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Interview: Sean Devine on new album ‘Here For It All’ and returning to the road

We caught up with the Montana singer-songwriter as he releases his latest record.

The name Sean Devine may not be well known among many UK country fans, but that could well be all about to change.

Originally from Montana, Sean wrote his first song at the age of just eight and has been performing live since he was a teenager. Now he’s releasing his fourth album, Here For It All, which was produced by Josh Thompson – who’s also worked with Cody Jinks – and features Jinks’ band the Tone Deaf Hippies.

I recently caught up with Sean to talk about the album, working with Josh, his approach to songwriting, returning to live performances and whether he’d ever tour in the UK.

How would you describe your music to new listeners?

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Ah! I think… well, over here in the States we’ve been enjoying what we call a long tradition of what we call American folk music that mostly derive from where you’re from, right? From the British Isles, and Irish and English old folk songs. I don’t think I’ve reinvented the wheel here exactly, is what I’m trying to say. I think I’m doing something that is part of a long and rich tradition. And if I’m doing it in some unique way then maybe it’s just because I grew up in Montana, which is a very rural state in which there is no music industry per se. We’re just left to ourselves out here [laughs]. This cultural wilderness! [laughs] But we get to just make up things however we like, and we don’t get too worried or self-conscious.

Well that had been the case for most of my coming up. I suppose now in the age of the internet everybody is a little bit more self-conscious, you know. There’s a lot more comparing going on. Maybe things do need to be more defined nowadays for everybody to feel like they’ve gotten a handle on it. I don’t know. I guess I never really got bogged down with that stuff. I really admire a great story, you know. I just want a song to carry me away, and to get lost in my mind for a little while. I try to make songs that do that but I also listen for songs that do that. I’m ecstatic to discover that wherever I can really.

I wanted to ask you about Montana actually – how has growing up in the state and your life there influenced your music?

In one way, like maybe I just described, in Montana we haven’t really had to worry so much about how we’re regarded, you know. There hasn’t been for most of my life almost any kind of pressure to do things in any particular way. But really I come from a musical family, so my great-grandfather Thomas Devine was known as Uncle Tom in the pioneering community. And by that I mean people who moved to Montana in the covered wagons. There’s a good story about the community where he had helped to settle back in the late 19th century. They built a church, as was common in that day – a simple wooden structure, a whitewashed church. And they pooled their money together and bought a piano and had it shipped from Chicago.

And my great-grandpa Thomas was one of the crew that took a wagon down to the train stop and picked up the piano and hauled in back to the new church. And apparently great-grandpa Tom sat in the back of this wagon playing the piano while they hauled it to Rocky Bay. And his son Claude Devine was a fiddler, and his sons all played music including my great-uncle Leon Devine who was a brilliant songwriter also by the way. I’ve been mostly influenced by my own family, I guess. There are no short versions [laughs]. I don’t have any elevator pitches. There aren’t any elevators in Montana, we don’t have to have elevator pitches! [laughs]

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The new album ‘Here For It All’ is out now. What can you tell us about that?

Well, it’s been quite a trip, honestly. The tracks were recorded during I think it was June of 2019, in a studio along the Texas-Mexico border. And that was because I had the opportunity to work with Josh Thompson who plays bass in Cody Jinks’ band, and also has been producing Cody’s last six records, or seven maybe. I had the opportunity to work with Josh and to my surprise he kind of sprung it on me at the last minute that he had decided we should work at the Adobe Room at Sonic Ranch. He’d talked to the rest of the band, the Tone Deaf Hippies, and they’d all agreed to be the session band for my record. I was delighted to have that opportunity. I didn’t know that that was gonna be the set up until about a week and a half before we flew down to El Paso.

So I had the pleasure of playing music with a stellar band, a truly top flight band. And we recorded the tracks live together in the studio and then they did some refining on their parts and I recorded final vocal and guitar stuff in the end, as you do in a multi-track studio. And then I had to wait on that for a while. We did the mixing during the fall and winter of ’19 and ’20, and I thought that I would release the record in the spring of 2020. And then there was this weird thing, a global pandemic, I don’t know if you heard about this.

Everything just stopped, including my project. I know some people put new music out during the pandemic and did well with that. I just couldn’t see a path for that for myself, in large part because the only way to monetise, to try to make that project pay for itself is in live shows. Nobody makes money selling records any more, not really. So frankly I didn’t wanna squander the opportunity, which I regard as a special project and a unique opportunity for my experience so far. So I had to wait out this pandemic thingy, and then finished it up this past spring. And then just pulling the team together and getting the promo wheels turning. That’s why it’s coming out in September [laughs].

And it’s been a long time. It feels like a long time now that I’ve been waiting to share this music with the world. I’m really excited to finally get to do that. And now it’s a whole summer of talking about it. Which is exciting but not quite the same thing as everybody actually hearing it.

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You’ve mentioned working with Josh Thompson, and I’ve read this is your first time using an outside producer. How was that – both as a new experience and then working with Josh specifically?

