Kevin Devine and Nandi Rose Talk Spirituality, “Downer” Music, and the Layered Symbolism of the Seal Emoji

The two friends get deep.

Nandi Rose, aka Half Waif, is a singer, songwriter, and producer whose latest record Mythopoetics came out last spring on ANTI-; Kevin Devine is a singer-songwriter whose new record Nothing’s Real, So Nothing’s Wrong is out March 25 on Triple Crown Records. To celebrate, the two friends got on the phone for a deep-diving catch-up session.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Nandi Rose: I’ve so been looking forward to this all morning. 

Kevin Devine: It’s funny, because it’s not like you and I see each other with great frequency. Whenever we do, there’s also a lot of silliness, goofiness, humor, joy, whatever. But also, we do have a capacity to allow for it to get…

Nandi: Deep. [Laughs.]

Kevin: Yeah, for lack of better words, there’s a reality and a depth to it — that I super value! Somebody once told me, “You’re the silliest and the most serious person I know.” And I was like, That’s… that’s a categorization, I guess.” [Laughs.] But I like being able to goof around, and I’ve always felt like you and I were always able to kind of do that.

Nandi: Absolutely. I mean, what a great place to exist! I feel like I also kind of strive to straddle that line. I think people, when they hear my music, think that I’m a really intense person. You also tackle some really big things in your work as well. But then we also have a lightness about us, and a sense of levity that I feel like is made possible because the music can contain this other side. 

Kevin: That’s super true. I also think it’s in two different directions, potentially. I’ve told you this before by way of what I intend as a high compliment — watching you do what you do, sometimes I feel like I’m like a shoe cobbler watching an astronaut or something like that. It’s like a deeply-rooted and also sort of spectral, stratospheric thing that happens with your voice, and the breadth of emotional range and experience in just the tone of it. And then when you couple that with the actual, the aesthetic structure — what you make, how you present it, what it sounds like live — “intense” is certainly a component of that. And so that can mean whatever that means to people when they engage with it, but it can present a picture that is maybe a little two dimensional, with respect to like the totality of a person. It’s not that the work is two dimensional, but you’re also like all these other things, and how would people know that? 

And similarly — even though I would find this to be a little misleading or reductive — when it’s like, quote, a “guy with a guitar,” there is a notion that that’s very confessional, very like you’re almost eavesdropping. And so that can lead to a certain sense, and I don’t have any illusions about what either. Like, I’m not a celebrity — I’m a person with a little niche corner of the playground, where some people are paying attention to it, which is fucking amazing and totally stroke of luck. But to those people, there can be a bit of a perception as if you are known. And sometimes it’s like, “Well, those songs might sound like that, but also, I’m trying to write. They’re not just journal entries. There is an amount of intimacy I’d like to build with the audience, but also an amount that I’d like to keep for my actual life, if that makes sense. 

Nandi: Totally. I get all of that. Knowing that you have an audience, do you feel a responsibility to offer music that is not just a downer — that makes people think about these thorny, tricky, brutal sides of life, but in a way that offers, if not a solution, at least some sort of hope or comfort or camaraderie?

Kevin: Totally. I feel about a hundred different things about that. I think part of me right now feels like, Imagine feeling like you had something prescriptive or objective to say about anything. I recognize that there are certain things that are pretty clearly right or wrong, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that I just feel like I receive and I’m like, I have nothing smart to say about this.

Nandi: You have to have a take. 

Kevin: Yeah, you have to have a take and is has to be public facing. I reject the premise, and I feel like something’s happening to me that’s a bit more the inverse, in a weird way. 

But what that has to do with music is maybe a little tangential. If I feel a responsibility at all, what I feel a responsibility to do is actually like: I feel like I can’t begin to try to understand people in any kind of comprehensive or dynamic way if I’m not engaging in an effort to try to understand myself that way. Which I feel is — for this person — a tall enough order on a daily basis. So it’s OK with me if the music roots around in darkness, but not if the music stays there in a way that’s kind of masturbatory, or as a closed circuit issue unto itself. Or, if I’m mining painful stuff — not in a way that’s communicative and excavating, but in a way that’s a little bit like picking at a scab — that seems to me to be a net negative human experience, and also makes me question what art’s going to come from it. That sounds self-destructive, and then perpetuating a lot of noxious bullshit ideas about are and authenticity or whatever.

