Sean Devine photo by John Zumpano
Sean Devine Embraces Life’s Challenges in Here For It All
Sean Devine experienced major changes and developments in his life leading up to recording Here For It All, which arrives in September 3rd, circumstances which make the songs on the album feel that much more relatable due to the major upheavals of 2020 and 2021 on a bigger scale. The title track “Here For It All” carries a resounding message of acceptance of the painful and the joyful in life and suggests they are fairly closely interconnected, and being determined not to shy away from change may lead to some of life’s biggest affirmations.
Like many songwriters and musicians, Devine has moved through periods of heavy involvement in a musical life and through times away from it before finding the time was right for a return, reflected in his previous album Austin Blues. For some of the same reasons, Here For It All really resounds with plenty of soul-searching and a larger celebration of the transformative powers of songwriting and music as a whole. He also worked with a producer for the first time on this album, Josh Thompson (Cody Jinks), and his band The Tone Deaf Hippies, which adds an extra dimension to his experience bringing these songs to the world. I spoke with Sean Devine from his home in his native Montana where he carries on a musical tradition that goes back several generations in his family.
Americana Highways: How do you feel about creating an album a while ago that now resonates even more than it might have if it had been released right away?
Sean Devine: It was two years ago that we went and cut these tracks at Sonic Ranch with the Tone Deaf Hippies, in the summer of 2019. We got the mix done that Fall and I was going to release that record in the Spring of 2020. I was determined to wait it out. I didn’t know if it would be a year or 18 months. If there was a memo about that, I missed it. It just went on and on. Then when I was about at breaking point, I was thinking, “Fuck it! I’ll just put this thing out anyway.” We finished the mastering. Then I got myself vaccinated and my wife and kids got vaccinated. This is a brand new record for the world. It feels fresh to me. I think the message and the vibe of Here For It All is as timely now, and maybe more so because of what we’ve all been through. It might be a blessing in disguise, as many blessings are, that this has become an even more timely record.
AH: The record definitely resonates a lot. Many musicians have had hard decisions to make about releasing. But you’re also someone who took to an online presence pretty quickly and consistently. How has that been for you?
SD: That took some adapting. Like every other artist out there, I’m sure, when I’m presenting the music, I want it to sound as good as possible. I want you to feel it. Initially, we were all just singing into our iPhones and it was pretty clunky and weird. I’m a little self-conscious about sitting at the end of my bed in my jammies and singing at my phone. A lot of people were doing that, but I couldn’t picture that for myself.
But I have a music space out here, an out-building, a little ways from the house. I set up in there and tried to make it like a sound stage. And I was singing through my PA in the rehearsal room. I tried to figure out how to light it so it would look cool. But I was still singing into a phone and having trust that there were people receiving this on the other end to whom this felt good, like a real entertainment experience. Some people came up with really cool ideas, with Zoom calls, and interviews with other musicians. I’m still writing and I want people to hear that.
AH: One of your setups has an amazing view, with mountains behind.
SD: Oh, yes, that’s a little sunroom in the studio. We started work on that room and it stalled out during the pandemic, so if you get tired of the pretty view you can look at the house wrap on the windows and the drywall.
AH: Myself and everyone in my family are working on their houses right now with various stages of progress. That makes the location even more familiar. I’ve come to accept living inside process more than I used.
SD: It’s the journey, as they used to say. It isn’t about getting there because there is no “there” there. Just when you get there, there is more stretched out in front of you and you have to go find out what that’s about. If there isn’t more stretched out in front of you, whoops! [Laughs]
AH: In terms of writing this period, does it derive from a definite period where you thought, “I’m writing an album” or was it more a song-by-song development that led to an album?
SD: Part of the magic of Here For It All for me was that I’d hired a producer for the first time and I really wanted to explore that, but also to not screw it up. I didn’t know how to go about being in a relationship like that. My previous album, Austin Blues, was written during a particular period of time and emotional phase about the same kinds of experiences. That was something I was more used to. With Here For It All, I had a lot of songs and I hadn’t begun organizing them into an album or something that was thematically connected. And I’m glad that I didn’t because that was the time when I was presented with my opportunity to work with Josh [Thompson] and I just handed over all the demos. He and the rest of his band, The Tone Deaf Hippies just had at it. We also played them all together in the studio. I tried to relinquish creative control as much as I could, and now, to my amazement, we have an album that sounds like it was written as a whole and works with classic themes of love and loss, and with the great mysteries of life. But it’s in a way that feels like the songs were meant to be together. In truth, it’s an album that’s an aggregate of songs that I had written over time. Some of the songs are at least 15 years old.
