Photo by Jennifer Elrod
There are a number of up-and-coming artists that have a throwback sound to when rock was young and soul music served as an influence. Anderson East, two albums into what promises to be a very long career, is a great example – his weathered vocals shine in the Stax-influenced R&B music. On this current tour, which hits the A&R Music Bar on Friday night, East has brought along another up-and-comer whose music is timeless – Devon Gilfillian. Devon is originally from Philadelphia but moved to Nashville with the dreams of making it in the music world. Just a few short years into his career, he’s played some shows with heavyweights and earned a much coveted record deal with a major label.
I talked to Devon earlier this week about some of his tour experiences, what to expect from his debut full length and what the Nashville scene is like these days.
The Columbus and Cleveland dates on this tour are sold out. Have all the shows been sold out so far?
You know, they actually have. The Vermont gig, I think that show wasn’t sold out completely but most of the other shows have been sold out. This is our first tour, well, not our first tour jumping on with somebody, we’ve hoped on with a couple other folks, but this is one of the first tours where we’re playing all these venues that are sold out which is really nice.
I was turned onto your music by Drew Holcomb who I spoke with last fall. You weren’t playing the show in Columbus with him but he told me about you. It seems like bands that open for him always seem to have good luck.
We love Drew so much. He was the first long tour that we got to do and hop on the road with him and chase him around in a van. That was amazing, we got to play a lot of theaters and big clubs. We got in front of a lot of really great crowds too. His audience is good people.
Can you tell me about signing with Capitol Records?
Yeah, we signed with Capitol back in October. We’re getting into the studio this summer for a week in June, a week in July and a week in August with this guy, Shawn Everett. He did the last War on Drugs record. He’s Blake Mills’ engineer’s right-hand man and he’s produced Lucius records and some other really bad ass stuff. He’s just a wild, wild character, very outside-of-the-box-thinking kind of guy. We’re getting into the studio at the end of the summer and doing the record and hopefully start releasing stuff in the fall.
It sounds like Capitol is giving you some time to develop your songs and do things right rather than rush you into putting something out.
They have definitely given me the time. I’ve worked my butt off with different writers and have probably written almost 60 songs in the past four-to-six months. They have been patient and have been very supportive in not pushing me into the studio until they feel like the songs are there. This is my first experience with a record label and I did not expect to be working with a record label in the short amount of time that we have since we released our first EP a year and a half ago. It’s been surprisingly awesome.
That EP features some different sounds – rock, soul, Americana, singer/songwriter. Has Capitol told you which direction they want to see you go in?
They really haven’t. There is lots of talks of Adele/Sam Smith, they’ve kind of done this soul-inspired music and they are like, “We feel like you kind of trickle on that line.” And they’ve referenced certain things but at the end of the day, my vision is an evolution of the EP. We’ve moved past that sound, the EP is very much roots inspired, there’s Al Green, there’s Staple Singers, there’s Hendrix, there’s even Sturgill Simpson backbeat country that we were listening to and getting inspired by.
Me? I want to push it into more of a psychedelic blues rock and soul kind of world. That’s where my vision lands and they are totally on board with it. We’re getting into the studio with a guy who is outside of the box, he’s not like a Pop kind of producer, he’s definitely like, “I want to make weird records. I want to make art and we’ll make it palatable.”
Of course we want to shoot for the stars, we would love to have a radio single but at the end of the day, it’s got to feel like it’s mine and it’s got to feel good.
Because it’s 2018 and I’ve streamed your EP rather than owning a physical copy where I can look at liner notes, is it you playing lead guitar on the songs?
It’s me, I’m primarily playing guitar and then I have a couple of buddies, my buddy Zack Smith and Jessie Thompson, they play some of the slide stuff and some of the rhythm guitars. Most of the lead stuff is me. I attempted to channel Hendrix (laughs).
You’re a great guitar player. When you were starting out, did you know you wanted to front the band or had you ever thought about being a guitar player in somebody else’s band?
You know, when I first started play guitar, I envisioned myself as a guitar player. It wasn’t until college that I really grew comfortable with my voice. Everyone was like, “You’re the singer. You’re the one with the voice. You’re going to sing the songs.” That’s when I started playing out in college, doing acoustic shows by myself and really getting comfortable with singing in front of people.
When I moved down to Nashville, I played guitar in a reggae band, I played guitar for a Delta blues cover band and also played in a pop band that my buddy was singing lead vocals for. I don’t mind, at all, being a support player but my manager/drummer came along and was like, “What the hell are you doing? You need to sing your songs.” And so at that point I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to focus on my stuff.”
Down the line, I’m definitely game for some support/guest guitar slots with other bands and on other peoples’ records.
Would you say there is a Nashville local music scene – like, the bands that are based there are playing out 2 or 3 times a month at different clubs around town – or is Nashville the home base for artists that spend most of their time on the road?
It really depends. There is absolutely a local scene. I think Nashville is the best music city in the United States because it’s cheap – New York and LA are super expensive and you have to work your ass off 60 hours a week just to make rent and eat food and then it takes an hour to get to rehearsal because there’s so much traffic. In Nashville, if you’re an up-and-coming artist and you’re trying to build some buzz, you’re trying to get some heat, you play out all the time and you have time to do that because you only have to work 30 hours a week at a restaurant or something like that to make rent. There’s more time, there’s more freedom for bands to get out and play out.
For the most part, when we play out, we make it more of an event, more of a party. We are at the point where we’ll make play 3 or 4 times a year in Nashville. I’ll do some solo gigs every now and then and I’ll guest on some people’s shows and stuff like that but a lot of the artists are on the road.
All that to say, there’s so much talent that comes into Nashville and those are the cats that are trying to get in front of people once or twice a week. The scene is amazing, it’s definitely not a country music city specifically any more. It’s evolving, it’s rock n’ roll, Americana is definitely an influence on a lot of the music, but that includes soul and blues and folk. The hip-hop scene is definitely not popping as much but there’s a cool neo-soul kind of scene that’s growing and flowering. There’s even a pop scene that’s separate from the country-pop scene.
If somebody is traveling to Nashville, what are some of the things they should see and do, especially around live music? Are there any out-of-the-way places or things that might not be in every tour guide?
Absolutely. I would say The 5 Spot and The Basement are my two favorite intimate venues in Nashville. And then if you are on Broadway, there’s a place called Acme Feed and Seed and then Robert’s Western World are my two favorite spots if you’re downtown. Acme is a really great venue for different music than country, there’s funk bands and Americana and a DJ upstairs. They are very supportive of artists. Robert’s is definitely a country, honky-tonk kind of spot but it’s real, you’ll get old country and alt-country and outlaw country.
So will the show at A&R Music Bar with Anderson East be your first time in Columbus?
I’ve only driven through, so, yeah. This will be the first time that we’re actually playing and hanging out.