These songs helped me figure out what I thought about the last year of my life,” says Kevin Devine. “I tend to write things down first and then, later, figure out what they were really about. In the last year, I got a lot a little dark with some personal things and now I’m trying to grow up a little and not be such a petulant brat.
“So that’s why the album is called Put Your Ghost to Rest,” he continues. “Because that’s sort of an imperative. I can’t live with all this stuff swirling around, because then I’m not going to embrace what’s in front of me. I think the songs told me a story - and after going back and listening, it’s pretty heavy to feel like the album sounds as good as it does and says the things that it says.”
Ghost is 26-year-old Devine’s major label debut, after releasing three widely-acclaimed albums on independent labels - Circle Gets the Square (2001), Make the Clocks Move (2003), and Split The Country, Split The Street (2005). These twelve songs, produced by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck) and featuring Devine’s friends and colleagues known as the Goddamn Band, represent a sharpening of Devine’s raw, evocative lyrics, and should help establish him as one of the leading songwriters of his generation. For the Brooklyn native, the album represents the culmination of several different strains in his musical upbringing.
“I used to play in a band called Miracle of ‘86, a Replacements-ish, kind of screamy rock thing,” he says. “And I dug it, but I was also writing these folkie songs that weren’t really going to fly in that band, so I started to make this other thing. And both of them were doing well, and that was a really cool period of time.
“Split the Country was done after the band broke up, like the hangover from that. It was more bi-polar – aggressive rock songs with fuller instrumentation, but also songs with violins and glockenspiel or just a guy with a guitar. Now this record feels like all of that smashed together, but all built around songs written on an acoustic guitar, and it seems to flow in a more cohesive way.”
After being noticed by a Capitol A&R representative at a show during the 2004 CMJ music festival, Devine began the process of recording an album with more time to work, a bigger budget, and an outside producer. Not just any outside producer, either. “I’m a huge fan of a lot of the stuff Rob has worked on,” says Devine. “I mean, Elliott Smith - a really brilliant, gifted, singular voice who changed the way I look at writing music profoundly. Working with Rob was amazing, one of those experiences that I’ll be fifty before I’ll be able to fully process. I made a friend, and that’s what you do this for.”
The seven weeks spent recording at Sunset Sound and Sound Factory in Los Angeles marked an entirely new approach for the young artist. “We really ripped the songs apart and put things back together and that was really a wonderful, new thing for me,” he says. “I always thought my lyrics were really untouchable, they’re so close to home for me. So the first time Rob said ‘What if we took out this couplet?,’ and I did it, and it made the song better, I thought, ‘Well, this is why you’re here.’”
As Put Your Ghost to Rest came together, Devine realized that there was a through line that was emerging. He knew that he wanted to open the album with the confessional “Brooklyn Boy,” a song that he wrote during last year’s Hotel Café tour. “I was trying to figure out a way to be unflinching about some of the experiences I had, friendships that dissolved and my role in that,” he says. “After that, it moves almost chronologically to the last song, ‘Heaven Bound & Glory Be,’ which is about someone looking around and taking stock and being really afraid of what their government is up to - that if there’s a breakdown of civility in government, it trickles down to everyday life. That song ends with cautious optimism, trying to find something in the most basic level of relating to one other person.”
All but one of the songs on the album were written before going into the studio, but that final addition proved to be critical. “’Go Haunt Someone Else’ was the last one we put on,” Devine says. “I liked the song, but I wasn’t sure because, though no one else will know the person it’s about, that person will. Part of what I’ve been doing for the last year is try to put things to rest, and this song was pretty abrasive. But one thing I love about Elliott Smith or Dylan is that ability to kill you in a lyric but have it sound so inviting.
“When we did the demo and it started to become a song, it became the centerpiece of the record, even though it was the last thing I put on. It sort of tied the whole record together – after starting off as an afterthought.”
While many of the songs on Ghost are more personal and inward-looking, some of Devine’s writing also addresses political and social themes, reflecting the madness and uncertainty of our time. “I wrote ‘The Burning City Smoking’ during the (New York City) transit strike,” he says. “That song was a person sticking his head up and saying, ‘Oh, I’m not just self-involved and crazy inside - the world has gone nuts, too.’ I was always very abstractly political. I listened to punk rock records and thought I could punch my time card. And then all this shit in the world made me have to sit up and pay attention – and that’s a good thing. It’s a scary time, so why ignore it?”
In the last few years, Kevin Devine has toured extensively alongside a wide range of artists. This work demonstrates the widespread appeal and breadth of his songs – the potential now being focused and realized on Putting the Ghost to Rest. This stage experience has also helped reshape some of his thinking.
“Coming up in the hardcore scene in Staten Island, where I grew up, we always cultivated a real us-against-them thing,” he says, “and I’ve learned that’s really narrow and defeatist. I learned that I can go and play with these different kinds of people - with Corinne Bailey Rae or Cursive and Bright Eyes or Brand New or the Hotel Café dudes - and I’m lucky I can do that. You just do your thing, present yourself your way, and you’ll be fine.”