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Martin Devaney looks back and inward with 'Plaid on Plaid'

Martin Devaney

Martin Devaney Tony Nelson

“I’m trying to explain to anyone who is listening where I’ve been over the last five years,” says Martin Devaney. “And this is it.”

“It” is Plaid on Plaid, the 38-year-old St. Paul singer/songwriter’s first new record since 2013. Devaney had to work through some issues in that time, and the album’s 10 revealing, rocking songs reflect that personal journey and painful self-reflection.

“I went through probably the lowest stretch of my life a few years back,” Devaney says. “Loads of existential crisis, like ‘What am I doing with myself?’ And feeling like I wasn’t reaching my supposed potential. I was a lost soul for a bit, even if I had a good game face. Of course, in the midst of this, I met Maggie [now his wife], and her kindness and love kind of refocused me and set me on a path with some more purpose.”

You can hear the optimism that new love and a better mindset typically brings on side B of the album, in songs like “About My Girl” and “Give Me Hope.” Side A, though, is a look back at mistakes made along the way and regrets accrued.

“You start here, and you end up there. It’s not necessarily in chronological order, by any means. But it’s all there,” says Devaney. “These are the songs that best represent those five years."

The album, Devaney’s seventh full-length release, has a loose, late-night sound, a testament to the camaraderie of the band Devaney assembled: Ryan Plewacki, Sean McPherson, Tony Zaccardi, Adam Lamoreaux, Tim Martin, and Ryan Otte. They’re not just longtime collaborators, they’re friends.

“At this point in the game, having done this for as long as we have, it’s a little bit like a trust fall type of thing,” Devaney says. “I know that I can bring these guys a tune that I wrote on an acoustic guitar at my coffee table, and we start to work through an arrangement and I can trust them implicitly to react to it. Their instincts are such that after a couple of takes, I’m like, ‘Yep. That’s what I heard in my head.’ And, in some cases, not what I heard, which is even better.”

Devaney has consistently been writing songs since his last record, even if he didn’t think what he was writing was up to snuff. “I was lost for a couple years, and I didn’t push myself the way that I used to,” he says. “I won’t say that I got lazy, because I’m always writing, but I think I wrote a lot of stuff that I just didn’t care for. I did a lot of writing, and I did a lot of trashing of that writing.”

But rather than discard that material, Devaney went back through his notebooks and journals, salvaging unused phrases, verses, and melodies to repurpose for some of the songs on Plaid on Plaid—he jokingly refers to the process as “stealing from myself.” This gives the material a lived-in vibe while also providing insight into Devaney’s current mindset, which makes for a fluid mix of past and present.

Even when he wasn’t recording, Devaney remained a stalwart live performer on Twin Cities stages. “Live music is still king to me,” he says. “Although it’s getting harder and harder to convince people that it’s where their hard-earned money should be spent. We go out to the movies for 10 bucks – spend $10 to see A Star Is Born. Those same people will be reluctant to spend $10 to see three bands. How do we go forward with that? Well, I don’t know anything to do except keep playing the songs. Write songs, play ‘em, and get out in front of people and do it.”

Plaid on Plaid is a reintroduction of sorts for Devaney, a way to reconnect with the fans who have stuck with him from the start, while also introducing him to a new audience. “The whole idea is to connect with people. That’s why we do this,” Devaney says. “I’m always interested in what does connect and what doesn’t. I’m ever curious. I believe in it as my craft. I believe it’s my trade, in the same way that someone’s a carpenter. This is what I do. And I’m always fascinated by it. It’s what makes me seek out new music, or dig deeper into the catalogues of my heroes. As a person who can get discouraged easily, I’m encouraged by the fact that I always wake up and want to keep doing it.”

Devaney is a tireless cheerleader for St. Paul, a city that he thinks unfairly gets a bad rap. He's even  affectionately referred to as St. Paul’s “Night Mayor.” But Devaney is quick to deflect that label, saying he represents both sides of the river. “I’ve always been of the Twin Cities,” he says. “I came up in Dinkytown and played my first show there. I’m a proud St. Paul guy for life, and I accept my unofficial title. But I came up playing more in Minneapolis than in St. Paul. I get a little saddled with the divide, but there is no divide. I’m of the Twin Cities, let it be known.”

While some of the new material reflects on darker moments from Devaney’s past, the record ends on an optimistic note with “Give Me Hope,” a break from his usual somber, introspective style. Devaney quickly agrees with a laugh that the song is “not my normal deal.”

“’Give Me Hope’ is the last song on the record and it is the last song written for the record, which I think is telling, for sure,” he says. “I didn’t give it much thought until it came time to sequence the record, but it made perfect sense. I want to go out on that note, for now. I’ll check back in in a couple of years, but this is where we’re at right now. I wanted it to be like a semi-hopeful Tom Petty song, to go out on an up note.

“When you’re a songwriter, nobody wants to hear how happy you are,” he adds. “That’s not why we put records on, right? But there’s nothing wrong with hearing that somebody’s doing OK. And maybe it’s a reminder that, hey, I can feel this way too. I struggle with my demons and my low points, but being able to write a song like that was a reminder that I can feel this way. I don’t always. I don’t maybe even often. But I can. And I want to. And maybe there’s a way to find that.”

Martin Devaney
With: Little Man and Valet
Where: Turf Club
When: 7 p.m. Sat. Dec. 1
Tickets: 21+; $10/$12; more info here