AH: Wow! Some songs really seem to wait for their day.
SD: It’s interesting to me. “Palomino Mustang” is a song that had taken me years to write. And that was a dozen years ago. It’s also a song that was unusual in my experience because it was based on someone else’s idea and project. It was written for a movie that didn’t get made, like most movies, it seems. The movies you see are really a small portion of the projects that have been out there. As a writing exercise it was fascinating and challenging. I found myself writing about a subject that was not me and not based on my personal experience. But by the time I had finished the song, it still turned out to be about me anyway. It reads literally but it turned out to be more of a metaphor. I’ll give it another dozen years and maybe it’ll be about something else. I love the idea that a song can kind of ride along with you your whole life like that. That would be sweet.
AH: It says a lot about the identity and separateness of songs. Is it ever hard to see the songs as something separate from you, especially when you play it right away for audiences?
SD: It’s not just songs, but it’s something that’s true for anyone who makes art, that it’s built into the process of art that you want it to be witnessed, ultimately. To be seen, or heard, or felt. I think that artists are fundamentally communicators.
AH: Have you played all of these songs a fair amount? Do they have a performance life already?
SD: The world is a big place. I’ve been playing some of these songs for quite a long time in my world, among the people who follow my music and are tuned in. The second track on the record, though, “Crazy Too” is something that I really just dashed off in a good mood. I sent Josh the memo, but initially it felt kind of frivolous. I try to write songs that have some heft to them, some weight. I want them to have some substance to them so you can get to know them for a while. This one felt more like a cute song. Then he liked it and we cut it. He made it into a two-step thing, which changed the feel of it a little.
By the time I heard play back with my new vocal, I thought, “Hell, this is the kind of song people need too! There are times for celebrating where you just want to have a good feeling.” So it’s a new song that I haven’t really played out much, but I’m looking forward to it because I like seeing people smile.
AH: That song was one that really interested me because it actually didn’t feel too cute to me. For me, the most surprising thing is some of the imagery. I think it almost suggests how scary and weird transitions can be as well as how great they are. It reminded me of what a big leap, psychologically, change can be.
SD: Well, good. There is certainly something in there about when you realize that the only thing you can do is to let go. The only way the experience can be had is to do that. You can turn away from it, I suppose. I was trying to protect myself for a while at the beginning of this new relationship. I had good reasons. I had been through some big hurt and a lot of struggle. Finally, it felt like the only thing left to do, after I’d spun myself out trying to figure it out or get it right, was to let it happen and see what would happen.
AH: Do you have thoughts about why people need new music in the world rather than just falling back on older, if beloved, material? Obviously, you want to be relevant to peoples’ lives with songs, but is it more than that?
SD: There’s a thing that goes around from time to time, this notion that it’s all been said. I’m sure that’s true, in a way. But the other truth is that it hasn’t been said by you and the way that you experience these archetypal human experiences, and the way that we all pass through life, is fundamentally similar.
But we each encounter that for the first time as we go along. Those of us who have this weird impulse to try to relate our own experience, to try to make an “artifact” out of it, and pass that along, is us trying to articulate how it feels to encounter these things. It is new to us. I think people need to relate to each other. We get assurance from having a window into someone else’s private world. It makes this whole weird adventure of living a human life a lot less lonely. We need that.
I listen for songs all the time. I’m a lover of great songs and storytelling, and the way that emotions can be imparted so they are felt very deeply. Whether it turns out to be true or not, I feel like I’m feeling the same emotion that the artist intended to impart. I seek that out. I want someone to bowl me over with a song. I’m on both sides of this thing all the time.
AH: Do you think timing ties into it? If people come across music that corresponds to their feeling at the same time as they are experiencing something new, it sort of adds impact to the music.
SD: I’ve felt that. When you’re going through some kind of person experience, and then you turn on the radio in your car, and you feel like every song that comes on is being sung directly to you. I’ve certainly had those experiences. Those of us who work in the music business may be tempted to think of all of this as grist for the big mill, with another song, album, or ambitious artist coming along. But what’s also going on here is that really deep, but also fragile, level of human communication that this stuff is made of. With or without a music business to go along with it, it’s essential stuff. It’s important. It can be sacred.
These can be the songs that take you to a place in your own mind that reconnects you with yourself over the years. I’m hoping some of my songs can do that for people. There are certainly songs out there that do that for me. Whenever I put on that record, it takes me to a place in my own experience and I feel like I’m revisiting my own life. There’s too much going on there to just be a piece of “Pop.” It’s supposed to be fun, but there’s also more to it. I want to leave people with something that people can use for a long time.