Jennie DeVoe lives where folk and funk meet
By JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO - Sight & Sound Editor, Herald Palladium
THREE OAKS — When singer-songwriter Jennie DeVoe launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her 2014 album “Radiator: The Bristol Sessions,” she had no idea that former NASCAR driver and fellow Hoosier Tony Stewart would be the one to help her reach the finish line.
DeVoe and Stewart don’t exactly travel in the same circles, but they do both share a few interests – particularly causes related to children with special needs and animal welfare.
“I never was a huge NASCAR follower, but he’s a very philanthropic guy,” DeVoe says by phone from her home in Indianapolis. “There was a lady who heads up his charity division who called me up one day because I was playing a benefit concert for a thoroughbred horse rescue. He also had given money to adopt like six of these horses and that’s where our connection began. We did a few different events together and I performed for his charity events. ... He actually gave to us after we met our goal, which meant even more to me because he gave more than anybody. It was a really big deal. We couldn’t believe just how generous he was. He is a very sweet person and a good-hearted soul.”
Stewart’s donation helped DeVoe once again tap producer John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman and The Eels, to work on what would become their third project together. Like 2004’s “Fireworks & Karate Supplies” and 2009’s “Strange Sunshine,” DeVoe traveled to Bristol, England to record “Radiator.”
“He’s a very artist-friendly producer,” DeVoe says. “He’s not out to make a record that sounds like him. He’s definitely trying to get your vision down. The first time we worked together, he made me write everything out, which I had not done to that point. He’s very intuitive and very present and really keeps you on task. He’s been so great at getting down audibly what I envision.”
That vision, she says, includes reflecting more of the artist she has become in her live shows, which is why when DeVoe performs Saturday for the first time at The Acorn Theater, the bulk of her set list will pull from those three Parish-produced albums.
“It’s sort of where I feel I still am artistically,” DeVoe says. “When we met, I was really looking for a new way to make a studio record. I had been performing live for so long that I wanted to capture that vibe. For ‘Radiator,’ we recorded each song three times and picked the best one. We recorded to 2-inch tape, which has such a warm sound as opposed to recording digitally, and only fixed or added a few things with overdubs.”
The result is an album filled with a soulful melodic lyrical delivery from DeVoe reminiscent of the flavors of Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse all supported by a blend of retro surf/western-flavored guitar, a British back-beat, with layers of either piano or Hammond B3 organ.
The recording features Parish on drums, guitars and accordion, Billy Fuller on bass, and DeVoe’s own band mates Brett Lodde on guitar, and Greg McGuirk on keys and accordion. DeVoe began writing the songs for “Radiator” on guitar, but also wrote on piano and organ as well, giving the record an underlying gospel-tinged flavor. As a whole, the record is an unusual blend of folk and funk best represented by the tunes “You Belong To Me,” “All That Sugar” and “My Last Hometown.”
“I like hooks but I also like clever lyrics,” DeVoe says. “I feel like I’m sort of a folk person with my writing and then I like grooves to help the lyrics speak. ... Things tend to come to me in a line or two. I write them down and I come back to them. That’s what happened with ‘My Last Hometown.’ Everybody calls the place they grow up their hometown, but as an artist you can sort of plant your roots any place and that becomes your hometown. Maybe it seems right for a while but it doesn’t work out. Don’t worry, make that next place your hometown. It’s almost a metaphor for relationships. I’m kind of a metaphor girl. I think the message is you can always start over.”
DeVoe, who was born and raised in Muncie, Ind., says she can trace her artistic sensibilities to her father’s own musical tastes.
“My dad was the imprinter of what was cool, what was tasteful and what was not,” she says. “He had a really nice sound system and would play these albums – Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong. His mom played ragtime piano so he had an appreciation of that as well. When he was president of his fraternity he actually sought out Louis Armstrong to play at his fraternity. That’s how much he loved that stuff.”
DeVoe said she went the rock route in high school, but when she started writing her own music at Ball State University, the melodies leaned more toward the music of the 1950s. Before she even shared that music with anyone, she hit the road singing backup and playing hand percussion for former John Mellencamp guitarist Larry Crane’s band.
“I went out on the road for a year with this guy and it was culture shock to me,” DeVoe says. “I really had a crash course. It was interesting, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to write and I had started but I hadn’t shown anybody yet. After I came back, I just started doing it without asking anybody if it was possible.”
It was. DeVoe’s song “How I Feel” won first place for Best Pop Song 2004 in Billboard Magazine’s World Song Contest. Others have appeared on TV shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Joan of Arcadia.” In 2012, she played at Super Bowl Village in Indianapolis.
While she’s flirted with more than one major label, she remains fiercely independent, most recently releasing the live album “Picking Flowers On the Moon,” recorded in the Big Red Barn at Aten Place, in Boyne Falls, Mich.
She is currently working on music for her next album – another collaboration with Parish – that’s set for a 2017 release. She says her latest batch of material continues to pull her full circle.
“It must just be in my brain,” DeVoe says. “I do believe the place I’m going will put me in the place of Nina Simone with the groove of like a Chaka Kahn or something. It all goes back to the music I grew up listening to.”