Why it's finally time for Jennie DeVoe. Or not.
Story by Cara McDonald, Photos by E. Anthony Valainis
In her room at the Millennium Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, Colorado, Jennie DeVoe has 19 minutes before she’s due onstage. Downstairs, in the courtyard pavilion, music directors from radio stations all over the country mill about, awaiting the free drinks and cocktail-hour concert starring and paid for by DeVoe, who owns her own record label, is her own manager, writes her own songs and drove 20 hours in a borrowed minivan with her husband and bandmates to fill a last-minute artist-showcase slot at this annual radio conference, hoping for a once-in-a-career shot at the big time.
The problem is, she can’t decide what to wear.
“This is a giant audition,” she says. “To have a huge number of music and program directors in front of you”—She pauses to study a pink crocheted sweater, the discards it—“to have them all in one place to listen, and like you, and to try to win them over—this is so big that I’m probably going to make myself sick.”
But probably not, because she hasn’t had anything to eat since this morning’s blueberry Pop-Tart. The rest of the box sits on the hotel desk, surrounded by a scramble of music, notes, half-consumed bottles of water, unopened liters of Coke and a bottle of OPI nail polish in To Eros is Human red. Amid the chaos, her closet is strangely tidy, with enough clothes to lat a week arranged neatly on the hangers. She’s torn between the long-sleeved tie-dyed shirt and a black tank top spelling ELVIS in red sequins. “It’s Elvis, isn’t it? I knew that.” She whips the tank off the hanger, puts it on, and trades her regular cargo pants for her skinny cargo pants, the ones that make her look “tiny, like I could blow away, right? They’re miracle pants.” She ducks into the bathroom, rubs concealer under her eyes, lines them and pulls at her hair with her fingers the way a chef would pull at a meringue to form stiff peaks on the top of a pie. Whipped into a corkscrewed fuzz, the curls add inches to her height. Not counting her pale eyes, the hair is her best accessory, better than the miracle pants, the sequins, the nose-piercing, the antique locket around her neck. This is the hair se used to try to straighten and wear like everybody else’s but eventually gave up on and now cuts herself, letting it go wild like the halo of an electrocuted angel.
Outside, thunderclouds roil, forcing the handfuls of radio-industry conference attendees to hug the edges of the pavilion, not quite indoors, not quite out. They’re a motley crew, dressed in khakis, golf shirts, cargo shorts, jeans, leather, Converse high tops. Clutching their plastic cocktail glasses, they are the music and program directors who determine what music makes it on their airwaves—and what doesn’t.
“I’ve been to a number of these things where people applaud enthusiastically,” says Jeff Green,executive director of Radio & Records magazine, which hosts the conference each year. ”But will they put that record on the air? That’s another game. It depends on how drunk they are, what mood they’re in. There’s a big difference between a performance and a recording, and there are any number of reasons why an artist can have a great performance and have it not pay off.” Still, there’s always a chance that an artist will leave a lasting impression, which is why the showcase performance slots are so coveted, and why record labels pay for the privilege of thrusting their up-and-comers into the limelight. Of all the performers, DeVoe is the only independent artist invited. “Performing here’s not a guarantee of anything,” Green says. “But the crowd’s intentions are pure. Their attention is on the artistry. If she’d got the goods, it could happen for her.”
“It,” of course, means crossing over. Finding a big-time manager, or a recording deal, or getting airplay outside Indiana. “It,” for DeVoe, means becoming a player among people she sees as her peers, rubbing shoulders with the Melissa Etheridges, Sheryl rows and John Mayers of the world. As she takes the stage and faces the ambling, distracted crowd, she’s uncharacteristically silent, forgoing the microphone banter and opting instead to get straight to the goods. The drum establishes a confident, lazy rhythm, The bass joins. DeVoe finds it, bobbing her head. She opens her mouth and sings.
