In the quiet, empty, basement-bar at the Williamsburg Hall of Music before his headlining performance with the Goddamn Band at the 2010 CMJ Music Marathon, Kevin Devine ran his fingers through his medium-length, straight red hair, and twitched his pursed lips in thought, flickering the whiskers of his mustache. "I do feel like I am haunted on some level by the awareness of what the world is capable of being for some people--really fucking hard," he started. "And I don't think there is some architectural grand design, just that there are some political and economic realities that are why life is one way for me here in New York City and one way for someone in Sub Saharan Africa. It's a lot less about God or something than the way things actually are." And his life in New York City has been a very accomplished one. In the past ten years, Devine has released six studio albums, six live albums and six EPs, has toured internationally, and has become renowned for his extremely naked, introspective, and politically-influenced lyrics and a hard-pressed longing to understand the world and himself.
The beginning of his socio-political and musical influence came in his early teenage years, listening to bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth, and performing in Brooklyn and Staten Island. "I grew up playing in indie rock bands who played with hardcore bands, so I was a hardcore kid by default," he explained. "There was a very vibrant punk rock and hardcore scene, so I kind of grafted onto that."
And it's at that point in many people's lives that they are at their most rebellious and influential--that they have the ability to generate a viewpoint of the world and cram as much information into their mind as they can. It's Devine's reflection, appreciation and evolution of that time in his life that makes him an admired singer and songwriter. "I think that being involved with that type of music as a young person absolutely pushed me towards more serious considerations of progressive causes, radicalisms, social conscious. I mean, I don't know if it was the most fully-formed or nuanced thing coming from the mouths of 17-year-old agitators of punk rock shows, but all those things--straight edge, vegetarianism, feminism, equal treatment of oppressed people, whether it's homosexuals or people in the third world--any of that stuff, the first place I heard of it was at hardcore shows. It's extremely healthy. It hopefully pointed you towards a more thoughtful and growing consideration as you grew up, rather than the reflexive and reactionary politics of a teenage subculture. It's part of why I think the way I think and sort of the way that I conduct myself with music still."
Just as Devine's music career started taking off--playing shows at higher-end venues in Manhattan and getting his first record deal--the darker side of life started creeping onto him, namely through death of his brother and father. "[The death of my father] is always in the background of who I am and how I exist in the world. You lost one of the pillars on which you stand. And you'll never replace that pillar, but you still have to figure out how to stand," he metaphored. "A lot of early kinds of loss, but I've come to realize that those things are not a stamp to retract from being responsible for the arc of your life. Everyone has hardship that they go through, and it doesn't mean that it's not hard, and it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen, but it means you have to accept it and absorb it and move on and grow up. You can do whatever the fuck you want, actually, but I don't want to keep living my life making shitty choices and being self destructive because I went through something difficult or because we are always going through something difficult. But we are also going through something beautiful. Life is both of those things, and I think that maybe in the last ten years that those situations, and accepting them for what they are, has led me to a place where I can hopefully understand that the world can be both of those things--the world can both be very difficult and fucked up and unfair and also really beautiful."
As Devine boils it all down, though, the end result is relieving and simple: "What I think helps me make sense of the world around me is...it's question of control. I don't have control over what you think about what I'm saying, about what you write, about what they are saying at the end of the bar. And when I start to realize that, it's very freeing, becuase I know that I am still responsible to be the best person that I can be with the little amount of control that I do have, which is what comes out of my mouth or how I act in the world. You just do good because it's the right thing to do."
And, as Devine continued, that realization of how the world works relates directly to his what kind of music he creates: "In general, most of the songs that I write tend to be about figuring out what it means to be a person, whether it means being a big person in the world, or a little person with your relationship with yourself or your understanding of yourself and stories about other people. I kind of am fascinated about why people do what they do and why they dont do what they do. That somewhat stems from my situation with my dad and my brother passed away when I was 18."
These viewpoints on the world and himself have evolved with his music over the past decade, and as Devine sits on a barstool at the Williamsburg Hall of Music on the opening night of CMJ, he puts it front and center for what music festivals and marathons like this can do for an up-and-coming musician. "CMJ was the first marker of anything. Getting to do CMJ is 2010 was like, 'Whoa.' It's a nationally accredited festival. To have watched it go from the first [to perform] on a bill to headlining two straight nights at my two favorite venues in the city, it's pretty wild, something to be very thankful for. A lot of really great things have happened because of this festival."
His versatility as a musician, too, has promoted a steady and consistent growth in the industry since the early millenium, providing him the options to tour as a solo artist, or play with other musicians, as he did at the Williamsburg Hall of Music with the Goddamn Band, and, also, with his new band, Bad Books, comprised of him and the guys of Manchester Orchestra, who released their self-titled, first album on October 19. "I just see myself as fucking lucky," he explained. "Because I am a solo artist, I am able to float around and do these cool things. For me it's the fact that I can go and make a record with Manchester Orchestra or play a show by myself or play a show with seven people, like I am going to do tonight [with the Goddamn Band]."
But as the opening acts were about to go on and the doors opened to the public, people started sauntering into the bar, and Devine placed his hands on the bar and summed up his conclusion about his own place as a musician in the world. "I want to have a life in music. I want to be making music for as long as I am healthy enough to make music. I am not worried about how fast I get to top of Everest. I see I'm climbing all the time. I'm healthy. I'm happy. I'm just going to be who I am. And that's it."