But I do feel a responsibility to try to dig around in a meaningful, fruitful, reality-adherent way within myself. But then naturally, what comes out is pockets of — I would certainly be loathe to call them insight, or definitely not answers, but camaraderie can maybe get arrived at. If I can be more loving, accepting charitable of the parts of myself that are subject to the gnarlier parts of the human experience, then maybe I’m able to do that with other people too. 

Somebody said to me recently that they felt that some of the movement through messiness in the music, [through] darkness, loneliness, [to] also pockets that felt a little bit more graceful, was like a permission slip for them to move around in their own. I couldn’t really ask for a better piece of feedback than that, because I don’t really know what the hell else I’m trying to do.

Nandi: That’s beautiful. And I hear you talk a lot about movement in your own life — how you move through the hard parts of life, how you stay motivated and moving and mindful. And that’s something that really resonates with me a lot, using using music as this slip-and-slide and propelling you forward. Because staying mired in that space — that’s where it becomes self-indulgent and self-destructive. 

Kevin: Yes, I think that’s right.

The first two very formative moments for me are two guys that killed themselves [Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith]. They were really smart people, really sensitive and open in ways — also closed in other ways, but they certainly didn’t lack for access. They had real power. They had a point of view. There was some really interesting interrogation going on about what it means to be a certain kind of man. The reason I bring that up is because, the lessons for me from that have changed between 12, 18, 20, 30, 32, 42. And it’s that, your willfulness, your point of view, your intelligence — all of these things will get you to a certain point, but also, if you’re in the bull ring, you’re in the bull ring. We’re trying to figure out how to make art and entertainment with some sense of dignity in a late stage capitalist world.

Those guys were applauded for their pain, and paid. And in the case of Kurt Cobain, like, Michael Jackson-level elevated for two years. Elliott Smith was a couple rungs down the ladder but, you know, the guy got nominated for an Academy Award. He certainly was not unknown. I think that’s very confusing, especially if you’re in a place where you have a family-of-origin trauma, or if you are prone to substance abuse, or if you are trying to invert capitalistic norms while also benefiting from them. I think it’s real confusing to be like, The more fucked up I seem, the more money that seems to come in, and the louder the applause is. 

Nandi: Absolutely. To be rewarded for your struggle in a way that perpetuates it, or makes you feel like you need to continue to play that role. 

Kevin: Yes. And that reinforces a very myopic definition of what that struggle actually is like. Mental health issues are real, substance abuse issues are real, family-of-origin trauma is real, cultural trauma is real, and those are people who are experiencing a whole rich bouquet of all of those things. I’d also say capitalism, fame trauma is real. Those might have been two dudes that might have been better off just sticking on Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop and playing the Mercury Lounge forever.

I think that for me, it’s more, what actually is the struggle? And how, besides songs, can I address it? Because the songs can’t do it by themselves. Songs can help for me, but I need outside help. Because I think that’s where we get into some kind of doomed singer-songwriter thing.

Nandi: Yeah. This conversation’s coming up at a time in my life when… like when people would talk about, “Music saved my life!” I’d be like, That’s an exaggeration. But in the last three months of my life, I’ve really come to understand what that means a little bit more. I’ve felt how having the capacity to write, to heal myself writing, has saved me from what would have been just immeasurable darkness that I wouldn’t have been able to move through. It really was the only thing that gave me a sense of propulsion through the deepest, darkest waters.

Something that Zack [Levine, of Half Waif]  and I have been doing over the last few months as we’ve gone through some hard stuff in our personal life, we’ve been sending each other the seal emoji. I don’t know if you’ve seen the seal…

Kevin: I’m going to look at it right now. 