In Indiana, Jennie DeVoe is not an unfamiliar name. In addition to her own shows, she’s almost a given at any semi-major local event—benefit concerts, festivals, shopping-mall openings. She tours the Midwest, playing at colleges and small folk venues. “I do a lot of schlepping,” she says. “But we don’t do ‘gigs.’ I call them shows. Never do the same set twice, never the same line-up. I think that’s key—you want to surprise people. I like juxtaposition. I’m all about dynamics—balancing the loud with the soft, the tough with the tender.”
“It feels like home, musically, to play with her,” says her drummer, John Wittmann. “To be able to work with someone who writes music the good—that is truly rare. Because most gigs for musicians are about entertaining, not about artistry. Jennie is an artist, and her voice is an incredible instrument.”
To call it a big voice is true, but it doesn’t roar or rasp; it isn’t from the pipes of a seasoned soul singer plunked in the body of a white girl; it isn’t the kind that’s manufactured in a pop-princess factory. Its bigness is all about resonance and solidity. It’s deliberate, not coy; controlled yet unpredictable. A music critic might say it has the texture and evenness of melted milk chocolate. Many fans compare her to Janis Joplin, which DeVoe finds flattering, but not quite right. “We’re both big, confident singers; we both go after the microphone. But that’s all, really. Maybe the crazy hair and outfits.”
Her voice translates well in her shows, even outdoors or in a noisy crowd. DeVoe’s soulful hippie-funk vocals have not only secured her loyal followers; they’ve helped her sell 30,000 CDs, mot from a table she sets up at her shows. But beyond her compelling sound is her hypnotic, manic energy. DeVoe is capable of engaging totally, locking eyes, her conversation instantly confessional and intimate, wacky and profound as she rockets from topic to topic. With her pierced nose and bohemian affectations, there’s a rowdiness and youth about her, and to make her laugh is to bask in her particular brand of strange sunshine—fans, photographers, promoters, street vendors, babies and animals seem to lean into what she radiates, and work all the harder to keep the attention coming.
But in music years, despite her youthfulness, DeVoe is not young. Indeed, she’s old enough demur when asked her age. And after four albums and more than a decade of making music, she’s reached the point where she wants more. “I need an audience—I need radio. I’m an artist looking for a slot to fill, and there are people looking for me. Is it just about fame? No. It’s this inexplicable search for one another. I think there’s a lot of mediocre stuff on the radio right now, particularly a lack of passionate vocalists.” That’s where she sees herself coming into the mix. Still, beyond all talk of art for art’s sake, there’s twitch and energy to DeVoe that suggests she wouldn’t mind being a rock star, either.
At first, the cocktail crowd is politely attentive and nods along. People tap the necks of their beer bottles to the beat, they squint overhear gin and tonics, glance down at the piles of CDs DeVoe’s husband, Rob, has artfully spread among the tables. Onstage, DeVoe hops, eyes closed, hair bouncing, feet bare, her chin quivering with effort and restraint as she sings. Sings her heart out—songs about falling in like, about pouring rain, about being ignored by someone you love. After three songs the audience is talking softly. After five, they’re back to their normal conversations, DeVoe no more than a sparkling backdrop. By the end of the set, the audience has thinned to a few stalwarts who applaud robustly as she thanks everyone for coming.
One of the loyalists is Roger Mayer, a recording industry pro and senior vice president of Digital Musicworks International, a digital-format label that cuts the expenses of manufacturing, marketing and distributing an album. Mayer’s company is ideal, he says, for promoting smaller artists on a song-by-song basis. “Conventional music labels are hemorrhaging money on artists. Someone like Jennie would have to sell so many albums to recoup that and they won’t take a gamble on someone less commercial. But a digital format might be perfect for her. She’s very impressive.”
John Bradley, a quiet, scholarly looking independent music consultant, has stuck around as well. Bradley advises radio stations on what’s hot and what’s not, and for the past two weeks, DeVoe has been leaving him messages, playing her new album for him track by track. Now he’s cautious about giving his opinion. “Will she make it? There’s no way to say. There are so many factors at work. But you know the ‘it’ factor when you see it. You can’t coach it or create it. It’s just there.” When asked if he thinks DeVoe’s got it, he only smiles politely.
