Martin Devaney: You're always playing to someone
Photo by Tony Nelson
"I was content to let this be my own personal Basement Tapes," says Martin Devaney when asked about this month's release of his sixth album, House of Rust. "At this point I feel like I'm talking about somebody else's record. Those songs aren't really where I am anymore. It's a different time of my life."
Since the September recording sessions two years ago, Devaney's live sets have turned steadily toward the raucous rock of his early records and away from 2010's rugged and rootsy West End. These abandoned songs were born at the crossroads of these two sides of his personality, and whether he likes it or not, it's the best he's ever made.
"I planned to write this fall and leave it behind," he says. "I purged energy writing acidic, Elvis Costello-sort of songs, and it was cathartic but they didn't hold up or leave me feeling like a very good person." He's fond of the phrase "It is what it is," but has never been one for making decisions. "I'm always changing my mind," he explains.
Finally, more than a year after recording 13 songs over a couple of days at Rich Mattson's idyllic Sparta Studio, Devaney decided to mix them. He struggled with sequencing, and how to reconcile several tracks on which an ex had performed, especially the duet "Lowertown." With its memorable warm melody and unspoken back story, supported by a natural chemistry, the song would seem ripe for local radio. Devaney says he wanted to emulate Steve Earle's duets, but "Lowertown" exceeds mere imitation. It remains on the album, though it will never be performed.
"Lowertown" is not the only track rooted in St. Paul and his personal history. "Crosby Block," a song he's been meaning to write for years, celebrates the Prior Avenue apartment where his family lived when they came to America. It features a ﬁ ne ﬁ ddle jig from Jake Hyer -- who's played and sung with Devaney for a decade -- and a little old-world swagger courtesy of Bellweather drummer Mick Wirtz.
Throughout, the voice of Devaney -- who played saxophone with live hip-hop act Heiruspecs in their early years at Central High, and had a rockin' run fronting Crossing Guards -- is more conﬁ dent than ever, alternately snarling and sweet. "The bulk of the album was recorded live," he explains. "And three-quarters of what you're hearing on the record is ﬁrst takes."
The lyrics reﬂect this conﬁdence. "At least I'm still standing, even if I'm standing still," Devaney sings in one track. He says the songs came together more easily than ever, one written while waiting for his girlfriend to get ready to go out, another waiting for Hyer before a gig. However, Hyer plans to return to Pocahontas County, Virginia, and has forced his friend to "think about doing something new."
West End's theme of uncertain identity is carried forward here. "Saints," he sings, "have written the obituaries for those with spinning wheels and wanderlust." That line comes from "Funerals and Weddings," framed by Hyer's ﬁddle and a tinkling piano you'd swear was borrowed from "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." With Dylan's weariness, Devaney takes a turn with courtesy. "See you at the next funeral or wedding," he sings at parting. "Just might be one of us next time."
"So many of my friends are settling down, getting married," he says. "I see them, with kids and a real job, and in my best moments I feel good about myself. I'm just different. Other times, it's tough." His recent performances are fueled by these difficult feelings. At this year's Pizza Lucé block party, Devaney's chorus to "House of Rust" felt like an ode to his present. "I'm still counting on you," he sang, only this time, he was singing to the crowd before him.
"You're always playing to someone," he explains. "It may not be the audience you used to have, it may not be the audience you thought you'd have, but there's someone. I want to connect with them." Then the man who once wrote, "I'm not where I thought I'd be in life, no steady job, no kids, no wife," turns a beer bottle on the table and adds, "I've become a character in one of my songs." The only question is: Which one?
MARTIN DEVANEY plays an album-release show with Ol' Yeller and the Cactus Blossoms on Friday, October 4, at the Cedar Cultural Center; 612-338-2674
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