For Nashville-based singer-songwriter Devon Gilfillian, music has always been an avenue to process what’s happening around him. He’s performing inside Grimey’s record store, celebrating the release of his latest album Love You Anyway.
The record store is only a few minutes from the 600 square foot home he shared with drummer and manager Jonathan Smalt. That’s where he learned about his major label break back in 2017 when Chris York, A&R for Capitol Records stopped by.
“Our house smelled like cat poop and there is kitty litter is all over the ground,” he remembers. “I remember looking at Jon and being like, ‘We’re doing this, man. It’s happening.'”
With three years of songwriting and the production from Shawn Everett, Gilfillian released his 2020 debut, Black Hole Rainbow.
“Whenever I hear any of the songs of Black Hole Rainbow on the radio, my mind is still blown,” he says. “Whenever I think back to that album, I think back to the Grace Potter tour. The record came out on my 30th birthday, while we were on the road. For that first month, I got to soak it in putting out my first album, being on the road and playing the songs in front of people and not really knowing what was going to happen next.”
The level of excitement and days on the road completely shifted with the global pandemic that stopped everything.
“It definitely took all the wind out of my sails, in a lot of ways,” he says. “It made me look at myself in the mirror and be like, ‘All right, who am I? What Am I doing here now? What is music now? How do I create and be an artist?'”
So what he did was reimagine Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album, What’s Going On. He says he didn’t cover the album for compliments or mainstream assurance. This project was his opportunity to raise money against voter suppression and challenge himself musically.
“To me, it was definitely therapy,” he says. “It was the only thing I knew what to do during the pandemic, after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor got killed, and trying to figure out how to raise money to fight voter suppression with what I do. It was also an opportunity to connect with other artists in Nashville and the U.S. that I loved and lifting their voices. I wanted it to be something that was going to bring people together. And the musical education in itself was insane, learning all those songs.”
Opportunities started opening as the world was from late night talk show performances to interviews with CNN talking about the original What’s Going On during its 50th anniversary. But then Devon’s manager got a call no artist wanted to hear.
“We’re staying in this nice lake town in South Carolina,” he says. “We played a gig and we were jet skiing on this lake. We get back to the shore and I look at Jon, he’s on the phone, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, we got dropped.’ I knew it was coming. It didn’t really hurt the way that I thought it was going to hurt. Because all the people at Capital that I loved, that I worked with, I knew I wasn’t going to lose them as fans and as supporters. I knew it was my time to go. They did such amazing stuff for me, but artistically, they were changing and I was changing.”
Two days later, it was right back to the stage at the Newport Folk Fest, where he invited Nathaniel Rateliff to join him on stage.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, man, of course, brother, I’d love to do that,'” he says. “He came up there singing and crying. We sang “Love You Anyway,” he was singing backgrounds with Langhorne Slim, Courtney Marie Andrews, and Jess Wolfe from Lucius, and everyone was just weeping. I was like, ‘What is happening right now?’ This is what I live for these moments of crying on stage with Nathaniel Rateliff, the audience is crying from a song that no one has heard before. I just got dropped by a label two days before and that doesn’t matter. This is what matters, the music in this moment.”
“I replay that over and over,” he says. “I remember getting home and posting that moment on Instagram and everything. I was just like, ‘Man, I’m not worried at all.’ I stopped worrying about record label or no label. I was like, ‘I don’t even need a record label, I’m going to do this independently.’ But I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t have enough money to do that [Laughs], We’re gonna need some help.’ But, I stopped worrying altogether.”
Before long, Rateliff began singing Gilfillian’s praises to his label Concord, who added him to the roster.
“Rateliff changed my life in a big way,” he says. “Just getting to write with him and hang out with him. He sang on “Righteous” on the album. He definitely has become a good friend.”
With that moment at Newport Folk Fest still in his memory, Love You Anyway became the flagship for his new album. Already done with most of the writing before the performance and joining a new label, this record is his opportunity to be more creatively free in his music.
“I feel like I know myself more,” he says. “Not that Capital was restricting me or anything like that. I feel like there’s not as many chefs and cooks and that like ‘We want some of this spice, we want some of that sugar, we want some of that.’ It feels like there’s not as many voices and my voice is the loudest. So I get to express myself in any way that I want.”
With a new label, new album, and creative freedom, now it’s finally time for Devon Gilfillian to soak in the moment.
“It does feel like a second chance almost,” he says. “Black Hole Rainbow, I’m still so proud of it. But it felt like we’re at Six Flags and we’re on the roller coaster and we’re going up and up. We get to the top and it just stops and its like, ‘Sorry kids, Six Flags is closed,’ and then it just close the ride down [Laughs]. Now feels like I’m actually going to get to go on the roller coaster and enjoy the release of this album, and I’m excited for that.”