The performance over, DeVoe clinks glasses with admirers, nurses a glass of Chardonnay, catches a John Mayer concert across town, networks like crazy during intermission and bums a cigarette from someone, which sh misplaces mid-smoke, because she never smokes. By 2 p.m. the next day she has survived a Very Important Breakfast Meeting (with Bradley, the music consultant, who, it turns out, likes her style), endured a photo shoot in a pelting rainstorm, peddled her CD to Boulder’s KBCO, downed one cup of coffee, chatted up music directors in the elevator, hallway, on the stairs and in the parking lot. Now she’s resting on a couch in the hotel lobby, waiting for a radio interview with the program manager for WMVY on Martha’s Vineyard. She hasn’t eaten lunch, only some kettle chips and half a cinnamon scone. She kicks off her flip-flops and puts her feet up on the coffee table. “I apologize,” she says. “But it is a fresh pedicure. Which is almost like wearing shoes.” She’s a wind-up toy unwinding. Conference attendees passing through the lobby recognize her and swerve to say hello, loved your show, loved your CD, love your hair, love to tall more, good luck.
At last, DeVoe heads into the hotel restaurant with WMVY’s Barbara Dacey, a no-nonsense brunette sporting thick curly hair, glasses and earth shoes. As DeVoe slides into a booth, Dacey pulls out a recorder, planning to tape the interview to air on her station. “First of all,” she says, “your performance last night was incredible. I’m impressed with your voice. I listened to your CD all night. I liked it. I liked it a lot.” This is the general consensus, but the affirmation makes DeVoe happy; she raises her eyebrows, and radiates back her happiness, as she’s been doing all day, beaming her best Jennie energy at everyone. The two women chat about business, about the new album, about singer-songwriters as a whole.
Then, as the interview wraps, DeVoe pulls anxiously at her hair. “Yeah, I’m…euphoric. Everything is…” She loses her train of thought. Apologizes. “I think it went well. Last night, after it was all over, I had little earthquakes going on inside my body. I’d wake up and say, ‘Rob, do you feel that?’ and he’d say, ‘Uh, no.’” Maybe it’s adrenaline. Maybe it’s the altitude.”
After two days of full-time sparkle, DeVoe suddenly excuses herself. She takes a wintergreen Lifesaver from her mouth, places it on a napkin, then lies down on the bench in the booth. Her eyelashes flutter. The effect is that of a fairy in collapse: Tinkerbell has drunk the poisoned milk. Perhaps it’s time to go back to sea level, back down to earth, to Indiana.
Over a sushi lunch week slater, DeVoe is expounding on her affection for a particular kind of ginger salad dressing. “It’s beige. And tangy. It’s amazing.” Unprompted, the waiter brings her an extra bowlful. She aims the Jennie beacon—her smile, her bouncy wild hair—and he glides away, pleased. She corners a piece of California roll and merrily submerges it in dressing.
DeVoe has a self-described attention defecit-type personality. Her fears are dying of boredom and wearing pantyhose. She lists the two in the same breath, lending them equal severity. “It’s the sound pantyhose makes on your skin—I can’t stand it. I hate wet feet going into dry socks. And Styrofoam. And—oh, God, balloons squeaking together. If someone wanted to torture me? Balloons.”
Her fear of a life lived in hose—and the dull job those hose would suggest—has served her well. “I’ve tried very consciously,” she says, “not to live safe.” In part, her approach to life is a reaction to a decidedly normal Indiana childhood. She grew up in Muncie, sandwiched between a kid brother and an older sister who was as driven and steady as DeVoe was loose and unpredictable. “My sister is nice. She had a 4.0. She was good. I think I felt a little not-good. Growing up, I had issues, but they were really me just trying to break out and be me. I had to do something exciting.”
