Upstate Songs is definitely one of the half dozen albums that I would take with me to a desert island. Fortunately, singer-songwriter Devon Sproule plays a mean live show, too, and she's got a date in New York next week (Friday, May 5 @ Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn; 11pm, FREE). Devon was kind enough to answer a few questions by email as she prepares to release her anticipated new album, Keep Your Silver Shined:
Lauren Cerand: Upstate Songs (2003) is as close to perfect an album as I've encountered. What can your already devoted fans expect from this summer's forthcoming Keep Your Silver Shined?
Devon Sproule: Thanks, Lauren. And thanks for spreading the word about next month's show at Pete's. Keep Your Silver Shined was recorded while I was engaged to Paul Curreri. I'm reminded of our engagement every time I listen to it. The writing is much more confident than on Upstate Songs, the playing more skilled, the influences more naturally felt. It was as though receiving such a huge human compliment as a marriage proposal gave me the boldness to quit the quasi-confessional stuff I was writing and get on to something more original.
Keep Your Silver Shined features more instruments -- a few clarinet tunes, some pedal steel. I recorded many of the guitar tracks on a hollow-body Gretsch, which pushes the sound away from folk a bit, over towards jazz. The token cover on the record is of the high lonesome traditional "The Weeping Willow," featuring three part harmony with Paul Curreri and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Ah - but I forgot! There are two covers. The other is "Eloise & Alex," written by Paul Curreri himself. It's so close to home, I forget that I didn't write it! In any case, Paul's contributions to Keep Your Silver Shined, as with Upstate Songs, were immense.
The most obvious fingerprints on the record, though, are from Jeff Romano, my producer. He's got such a perfect country set-up out there in Greenwood, VA, and his ears are nothing short of brilliant. Jeff kept our standards high and played many of the best parts himself.
(There are unreleased clips from Keep Your Silver Shined at www.DevonSproule.com)
LC: Your bio notes that you spent your "childhood on a 465-acre, 100-member commune, founded in the 60's, in rural Virginia." How has that experience, of valuing an alternative perspective on organizing resources and community, shaped your commitment to your indie path to stardom in an industry regularly criticized for its mediocre, cookie-cutter, and unabashedly corporate tendencies?
DS: Of course, it's tricky nailing down how one's childhood affected oneself. Clearly, though, growing up with 80+ adults (many of whom I was very close to and spent lots of one-on-one time with) creates a need for versatile communication. That's what I see in people who have lived at Twin Oaks -- a desire to communicate and a willingness to do it not only on their own terms, or in their own personal language, but in whatever manner will get the job done.
My parents encouraged me to experiment with different kinds of schooling, which I certainly did (homeschooling, Montessori, public, community college, all before I was 15). By those means, I got an early start on music, though recording a record when you're 16, of the first 8 songs you've ever written, is not always advisable! Needless to say, I don't sell that disc anymore.
As far as my upbringing affecting my "indie career," it's probably not as glamorous as glamorous a story as it could be. If I had my druthers, I'd be a tad better represented (ie: better booking, management and label help). Granted, I'm not by any means embarrassed to be working as independently as I am. I sure make a better cut per CD! And growing up in an income-free environment, the lack of money never bothers me much. I always make rent and can afford to take my husband out to dinner when he gets home from tour! So yes, on the whole, I'm proud of my alternative upbringing. I don't mind a bit that my dad (who still lives at Twin Oaks) couldn't afford to buy me a car when I...er...didn't graduate from high school.
LC: I was turned on to your work online, after randomly coming across a song inspired by collected materials for FOUND magazine, that was absolutely brilliant . I'm continually amazed by the sheer poetic beauty of the lyrics in so much of your very original work. What's your songwriting process like?
DS: Well, like many songwriting women, I went through my phase of angsty Ani-inspired songwriting. Alas, when it comes right down to it, though -- I just don't have much angst! I had an good healthy upbringing, enjoy a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol, and am perfectly delighted in my marriage to Paul Curreri (as well as being a huge fan of his music). My last CD, Upstate Songs, was written living in Woodstock, NY with my girlfriend and manager at the time, Jess Baucom. That one, brief stint away from Virginia enabled a shift in my writing. I was reading poetry (Edna Millay, Shakespeare, Paul Muldoon) that tended more toward descriptive writing and paid attention to the order in which words were arranged in a sentence. Of course, I dig rhyming too. I don't require it of myself but find that at times, it provides for a structure that I really enjoy.
Of course, I love playing guitar -- especially now that my husband and friends have given me, for my birthday, the perfect addition to my collection: a 1954 Gibson ES-125. It's a jazz guitar and while I'm certainly not a jazz guitarist, I steal absolutely as much as I can from the genre!
My husband Paul Curreri's music (and musical process) is a huge inspiration for me. I was a fan of his back when we were just friends and am proud to identify him as my main musical influence.
And I'm a sucker for melody. Usually when I start writing, something terribly boring and cliché will come out in the way of a melody. It takes a lot of patience, as well as the guitar's layout of notes to make a good melody. But it's one of my favorite parts of songwriting.
LC: Many people are influenced by things outside of the medium they work in, and I'd be curious to know what you're feeling influenced by right now, whether it's art or fashion or film or literature or anything specific that's shaping your aesthetic philosophy of the moment...
DS: I'm halfway through Sense and Sensibility at the moment. I've read and loved Pride and Prejudice a few times, but this is my first go at anything else by Austen. I can't tell if it affects my writing for the better or for the sillier, but whatever it is wears off within a few weeks after finishing the book. It's a shame that more men don't read Jane Austen. I enjoy men's conversation so much but can't find even one to discuss her writing with!
I listen to a lot of books-on-CD as well. On my trip to Pete's Candy Store next month, thank goodness, I'll be able to finish Zadie Smith's On Beauty. It's some of the most amazing writing (and outloud reading, for that matter) that I've ever come across.
Since you mentioned fashion, I'll go ahead and say that I'm big into vintage dresses (though my bank account won't allow for more than, say, a nice one every month). I bobbed my hair after my wedding and have enjoyed the heck out of dealing with that. And I think Dansko's Anisette is the most underrated shoe in history. If I'm feeling up to it (which is most of the time), I try to dress well for my concerts. I like to think that it shows an enthusiasm for all aspects of the performance.
I love Bill Steig's drawings. Have written many a lyric inspired by those. And Gus Powell's photographs are amazing. He's in New York -- y'all can probably see a show, you lucky dogs! Aaron Farrington does all my publicity and portrait work -- and all very well.
LC: And finally, Lux Lotus readers are fond of flora, and this is the season for appreciating the physical wonders of the natural world. Any gardening secrets you'd love to share?
DS: Beware the cabbage maggots! My sister-in-law Maria and I just started our first garden. Those little buggers got at least half of our bok choy and broccoli! Having been an avid house plant collector for the last couple years, this whole gardening thing has about blown my mind. I love it and boy is it true what they say about it being meditative. I still haven't figured how to properly squat while I'm weeding without getting sore ankles, but I'm working on it. My dad's girlfriend runs a heirloom seed business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, out in Louisa County, at Acorn Community. I get all my seeds and starts from her. And what do you know -- it's just started raining! Good, good, good.