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"For a long time, you're chasing being thought of as this terminally unique snowflake," says Brooklyn singer/songwriter Kevin Devine. "And then you kind of realize you're a worker among workers — and you put your boots on."
The 33-year-old musician is reflecting on the reverse metamorphosis that changed him from a somewhat navel-gazing emo-folkster (with more band pins dotting his musical lapels than a waitress at Friday's) into a thoughtful but vital rocker following in the footsteps of Elvis Costello, Alejandro Escovedo, and Steve Wynn.
Devine's riding a hot streak both creatively and career-wise since he got himself properly focused six or seven years ago. Not that he was doing badly. He'd released three albums with his college emo band (The Promise Ring-biting Miracle of '86), and three solo albums of quivering orch-folk (think Bright Eyes) before signing to Capitol Records for 2006's Put Your Ghost to Rest. None of them are bad albums, but to fans of those other bands, they can feel overly familiar.
"Everybody's trying to synthesize influences, and what you hope happens at some point is you synthesize enough to where it starts to sound like you," says Devine. "For some of us, it only happens later, and I think the last couple years have been where it really sounds like me now."
Like a one-night stand, Devine's major-label experience was brief and unsatisfying. But it shook him from his self-pitying doldrums. He responded with 2009's Brother's Blood, a spiky, aggressive album reaching back to Devine's love of Superchunk, and followed that with 2011's underrated Between the Concrete and Clouds, a generous slab of hooky, somewhat confessional pop. Then last year, he reunited with Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull for Bad Books' infectious second album and accompanying sold-out tour. Between the back and forth, something of his own emerged.
"The first half of my career, you could hear the influences a little more clearly. There was a folk inflection at times or a cadence and a country-ish thing here and there," Devine says. "Even our live stuff with the band, and I start yelling, it's not even necessarily punk music. What I ultimately do is a certain kind of pop music that leans toward spiky punk stuff and folk type stuff."
Now he's supporting two brand-new albums paid for by a Kickstarter campaign begun in January that brought in more the $50,000 in the first 12 hours. In the end, he raised $114,000, which he put toward the recording and promotion of Bubblegum and Bulldozer.
"It's totally bonkers," says Devine, who hesitated for eight months because of concern about the backlash. Appears he had nothing to worry about. The immediacy of the outpouring also struck him. "That first day was probably the single most gratifying day of my music career."
Bubblegum is a punchy rock album that ranges widely from the breakneck madcap punk of "Fiscal Cliff" to the power-pop title track and the dreamily textured snark, "I Don't Care About Your Band." Bulldozer is an ambitious pop album recorded with Elliot Smith's producer Rob Schnapf, often echoing Smith's lavishly produced and meticulously crafted album XO.
"The idea was to put the bass and drums down, and then Rob and I would spend three weeks playing around, making interesting sounds and having fun with stuff," says Devine. Indeed, for all its craft, there's a loose, unfussy vibe on Bulldozer.
"I think Bulldozer is more of an 'in record' and bubblegum is more of an 'out record,'" he says. "Bulldozer takes its time and kicks something over and sees what's underneath. Bubblegum tries to explode the thing to find what's under there, and it was fun to mess with both halves of that."
Devine's excited by the positive response so far. It's proper payment after spending so many years self-sabotaging with doubt and anguish. "I didn't want to be one of those people someone said later, 'Man, he had such potential,'" Devine says. "And at some point you're like, 'Or you could just do it.'"
Nike got there first, but it's still a good idea.