As a teenager, DeVoe craved a creative life. She wanted to be a writer, but came to realize she had no attention span for books. So she attended Ball State, studying telecommunications and psychology and spectacularly failing her required business class. Though she wasn’t an academic, the idea of psychology, and of counseling, struck a nerve. “I like hope,” she says. “And I like to help. That fascination has stayed with me and penetrated my lyrics.” It was during college that she found Rob DeVoe. She’d known him from high school in Muncie, a cool, quiet kid who looked like a young Jim Morrison. “When we’d see each other in high school, it was like there were little cartoon hearts over our heads.” She says. “We finally ran into each other again at a Chi-Chi’s, drank a pitcher of margs and haven’t been apart since.”
Her plans post-college were less than concrete. To earn money while she figured out life’s grand purpose, she took a job as a receptionist in a Broad Ripple music studio, where she answered the phone, ran out for doughnuts and lent her voice to commercial demos when they needed someone to fill in. With Rob’s encouragement, DeVoe began to think about singing as a possible career. “It seemed crazy,” she says. “It’s not like I always knew I was a singer, or trained to be one. But every time I’ve pursued the not obvious thing, the risky thing, it paid off far more than the safe bet would have.” Eventually, one client liked her demo of its commercial jingle so much, the company opted to keep her version instead of hiring a big name to do the voice work. That’s how DeVoe became the Voice of Meijer superstores. “That was me, the Meijer girl.” She leans in over her salad ad purrs,” There’s a million reasons…and a single stoooore. You know, doing that commercial set me free.” Free not only to understand that she could have a music career, sans hose, but also free to bankroll her efforts—Meijer signed her for six years. Armed with a six-figure paycheck, she got down to the serious business of making it.
She wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation. Her first show was playing cover songs at the now-defunct Glacier’s End in Castleton. “It was me, my guitarist, my drummer and about five other people in the whole place,” she says. “But we played 10 times during the next seven months, and by the end people were falling out the door—we were drawing 200 a night.” DeVoe began playing at The Patio, gradually adding more and more of her own songs to the playlist until she dropped cover songs entirely, with the occasional exception of a rousing “Me and Bobby McGee to please the crowd.
A decade later she reigns as one of Indiana’s best singer-songwriters. The darling of local critics, her shows sell out regularly at area venues. Brad Holtz, Indianapolis program director for WTTS, has launched an ersatz fame campaign on her behalf, declaring her a remarkable talent and entreating other similar-format stations to follow his lead by giving her the air time she deserves. In recent years, her songs have appeared in a Corona beer commercial and on episodes of TV’s Dawson’s Creek, Time of Your Life and Joan of Arcadia. She won first in the 2003/2004 Billboard World Songwriting Contest for her song “How I Feel.” Her lyrics are smart, kooky and often pleasingly simple: “I’m going to need a limousine/a little bit of money and some kerosene/and a driver who don’t know my name.” Her work has been earnest, her music pleasant and interesting. Her voice has compensated for the odd or vague lyric, the tune that doesn’t quite hit its stride.
But while DeVoe has always been candid about wanting more than regional recognition, something has changed for her lately, and it shows in the guts and tenacity with which she’s pursued her latest songs. For her 2004 album, Fireworks & Karate Supplies, she took off to England to record with the critically acclaimed producer John Parish, who’s produced Tracy Chapman and PJ Harvey; she finished the recordings with Paul Mahern, best known for his work with John Mellencamp. In these tracks is a new DeVoe whose vocals have a wise, raw, human quality that reveals her to be more than just a pretty-good-for-a-local-girl kind of talent.
She herself thinks the album marks a turning point in her career. “I’m in love with my new record,” she says. “I feel like I got exactly what I went for. This particular CD is more me than anything else I’ve done. But because I love it, I feel really funny about it: I’m really amazed when people don’t like it. I know it’s good, and I have no apologies for it. I was the artist I wanted to be on this album, and truthfully, I was never the artist I wanted to be on my other CDs. I want people to think of this like I do: It’s art. It isn’t perfect. For someone not to get it—it’s like they don’t get me, and it’s weird not to be got.”