Yeah, that was really something. You know, I think I’ve mentioned growing up in Montana we’ve had ourselves all to ourselves, and it seems like I’m really emphasising that point. It comes to bear right here on this question, because I literally had my own studio. It was a home studio for a while and then I recorded other people’s albums too. And I had a great run with that. I had a great time with it and I utilised local talent, buddies of mine, and we made some music that we were all really excited about and proud of. But I’d never offered up my own songs to somebody else’s creative control before. It’s something I’d been curious about and again, growing up in Montana it wasn’t as if I had a shortlist of producers who were handy. I didn’t even know who I’d call [laughs] if I wanted to work that way.

But I had already in my own mind decided that was something I wanted to explore. And then my friend Ward Davis introduced me to Josh and Cody and the rest of the band, when I went to see ’em play at a concert hall in Missoula, Montana. And that led to Josh asking me to send him some songs. He wanted to hear my stuff, he was curious. I guess even in my drunken revelry I managed to represent myself well [laughs].

So what it was like to work with him – I didn’t want to exert control right from the outset, because I was governing myself in this way. I wanted to make sure that he had license to make the Sean Devine record that he wanted to make and I wanted to hear. So I just submitted every unrecorded song I had laying around the house – I think it was 26 titles in a big Dropbox folder. He picked the songs from that pile that he liked, and I didn’t even know for sure which songs those would be. I was prepared to record any of them. And when we got to El Paso he showed me the list [laughs] and then we went to work on those songs.

And in some cases, there were a couple of songs for instance where he wanted to change the arrangement, meaning that instead of start with the chorus like I was doing that maybe I should start with the first verse. Just things like that. I have to admit that there was kind of a tightness in my middle when he first started to suggest that we change some of the songs, and I had to admit that that’s what I’m here for and to just let that go, you know, and let’s do it your way Josh and let’s see what that sounds like, because that’s what we’re here for. And I can say confidently that I don’t regret a single thing [laughs] that he did with the music. I think that he did a fantastic job of finding the essence of the thing and finding the strongest possible way to present it. It was a good learning experience for me and I’m really proud of the music.

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I wanted to ask you about your songwriting. Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly challenging to write?

Ah, yeah. And also these songs span a fairly long period of time too. There were some songs when I submitted a folder with everything I had laying around and some of them were 15 years old. The Palomino Mustang, for instance, is a song that i had written quite a while back, and I hadn’t recorded it because I didn’t know what to do with it. It felt like it was a song that was bigger than me. I’d been put up to writing it for a movie project and that was exciting in and of itself. It was a feature film project that didn’t end up being made. Most movie projects never get made [laughs] – I learned that about that business. I thought because I’d been asked to write songs for a script that was in circulation that that was a done deal and my song would be in the movie. I was really excited about that for a little while. Gradually figured out that’s not necessarily how it works.

But I had done a lot of that kind of work before, writing songs from somebody else’s topic or suggestion or for a particular purpose, and so I struggled a little. Some songs they just arrive whole, like waking up in the night listening to what I call ‘God’s own radio’ – just this feeling that there’s a song playing in my head that I gradually figure out is not a song I’ve ever heard before. This must be a new one [laughs]. And then my job is to get it down in some fashion and capture the thing.

In the case of The Palomino Mustang the job was to root around. I may have written 40 verses on that theme, about that topic and gradually, gradually I felt like I was zigzagging, I was tacking toward a particular point. And as I got closer and closer it was more and more difficult to land it, to really get to the thing. So the song actually sat around for a couple of years in a kind of finished state, in a presentable state, but I still felt that it was unsettled. And then one day I just came across it while I was shuffling through my papers and I looked at the lyrics and I saw it, as if for the first time, and I knew what to do with it. And I felt that I had it.

That kind of writing… I suppose that’s how a lot of people who write songs professionally do that, is to keep sort of inching an idea forward and tinkering with it. I haven’t been a very disciplined writer for the most part. I’ve written the songs that I was moved to write mostly, and so those haven’t been… I can’t say that those have been difficult songs to make. That’s the feeling of transcendence, you know, the feeling as if you’ve been visited by some external presence that I think we get addicted to. Maybe what makes us songwriters is having experiences like that. And then we just wanna be in that place all the time because it feels magical.

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But some of those songs were the difficult ones to record, because they can be so intimate or so personal, and suddenly they’re going down onto tape or in this case they’re going into the computer. There’s sort of a feeling of a final version being captured and suddenly I feel protective of them and wanna make sure that they’re spiffed up and presentable. I get self-conscious about them in that way. But that was where it was kind of helpful actually to have a producer, to have Josh around during those times. He’s a very productive person, he’s a very hard-working guy. He had the studio up and running by 11am every day and he wrapped the studio by 11pm every night.

And then we went outside in the parking lot and sat around a bonfire and drank beer and talked about things. That’s actually the fire from the cover of Cody’s record, After The Fire. That’s a painting of that fire we sat around in the front of the Adobe Room. It’s kind of a ritual of theirs I came to really enjoy. And that was reassuring, when Josh shut the studio down for the day he felt that we’d done good work and had good things to say about it. I’m sure that that confidence helped.

