Kevin Devine: Not a Joiner, But an Instigator

Music Features Kevin Devine
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Kevin Devine: Not a Joiner, But an <i>Instigator</i>

The first time I met Kevin Devine, we were both at a concert for Bernie Sanders held earlier this year in Brooklyn. The singer-songwriter was among a handful of acts asked to perform in support of the former Democratic presidential hopeful, and immediately prior to his set, I asked if he wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes to talk about why he had decided to attend, thus aligning himself with a political candidate—a decision many performers don’t take lightly. Not only did he agree, but Devine immediately went out of his way to find a quiet corner of the venue where we could speak undisturbed.

The 36-year-old Brooklyn native’s overt kindness isn’t an act or over-embellished. When we meet again ten months later, this time at Southside Coffee in Park Slope, Devine asks if I’d prefer we sit outside on a bench where—again—the music isn’t so loud. As men and women with strollers struggle to open the shop door (which happens with some frequency—we are in Park Slope at noon on a weekday), he leaps up to help them.

It’s likely that he knows how they’re feeling with such precious cargo—Devine, who has just released his ninth studio album via Procrastinate! Music Traitors, is a new dad to a six-month-old named Edie. His life, of course, looks very different than it used to, but he’s adjusting well. “What fascinates me is that you change [too],” he says. “That might not be everybody’s experience, but for me, you do whatever you can do to get prepared for this. You read this stuff, you talk to people, you go to the classes. You try to prepare yourself in any way that’s available to you. Then it happens, and it’s clear almost immediately that there is no true preparing. The center of the universe shifted and you’re just trying to shift with it. It’s the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Devine, who began his music career in the emo-leaning outfit Miracle of 86 in the early ‘00s, thought ahead when completing his latest solo effort, Instigator. He began writing in spring 2015 and finished last September, all so he’d be available to help take care of the baby when she arrived the following year. “I knew if it happened this way, I’d be living with it for a year before it came out, and then two years at least once it was out,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend more time living with the songs and overthinking them. I wanted this record to feel direct and immediate.”

It certainly does. Deftly moving between sharp, tight power-pop anthems like peppy opener “No Why” and the follow-up title track and pared-down strummers like “Freddie Gray Blues” and the Simon and Garfunkel-sounding “No One Says You Have To,” Instigator is both barefaced and thoughtful. The cheerful “Daydrunk” sounds unambiguous enough, but its backstory is actually quite dark. Devine doesn’t drink or do drugs now, but that wasn’t always the case. “I got to a place fairly young where I was trauma drinking and trauma drugging,” he says. “My dad had died, my brother had died, I was with a woman who had borderline personality disorder and was suicidal. I was reacting to those things with drugs and alcohol. I started stopping, stopped for a while, started stopping, stopped for a while. I blacked out more. That was reality for a while, and then it wasn’t.”

“Probably for a few years there was a transition of how to be a musician and tour and have friends, how to go out, how to not go out,” he continues. “Then I figured out I could still do a lot of these things. In fact, writing got better because it got more opened and focused. I wasn’t just a cardboard cutout at the end of the bar writing about being sad. ‘Daydrunk’ is a song about the days when you wake up and go, ‘Yeah, this is really good, but fuck it.’ And those days still happen.”

It’d be hard not to blame him if one of those days was catalyzed by a particularly stressful election season; Devine has a history of weaving politics into his songwriting. On his last album, Bubblegum, he sang a crisp song called “Private First Class,” which is about the trial of WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning (“The truth got told and what good did that do? / but if it was you, you might wish you’d been born a liar”). Another Bubblegum track, the charging “Fiscal Cliff,” is about the United States government shutdown in October 2013. Instigator, meanwhile, features “Freddie Gray Blues,” which protests the arrest of a 25-year-old Baltimore man who died of severe neck injuries suffered in the back of a police van. “When ‘to serve & protect’ / Meant break your leg, snap your neck / Meant to kill you, to sever your spine / No matter what, there’ s no good reason why,” Devine murmurs.

That all begs the question: How is he feeling about the fact that Sanders didn’t win in the primary? Or, more pressingly, how does he feel about this unusually volatile election cycle?

“I will say that I’ve had the benefit of an immediate life distraction, since I’ve been raising a kid,” he admits. “I’m reading Twitter every night and listening to news as I can stomach it. It’s disappointing, but I also do believe that the other side of disappointment is that [the Bernie Sanders] mobilization was real, and people’s reaction to it was real. Where it goes from here doesn’t have to be dictated exclusively by the outcome of the presidential election. I think the lesson from this is that real change happens from the ground up. [Sanders] was representative of something, but he himself was no perfect candidate or savior. He was the first person to say that.”

That being said, Devine is still weighing his options in terms of who he’ll vote for come Nov. 8. (No, he’s not one of those Town Hall undecided voters who don’t appear fazed by Donald Trump’s sexist, racist rhetoric.) His decision is more focused on whether to vote for a third party. “I consider myself to be to the left of the Democratic party,” he says. “I’ve only voted for the Democratic president only once in my life. But I feel like I have gone all over the place in my head. Some think Jill Stein is self-aggrandizing, delusional, burn-the-village, missing forests for the trees. [But] I’ve heard her say specific things and I’m like, ‘That is exactly what I think,’ or closer to it in some respect.”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he demurs. “I live in New York, so I’m afforded the luxury of a certain moral vote if I want to go that way. But if I lived in Ohio or Florida or Virginia … You can have a really compelling philosophical conversation about this stuff, but if you want to have a realistic, pragmatic conversation—I don’t even know what it is.”

Still, Devine would not necessarily label himself as a political songwriter, even if he did perform a few social-minded songs at the Bernie Sanders rally, a night he looks back on with some degree of ambivalence. “I thought [the night] was incredibly weird,” he says. “In fact, it kind of reinforced for me [why] I always try to push back into my instinct to not be a joiner. And then I do certain things where I’m like, ‘Maybe it’s okay to not be a joiner.’”