ever met. The beauty is that he is all of those things plus a huge hippie on top of all of it. He literally has more friends than anyone and believes that everyone should share things and be together. It explains his living at Twin Oaks, the intentional community where we met (and where I grew up). To be those two people at the same time--- I've never met anyone like that.
Q: Maybe that's part of why they hit it off so well. Paul, to me, is very spontaneous. He is the loud, brash, outgoing and laughing one and Danny would be more controlled with a more dry humor. I could see either one of those guys telling the same joke on stage and getting two completely different responses.
Devon: Danny, bless his heart, still gets nervous on stage. But I think it's a part of what people love about his performances. So yeah, his humor onstage is more self-deprecating. But just hanging out, he and Paul are just as outgoing as each other.
Q: How do you stop from being nervous? I mean, you're taking your songs that you developed and you wouldn't even play for Paul in the early stages and you're putting them out there in front of people when there will be a lot of talking and clinking glasses and money passing hands--- everything except listening to you onstage, at times.
Devon: Not so much these days. I tend to avoid situations where there are more people talking than aren't. That's not to say that I can't hang with the other situation, if, say, I'm supporting someone and the audience is a little rowdy. But I think it's more of a personality thing, or even a physical thing. Danny doesn't get nervous because his songs aren't good. Paul isn't ballsy because he thinks his are the best songs ever written. Me not playing my songs right away for Paul is just my process. Everybody just gets used to the way they are, I guess.
Q: Have you gotten any bad reviews?
Devon: Sure. On September 11th, 2001, I woke up, watched TV, totally in shock. Finally, got out of the house, went to Bodo's, picked up a paper and read a negative review about my second album, Long Sleeve Story. Still keeping my cool, I took my bagel outside and sat down on the grass, right on a yellowjacket, who stung me on the ass. Then I burst into tears.
Q: A bad review in the local paper?
Devon: Yeah. I mean, part of the thing about being really independent and small-time is that you don't get a lot of reviews, period. So you get even fewer bad reviews...well, hopefully. The more well-known you get, the more reviews you get, the more bad reviews you get. And none of my circle of friends are that well-known so we generally don't run into it much. And I tend to avoid things that might lead me toward finding bad reviews, like vanity searches, that kind of thing. My friend Rich, who runs our label in England--- Tin Angel Records--- he said, well, there is one I just decided not to show to you. Let's just say that the reviewer was not happy with your happily married-inspired record. In fact, it really pissed him off. (laughs)
Devon: I guess that person didn't think I was being genuine or didn't think it resulted in good music or was in the midst of a divorce themselves or something, I don't know.
Q: Have you ever read any bad reviews of Paul's albums? Would there be a different reaction if someone criticized, say, 'The Velvet Rut' as opposed to one of your albums?
Devon: It would probably be the same.
Q: But they are very different. Paul said to me in an email that he didn't think 'The Velvet Rut' was all that different.
Devon: Some people, when they hear the first track, think wow this is going to be really different. And there are sonic differences for sure, like Spirit of the Staircase using so much room-miking. But I tend to think that Paul's records follow each other pretty logically...at least, to those of us who listen to them quite a lot.
Q: Now that you mention it, that may be a lot of what I hear in The Velvet Rut. The guitar sounds so different in places. Sounds I've not heard much out of anybody, to tell you the truth. It might be the miking. I never thought about that. There are places where the guitar sounds way up front, and I mean way up front.
Devon: Yeah. Well, neither of us really subscribe to the whole put the vocals twice as loud as the guitar thing. We like them to fit together. Of course, that's an aside. The big difference with 'The Velvet Rut' is that he himself made it, as opposed to to Staircase or Long Gones and even Are You Going which were engineered by other people. So when Paul did 'The Velvet Rut', he didn't really know what he was doing in the studio. He did a lot of things the wrong way and sometimes, with pretty great results. On those first ones he did, I don't think he was going for anything specific. In fact, most of the time he was just recording a song that he'd just written, so he could send it to me in England! He was just doing what sounded right. And he has always been good at handling things spontaneously, like you said. On those old demo recordings, the ones you haven't heard, he would hang a microphone in the middle of a room and sing -- or yell -- up into it. He just did things his own way and did it in a way that intuitively suited him.
Q: Do you play a lot together? I notice that you said he was coming over on tour after your tour or something like that. You have gone over there together in the past. There is the Jools Holland TV thing that you did together.
Devon: Yeah. He introduced me to the people we work with in the UK, Tin Angel Records. So the first time, he brought me over and we did a duet tour together. We end up playing a few times a year together in Charlottesville and we end up playing together in places where we need a bigger draw to fill the room. But we consider ourselves separate musical entities, for sure.
Q: That's how out of touch I am. I assumed that either of you didn't need a draw. Well, Paul, maybe. Because he is still in his own little world. But you're busting out.
Devon: You mean, like in England?
Q: No, I mean... well, yeah. Maybe the States is different. But to me, Silver Shined was a huge step forward for you.
Devon: It was, yeah, but mostly overseas, though. I got a few really good press responses over here in the States for Silver Shined, but a lot of that is how you present it. I think I do better than a lot of independent artists, but there are still plenty of folks who are miles beyond me, in terms of recognition. It may be something you sacrifice when you're more prolific, like Paul is. I do spend a lot of time writing emails, doing business stuff, and house stuff. Paul's website may look the same way forever, but he writes three times a many songs as I do. I think Paul and I are pretty much the same level in the US, and in the UK I've been lucky enough to have a little snowball rolling for a little while now. But that's thanks to him bringing me over there! It is still under the radar, but in kind of a nice way. Every year that goes by, in the US, Paul and I both do a teensy bit better. The speed of ascension is really slow and super grass roots. And even though that is terribly frustrating sometimes, it also feels healthy. And we're both pretty used to not having any money.
Q: Let's talk about that. If a major label came along and said, hey Devon, would you like to sign with us, would you even consider it? If, say, Universal came to you and said, hey, we have an imprint label we would like you to record for?
Devon: It's all in the contract, you know? One of the reasons I am not worried about Danny signing to a label even as small as Red House is that I know that he's super-obsessive about reading things like contracts and making sure that he's not getting a shit deal.
Q: So you are leery of the major labels?
Devon: I'm only cautious of the contract that doesn't take into account the legwork that we've already done. I turned down a couple of small offers for Keep Your Silver Shined, but only because I thought I could do a better job.
Q: Do you consider yourself a model? I've been looking through your slide shows and I have to tell you that you are one of the most animated people I have ever seen, photography-wise. I mean, you're crazy. You can twist your face into almost anything. I think if you wanted to do a question mark, you could almost do it. And you're a ham. Obviously. Yet some of your photos are virtually movie star glamour shots. I was wondering if you have ever considered, at least from the mental aspect, of being a model because you have that range.
While that may seem a cold end to the interview, and it is, it was edited that way for a reason. A couple of notes. The Gravity Lounge no longer exists, as such, and it was a sad day that it closed. Devon's new album has been available in the UK for some months now but is only this month being released in the States and Canada on her the Black Hen Music label. It is being distributed by Burnside Distribution, the distribution arm of Portland, Oregon's Music Millennium, a mainstay in that city since 1969. To read more about Devon, or to hear her music, follow the links supplied in the review of her new album.
Supporting the Indies since 1969