A Conversation with Rising Nashville Musician Devon Gilfillian
Devon Gilfillian first caught our attention during a show at St. Louis‘ Delmar Hall which he played with fellow Nashvillian Drew Holcomb. The musician gripped the crowd with rich, smooth power vocals and a jazzy blues sound, playing several songs from his recent self-titled EP and even a few a capella numbers. With dry wit, Holcomb later came on stage and said, “If you don’t like what he’s doing, you’re wrong.”
Gilfillian is currently working on an album due out in early 2019 and preparing for a dizzying three-month touring schedule with dates all across the U.S. and Canada, during which he’ll be returning to Delmar Hall with Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter ZZ Ward on July 17. If you missed the first show, now’s your chance to catch the musician’s raw talent up close.
I just had a look at your upcoming tour schedule. Are you on the road right now?
I’m actually in my living room—for once in my life—at home in Nashville. I’m just hanging out with my cat and working on some new music.
You’re a terrific live singer—one of my favorite pieces of yours is the song “Home.” If I remember correctly, you talked about how it was written for your mother.
That is correct. I wrote that song when I had moved down to Nashville and I’d been living here about a year. It was one of the first songs I wrote during that time. It really is basically about how my mom would call and ask me, “When are you coming home?” The premise was just very honest and simple.
You grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, and now you’re taking on this huge, music-driven city. What has it been like to tackle this market and push forward in a very challenging, cutthroat industry?
Honestly, Nashville is competitive in the sense that everybody is doing music, and there’s so much talent here. It can be intimidating. For me, the vibe is more, “Everybody is so talented, and I’m inspired to work my ass off and be great.” It’s such a transplant city, everyone is that lonely person who has recently moved there and doesn’t really know anyone, so everyone’s really friendly. I’ve always felt more of a collaborative vibe here than cutthroat. I do feel like I’m on the fast track of the learning curve, having just released an EP two years ago and getting to go on the road for around 150 dates in the year. I’m lucky that I have a really great team of people and a great team of bandmates around me who are really experienced, and just great humans.
What is life like on the road when you’re traveling so much?
I’m lucky that my band and the people I travel with have become like brothers to me. Recently we challenged ourselves to a diet with no carbs, sugar or dairy. It’s been hard to figure out how to eat healthy and feed your body the right fuel, but we really want to be healthy on the road. And then there’s figuring out how to get your personal space when you’re traveling, how to shut down and recharge, so you can give it everything you’ve got on stage, and balancing being introverted and extroverted. I’m still figuring it out. Especially when your adrenaline is pumping after a show and everyone wants to hang out. You have to know when to stay and when to say, “I’m going to have some chamomile tea and go to bed, because we have to hit the road tomorrow morning.” It’s a balance between finding normality while being in a van during the day but also having fun and taking everything in.
Do you write while you’re touring?
I do come up with a lot of ideas on the road. There are many moments where I’ve been walking around a hotel lobby or in the van before a show, and I’ll come up with a melody or a lyric and jot it down, or record myself humming on my phone. If I’m at a hotel and we have a day off in between a gig, I might have a few hours to flesh out an idea and keep stirring the pot.
You have a new single out called “Troublemaker,” which is a really rich, jazzy song about romantic infatuation. How did the idea come about and transform into a song?
It’s definitely one of those songs where we were just trying to imagine a relationship where you do really stupid things for that person you’re drawn to. A lot of songs I write are inspired by ideas, but they’re also obviously autobiographical. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve fallen in love with a woman and have driven across states to get to her, made sacrifices and done stupid things. I’ve definitely experienced that type of passion. We thought the sound should be swampy and dirty, and that it would be about that girl that’s just no good for you. That’s where it started. And then it becomes this exaggerated version of yourself and the person you’ve fallen in love with.
What is it like to co-write songs about these very deep, personal topics?
Co-writing is like speed dating: you have to get deep quickly. Well, I guess you don’t have to, but then your song is not going to have much depth. And sometimes it doesn’t need to have much depth, but it really depends.
If you want the song to be really personal and honest and you’re writing with another person, you have to pull those emotions out, put them on the table and write about them. But again, it depends. You have to identify, “Are we writing a ‘drink-beer-and-party’ song or an ‘I just got divorced and I’m really sad’ song?” I want to be versatile in that way. I want to write songs that are light and happy, but also write about breakups and things that are heart-wrenching. I want to have songs that are all over the emotional map.
How did you originally get into music?
My dad is a wedding singer, and he has sung his whole life. He really passed the musical torch down to me. I’ve also sung my whole life, and in high school, at age 14, I started playing guitar, and that’s where I really fell in love with music.
I listened to The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and also Ray Charles and The Temptations. I was an old soul, for sure. I was into music that came out mostly before 1980. But my palette has grown to love pretty much anything with honesty and soul to it. I kept playing music when I went to college—I went to West Chester University in Pennsylvania and graduated with a degree in psychology. I put bands together with my friends, and we’d play in local bars.
After college, I actually applied for Americorp and got placed in Nashville. That’s how I originally ended up here. I like to think that I’m altruistic person, but it was my game place to live in a city that was musical. I also waited tables at a restaurant here called City Winery, where I met my drummer Jonathan Smalt. I actually trained him on his first day, and we became friends. I love the restaurant industry, but I’m really glad I don’t have to wait tables anymore.
Racism in the 21st century has proven to still be a very real problem. What has your experience been like as an artist of color?
I don’t feel that I’ve been discriminated against in any artistic ways. Though because of the genre of music I’m playing, there have been some smaller instances where people will do things like immediately compare me to another artist of color. They’ll say things like, “You’re like Leon Bridges, or Gary Clark Jr!” because I’m Brown, and I play soul music. I get it.
As far as authority, I haven’t been singled out or pulled over or had anything like that happen, thank God. I haven’t felt any negative pushback like that as far being a person of color. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it exists. It absolutely exists. But I really make an effort to stomp out negativity and keep positive people in my inner circle.
Do you get to go home frequently?
I do—at least five times a year. I definitely miss it: my home, my family and friends. Though I do feel like Nashville has definitely become a place where I know I can follow this dream, which I really can’t do back in Morton. But I really miss my people—though I do get to swing through Pennsylvania either when we’re on the road or when I have time off.
All images with the exception of the cover image courtesy of Devon Gilfillian.
Cover image photo courtesy of Cal Quinn.