Weird, but okay. “I can handle people not loving me,” she says. Everybody can’t love you. Still, every time there’s a review, my gut reaction is ‘What gives you the right?’ Then again, maybe they’re just sitting in their pantyhose, unhappy.”
Though she credits her arrival on this new plane to artistic maturity, DeVoe’s emotional maturity—and that of her listeners—comes into play as well. In addition to having written more-satisfying songs, she has something yo say to a demographic that’s increasingly desperate for someone to say it. Her music gets steady play on a range of local radio stations and on AAA—adult album alternative—stations scattered around the country. In the radio world, triple-A stations are less commercially driven and more musically diverse, offering a dizzying combination of funk, soul, jazz, folk, world beat, punk, blues, old-school alternative and classic rock. In the last 10 years, the format’s prevalence and influence have snowballed, driven in part by an increasing fan base of affluent baby-boomers—sophisticated listeners who were once radical themselves and who crave a little alternative edge. And in an industry increasingly dictated by the tastes of 12-year-olds, there are listeners who hunger for music with emotional complexity and depth. “My target audience is 25 to 45,” DeVoe says. “They’ve lived. And I think in my songs they recognize an empowered woman. It’s not like I have all the answers, but I’m on the search.”
So what about the age issue? When asked how old she is, DeVoe hesitates. “Let’s just say thirtysomething.” The answer is code for “not early thirties” and quite possibly “almost fortysomething,” and it suggests that the question bothers her. “You know what? My age is irrelevant. I’m just doing my thing, and I’m going to keep doing it until I make it onto Letterman.” Yet even DeVoe admits that the smash success of every Hilary Duff and Jessica Simpson makes the music-making machine more desperate for the ever-younger next pop princess. This summer, the industry was focused on a phenom named Jo Jo, precociously wizened at age 13. For commercial success, being young, hot and uber-marketable counts. For DeVoe you have to wonder: At what point is it too late to become the next big thing?
The odds are not in her favor. Each week, dozens of CDs land on the desk of typical triple-A-station program director. Of these, 10 might get played. A handful might linger in rotation. Buried among them might be one song with the right tooth, the right hook, hitting the listeners just so, sparking their interest. Perhaps it will end up in heavy rotation and garner recognition for the artist. Now consider that, from her career’s worth of songwriting, DeVoe has only one song that has truly stuck-a catchy, solid, humming song that’s attracted listeners, fans and her new friends in the radio world: “Don’t It Sound Good,” off her latest album. But a number one hit? That’s another story, on that would involve tremendous amounts of money, marketing, time and luck.
On one level, DeVoe seems to know all this. On another, she proceeds in seemingly ignorant bliss, ruled by a willful optimism that encourages scappy and determinded effort. Because you never know. Anything can happen.
“I mean, where is our Elvis?” she asks, finally abandoning her sushi. “Where’s the next Johnny Cash? Am I that? I don’t know. Am I Elvis?” She ponders. “Doubtful. But I Can tell you this I want to be doing this until I don’t have teeth. I want to be seasoned. I want to be a broad.” And if it never gets any better that this, being Central Indiana’s best girl? “Then that’s okay. I’m not cynical about it. But I’m not done. I feel it. Things are happening.”
And they are, or they will be soon. In just a few weeks, DeVoe will score a recording contract (the digital-label prospect), be included in a nationally distributed AAA-format anthology (the music consultant) and land a professional manager, the guy who got Stevie Nicks her first solo record deal and handled her career for the next 17 years. The developments will put DeVoe in front of people. Then it’s just a matter of wait and see.
“No matter what happens,” she says, “I can’t give myself credit for being savvy. Only available.” With the waiter’s pen she drwas a spiral on the back of the check, the ink looping out in increasingly large circles, covering the page. “This is my goal, to do with my music whatever it is I’m Doing with this pen. Does that make sense?” She laughs and flips the check back over. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it. I’m somebody’s dream girl.”