When you were going back through the music you hadn’t recorded to send to Josh, did you notice any changes in your approach over time?

I don’t think so. You know, as much as I said earlier I feel like I’ve learned some things from that experience – and I hope that I learn something from every project. Whenever we commit the work to media there’s always a debriefing, at least me with myself where I go back and listen to things. I can make a shortlist of maybe 50 or 60 little things that I would have changed or done differently if I’d caught it at the time. That’s just chronic with me. So in some sense these things are never really complete in my own mind. But I also feel like in some ways I’m the new guy, I’m just showing up in some ways, discussing this project on an international stage and I love that.

But also I’m feeling reminded that I have actually been doing this a long time. I’ve been writing songs since I was a child, I’ve been playing music in front of live audiences for money since I was a teenager, and I’m really a creature of habit. I’m really dug in. I’m not sure if I’m available to experience any profound changes [laughs] in the way that I view this at this point. This is what we’ve got to go with I’m afraid! [laughs] But you know, lightning can strike. I haven’t messed around with synthesisers very much. My EDM phase may still be in front of me, who knows? [laughs]

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You’ve got some US tour dates lined up later this month. How are you feeling about going back out on the road?

Yeah. That’s a good one. I’m curious to find how much the world has changed. You know, this is kind of a point of frustration here in the US. There has been a kind of schism formed in our politics and there are some people who are convinced the pandemic was a hoax or it was being promoted by some foreign agents in order to destabilise the American economy. I don’t have any truck with any of that personally. To me it sounds like a far too complicated proposition [laughs] for any of my fellow humans to actually have been responsible for. But there are these folks, and a lot of them… I have to admit I’m a little concerned. In country music there are some people who I regard as my people and we’ve always been proud to be independent thinkers. We’re people who aren’t told what to think. We’re reluctant to be told what to do.

But in this case, that recalcitrance about vaccination and the social protocols of trying to contain this pandemic has made the thing more complicated. It’s made it more difficult to navigate it. And it’s also in some ways held off our opportunities to get together for these live shows. And now that things are mostly opened up, I haven’t been on an interstate tour since the fall of ’19 now, and I don’t know. Like some of my favourite venues – there aren’t very many of them, but certainly a few of my favourite venues went away and aren’t coming back. That’s a painful thing to contemplate.

I’m not sure if I understand what the circuit is in the same way I used to – these little listening rooms and nightclubs where I was going around, playing my songs. I’m moving back into that with a little bit of trepidation. I’m really hoping to find that my people are all still out there, and everybody still feels a feeling of togetherness when we get together to enjoy the music and have that feeling that we share when I’m playing the songs. I hope that’s still there. I hope that’s still available to us and we’re not going to allow differences of opinion to keep us apart.

What do the next few months look like for you? Is the album and touring the main focus?

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It is. Another first for me is we’ve also hired a radio promoter for the first time who is going to carry the new album to Americana and Triple A reporting stations, and I think not just in the US – hopefully for the UK and European markets, everywhere there is an audience for what we call Americana or American country music. But hopefully he’ll be pushing it out there and then he sends me back weekly reports on what radio stations and what markets are playing the music. And then our job is to get me and the songs to those places. So if you have friends who listen to Americana there in the UK, call your favourite radio station [laughs] and ask for the songs.

I have been playing a circuit mostly here in the western US and the Midwest a couple of times a year, round and round each trip. But this time we’re gearing up, preparing ourselves to go wherever people are excited about the new album. We’re looking at the idea of touring in a different way now. We wanna go find the people who wanna hear us.

And lastly – once it’s safe to travel, would you want to come over and perform in the UK at some point?

Oh, absolutely. I love the UK. So here’s a thing that, I wondered if this would come up and I think why the heck not? An old friend of mine and getting older by the minute is also a really popular comedian there in the UK, a fella by the name of Rich Hall. So my old musical compadre, my lead guitar player Kevin and I, we went to London and stayed with Rich and Karen his wife and played some shows with what I think was the original Hoe Down Band. We played nine nights at the Soho Theatre in London, we played Latitude, we played Maverick Festival, we played a couple of other nightclub gigs.

Anyway we had a blast, and one of the coolest things about that was in the middle of his show when Rich had the audience in the palm of his hand, he introduced his buddies from Montana and left the stage and turned it over to us, and Kevin and myself each played one of our original songs with the Hoe Down Band for those audiences, and we were well received. The London Times said, quote, “They’re good”! [laughs] So that’s a little different than coming over and touring under my own steam, obviously, because Rich is quite popular and we found ourselves in the back seats of automobiles and dressing rooms with our names on and cool stuff like that. But yeah, I’m absolutely game to come back to the UK and play wherever you’ll have me. I would be delighted.

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Sean Devine’s new album ‘Here For It All’ is out now.

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