Nashville-based artist, Devon Gilfillian, was recently traveling through Texas and wanted to stop by for a “meet and greet” of sorts with our team. After taking a tour of our office and visiting with a few of our music-loving employees, Devon and his manager Jon Smalt settled into our “Elephant Room” (named after the famed Austin venue) conference space for an interview conducted by Vanessa Burden and Amy Frishkey from our Music Design team.
Read on for their conversation…
Vanessa Burden: If you could name one artist or song that really inspired or influenced you, who or what song would that be?
Devon Gilfillian: I would say the artist that has inspired me the most, for sure, is Jimi Hendrix, hands-down. “All Along The Watchtower,” I know it’s a cover of a [Bob] Dylan song….through listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix and listening to that song specifically, I grew an appreciation for not only the music and the guitar work but also the lyrical side as well. And so Jimi exposed me to amazing Bob Dylan lyrics and then, on top of that, the psychedelic soul and guitar work was insane. I tried to absorb it all.
Vanessa: How has Nashville vs. Philly shaped or defined your sound as an artist?
Devon: Nashville has opened me up so much as far as just listening to different types of music, specifically country music. I never listened to country music before I moved to Nashville, and I always associated pop country and bro country with country music. But then I met my homey Jon [Devon’s manager and drummer], and Taylor, my bandmates, and they exposed me to outlaw country, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings…and Sturgill Simpson bringing a new wave of outlaw country to the world now. But as far as how it’s shaped me as an artist and a musician, Nashville has taught me so much as far as writing. Just co-writing with people, I’ve grown so much as a writer and also as a player, as a musician. In Philly, I was getting my chops–learning songs, playing covers, playing in bars, doing four-hour acoustic sets, and stuff like that. But Nashville taught me how to be an artist, I would say.
Amy Frishkey: Was that the motivation for you to relocate there [to Nashville], to absorb the songwriting “juju”?
Devon: Absolutely. I knew I wanted to play music for a living. I got a degree in Psychology, and I was like, “I don’t want to be a therapist or a psychologist. Where do I need to go to learn from the School of Hard Knocks, to learn how to be a musician just from living in a place?” And Nashville was totally it.
Vanessa: Was there a defining moment that propelled you into chasing your own solo project?
Devon: Yeah! [laughs] There was a moment where I was in Nashville. I was just playing guitar and supporting so many other bands. It wasn’t until I showed Jon, my now drummer-manager, my solo stuff that I had on Soundcloud that I was recording. And he was like, “What are you doing? You need to record all of this. You need to write more songs…we’ll record an EP, and we’ve got to get this out to the world.” And that was when I was like, “OK, yeah…maybe I should do this!”
Jon Smalt: I made him move into my house, pay $250 rent. [everyone chuckles] And then we wrote that whole EP [Devon’s debut EP from 2016], tracked it out in the garage, did it DIY style, and then went from there.
Amy: Were you a studio musician? Is that what you were doing mostly before that turning point?
Devon: No, I was definitely not. I was not a studio musician. I feel like I was definitely still working on myself as a musician, getting my chops together. I was playing in a Delta blues cover band called Black Cat Crossing. I played with a reggae band for a second. I played with this alternative, electronic, Tears For Fears-influenced band…I don’t even know what to call it. I was just kind of experimenting with different projects and trying to figure out who I was. I was working in restaurants mostly…I was working at City Winery, and that’s how I met John. I was just working with some artists and helping with hospitality in the green room and stuff like that.
Amy: I was curious because I was reading your bio and you talk a little bit about this mind-body connection. I was wondering how you would describe that, and how you think music activates that?
Devon: Oh man! I feel like music in so many different ways connects to the body and the mind. Obviously, the first thing you feel is the rhythm, and that kind of just possesses a person and they can’t help but move. And then they start to hear the words, the voice, and the melody, and I feel like a melody is such a great way to connect someone’s ear to a lyric. So I feel like music is vibrations. The science of it…it’s insane how everyone can feel it…it doesn’t matter what race, what sex you are, where you come from…everyone can just have music pour into them and have a similar warm feeling inside of them. I feel like that’s the mind-body connection.
Amy: And maybe lyrics have more of like a mental stimulation…
Devon: Exactly. And also music…it takes people back to specific memories. When I first listened to the Space Jam soundtrack when in my basement as a kid, I remember listening to “I Believe I Can Fly” or Busta Rhymes, or whatever. Music is such a powerful tool of memory as well. Yeah, music is such an amazing, magical tool.
Vanessa: My follow-up question to that would be, how do you define “soul,” as in music?
Devon: Man, soul! I define soul in music as not being thought out. There’s a part of music that is very meticulously thought out and planned, and, to me, the soul in music comes out of just doing and feeling, and singing or playing whatever is felt in your heart at that time. When it’s done in an honest way, people feel it, and they connect to it. That’s what I associate “soul” with, when it comes to music.