Nandi: It’s a pretty great emoji. The seal looks very coy, a little facetious, leaning on its out. But the seal represents this being that has to dive deep into the dark, cold waters, but it always pops up again in the harbor. So the seal has become this emblem of the necessity of being in that dark space. You can’t deny it, you can’t not visit it. You have to go there, but you know that you are also this buoyant being that can resurface again. 

Kevin: Yes. I have never benefited in any way that was lasting or legitimate by not looking at the thing. Sometimes you’re not ready to look at something, but I definitely have had passages of my life where I was kind of looking at something, but it was a little too tough for me to look at squarely. The lesson I’ve taken from that is, I don’t benefit by not being in reality, because eventually reality will catch up to me. 

I certainly think the act of making this record, in conjunction with spiritual practices — a therapist I trust, physical exercise — was a lifeline through a pandemic, and through a seriously transformative three years of my life. It made it a less wince-inducing comment, when someone says, “Your music saved my life.” I relate to that. 

Nandi: Something I wanted to ask you about that comes up a lot on the record — which, by the way, is such a beautiful record. I feel like as an artist, you don’t stay in one zone. You’re always reaching for different sounds and textures and melodies and ways of writing, and I think that really comes through on this record.

Kevin: I take that as being enormously high praise from you!

Nandi: Something that I really was hearing a lot is this talk of spirituality. You mention tarot in one song, you talk about picking a god. It’s funny, in this journey of the record that I’m writing right now, I also talk about tarot, and I’m also sort of reaching… I think when you go through something really profound, it really shakes your faith. And I think that’s a really natural inclination is to be like, Wait, is anybody looking out for us? Is there any sense of guide or purpose? Is there any cosmic choreography? Are we really completely lost to our own devices? I’m just curious, what is your relationship to spirituality? 

Kevin: I grew up Catholic in Brooklyn — and kind of culturally Catholic. We went to mass, and I’ve done the months of Confirmation. But it’s been 27 years since I identified as a practicing Catholic. And at that point I was 15, so I have no idea what I was even fully invested in, to that point. I was doing it because it was what was presented. And around 15, it was like, I don’t think I believe in this. I don’t think this is the story. And that was also around the time I’d been introduced to punk rock, indie rock, and to things like Marxism, Malcolm X. You know, any kind of radical political ideology. And there was a lot of education there, too, which is still part of my how my bread gets buttered to this day. 

But I think I’ve always been looking. What I mean by that is, I think my atheim was just as reactionary as my Catholicism was. I think that there were aspects of both that spoke to things in me, and there were aspects of both that I was aiming at a little bit. And also cultural things about both that appealed to me and cultural things about that really didn’t appeal to me. And so I would say that the last 16 years of my life, there’s been this kind of movement through and around what different conceptions of ideas, like higher power, god consciousness, whatever you want to call it, does or doesn’t have to mean. How can you be a secular spiritual person? How can I invest in the ordinary magic of personhood?

I think about some of the higher minded questions that are more about, let’s call it the magical realism, the mysticism — those are things that I actually feel like the scientific method arrives at. I just simply can’t know, so I can’t say yes or no to them. 

Nandi: You have to surrender to them. 

Kevin: Yes, that’s it. And so where I feel like I land now, and where I feel like much of the record moves around in, is a sort of trying to get to some place simpler. I’m a person who prays every morning and meditates and reads some spiritual stuff, and does that without a real sense of who, or where it goes. But it’s been useful for me to sit down every morning and various times of the day and sort of just check in with what’s in and around me, in a world that doesn’t often encourage us to view that. It becomes more and more immaterial to me, the more time that passes. I’m not so interested in like what I can and can’t see, or even if it is. It’s more about a kind of communion — not the kind I got in a wafer when I was a kid, but the kind that’s actually, like you said, camaraderie.

Kevin Devine is an independent singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, New York. He plays alone, with his Goddamn Band, and as a member of Bad Books. The first run of his Devinyl Splits, released between February 2015 and March 2016, consisted of six split 7” singles, each featuring Devine and a different partner.  The series, released by Bad Timing Records and Devinyl Records, returns in 2018 for another run.