Amy: When you write a song, do you improv[ise] out the ideas, or do you try to write and arrange in the process of that? What is your process?
Devon: That’s a great question. My process, I usually…I’ll be walking around and randomly a melody will pop in my head, and I’ll immediately walk in a corner and sing it into my Voice Memo on my phone. Usually, a melody comes first for me, and then I’ll build a chord progression around it. And then after that, I’ll figure out…I’ll just write and figure out what’s on my mind, what do I want to write about? But that’s usually the process. It starts with a melody, then I build a chord progression around it. Then I’ll get into the lyrical side of it. The lyrics always are hard for me.
Amy: In your bio, you talk a lot about your influences—like soul, R&B, hip hop, rock, blues—and wanting to hold onto those vibes while doing something new. How much of your unique sound hinges upon this kind of “busting open the box” with the innovative recording techniques that you’re using on the new album, and how much of it hinges on the writing itself?
[In other words], the uniqueness of your sound…how much of it is the production and how you’re recording? On your new song, I hear all of these little things that you did, these effects…they’re all over the place, and they’re great and such a pivotal part of the sound. But, also, how much of your sound is in the writing, in the melody, in the chord progressions, in the lyrics…how do you parse that out in terms of describing your unique sound?
Devon: That’s a really good question. I would say, as far as the songs go, I think it’s so important to have the song be the core. The lyric and the melody have to be strong, and the meaning of the song has to be there…has to be very strong. And then the recording process comes, and you dress it up and put all the beautiful bells and production on it. The heart of who I am is inside of the songs, and then the way we took those songs into the studio really captured so many different styles of recording that I’m in love with. We went into this old studio and recorded the instrumentals [of] the songs to tape. Then [we] took them and put them into the vinyl and then sampled the vinyl like a hip hop producer would do and sang over it and did that kind of thing…and got weird. We did that with the whole record, and that runs a red line through the record and gives it this old but fresh [feeling]. I would say that the sound starts off with a good song, but, to me, all the colors around it are just as important, and that comes with the production.
Amy: That’s great. I think a lot of really old-school, art-musicky philosophies about songwriting really hinge everything upon the melody and the chord progression. But, in newer styles, timbres mean just as much.
Devon: Yeah, the tones and timbre…absolutely. When I listen to a lot of records, the production…it does mean a lot to me. Jimi Hendrix, to me, was so ahead of his time when it came to the universe that he was building around him in each song. I wanted to make sure I did that as well.
Vanessa: It’s almost like, if you worked with a different type of producer, they might’ve translated and captured some things…it would’ve been a whole different translation. And so it’s like trying to find the right person with a vision [who can] capture that.
I have kind of a fun question…if you could go back in time to your younger self, what piece of advice would you give yourself? It’s a time-travel question.
Devon: Go to school for Ethnomusicology…don’t study Psychology [everyone laughs]. You know, it’s crazy…I would just say that I’ve always had this insecurity as a musician growing up, in high school. I don’t know how to read music…I’m learning the theory and everything like that. One of the biggest things when I was a kid was just being insecure as a musician and insecure because I couldn’t read music and thinking that was going to stop me from being a musician. I would tell my younger self, “Dude, just play rock ‘n’ roll, and do it.” [laughs] That’s what I would say, “Learn as much as you can. Don’t worry about the kids that can read. You’ll do it, you’ll learn when you do, and just play music…feel it.” That’s what I would say.
Amy: In the bio, it mentioned that you collaborated with some established musicians, like Jamie Lidell, on some of the songs for the [new] album. I was just wondering how those collaborations came about and how they enriched the music.
Devon: So Jamie Lidell…I remember I was trying to set up a write [songwriting session] with him for over a year, because he’s in Nashville, and I’m lucky…I have a good friend, Mark Abramowitz, who’s on my team—I work with Kobalt, he works with publishing [for Kobalt]—and he introduced me to Jamie Lidell, and he’s always said, “You gotta write with Jamie!” So eventually we got in the same room together, and “Get Out and Get It” [Devon’s latest single] we wrote in three hours…it was crazy, he was on the same page. I was like, “Man, I’m really in this Afrobeat phase in my life, and I just want to go down that hallway.” And he was like,” Yes! Let’s go!” and immediately chopped up this beat and put it together. I love it [the beat]…I wanted to start a psychedelic Afrobeat project when I first moved to Nashville, and I put up a Craigslist ad for that…I met some cool people, but that was, like, five years ago or whatever [chuckles].
As you can tell from the interview, Devon’s musical influences span multiple genres and decades. The result is genre-defying music that’s tinged with soul and “seeks to balance between pulling on his listeners’ heartstrings and inciting them to dance.” His single “Get Out and Get It” from his forthcoming full-length record on Capitol Records is available now. He’s currently on tour so visit his website to find a venue near you!
– Submitted by Vanessa Burden and Amy Frishkey, Music Design