Jennie DeVoe is on fire.
The same flames that inspired the heart-wrenching story she is weaving with her voice — they lick her soul this very moment. Her blonde bedspring hair erupts, surges in the humidity and sparkles like a million filaments in the orange glow of the stage lights.
Even a little puff of smoke creeps out with her breath as she pushes out the slow, thick notes — a trick of the damp, September night air. The audience is leaning closer, crowding around the heat. Some have gathered in front of the stage and are dancing.
And DeVoe is officially ablaze. Combusting. An inferno.
Suddenly, with the last strum of her guitar, she casually extinguishes the flames. Looks up coyly and grins. Then rises from the ashes. A smiling, laughing Lady Lazarus. She runs her hand through her hair, as if to shake out the last cinders.
The audience cheers at this resurrection.
To see DeVoe live, to watch her glide barefooted steps around a stage, is to feel the meaning behind her songs — the unmistakable truth that whatever her music is, DeVoe is too.“You can sing about painful things or you can sing about happy things,” she says. “If you’re any good you can identify with it somehow. And you have to believe it while you are doing it, which I do.”
Get to Know Jennie DeVoe
Story by Megan McNames, Photos by Kyle Evens
Is this her break-through album?
With the release of her fourth album, Strange Sunshine, the Muncie native is on fire off the stage, too. Her special brand of sincere, power-backed soul and heart-on-sleeve folksy blues that has drawn a devoted following in Indianapolis, where she now lives, also recently landed her a distribution deal with Sony RED.
Strange Sunshine can be found in music stores across the states and on iTunes. She has promoted it with shows in Atlanta, Nashville, Wisconsin, Michigan and all across Indiana. “I wanted to make something light and fun that people like to listen to and it’s like, I’ve made some heavy records…,” DeVoe says. “People don’t want to stay there all the time.”
This past summer, DeVoe was voted “Best Local Musician” by readers of NUVO, and Indianapolis magazine. She has placed in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and, in 2004 her song, “How I Feel,” was voted Best Pop Song in Billboard Magazine’s World Song Contest. She’s opened for giants: Bonnie Raitt, whom she credits with making it OK for a pale, white woman to sing the blues, Sting, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Jack Johnson.
She was in New York once, crossing the street, and a fan yelled, “Jennie DeVoe!” (It’s sometimes the little things in life that have the most impact).
The distribution deal with Sony is likely a step toward other deals, possibly toward signing with a major recording label, DeVoe says. She has resisted joining a label partly in order to keep total creative control over her music, which she writes the vast majority of herself, and partly because she has not focused on it as part of her career, she says.
“I think, had I been better at business, I might be more in the game of the big music industry,” DeVoe says. “But it’s not really my nature. It’s not been my nature to chase it. So when I did get calls and stuff like that, I would respond politely and send things…..And for one reason or another…it kind of just fizzled…So this time when I got a Sony opportunity, I just thought logically about it more than anything.”
She could be on the cusp of an even bigger opportunity.
“She’ll get her way in the recording industry, but it’s almost not the point,” says John Wittmann, DeVoe’s drummer for nearly 13 years. “She’s very successful…It has nothing to do with a record deal or no record deal. It has to do with waking up in the morning and being real. She does that.” She has done that for almost 20 years, kept it real all that time.
After moving from Muncie in the early ’90’s, she quickly discovered her calling. Strange Sunshine seems an ode to life from a person on whom the sun is shining bright. She spends the days she is not performing mostly at home, quietly, in a house with her husband of 17 years. From there, she orchestrates her career in the company of four dogs — two of them very old, the other two very curly — and two puff-ball cats.
When writing music for an album, she starts by happily pullings CDs and mini disks of recordings, notebooks and various bits of paper covered in scribbles from an endless series of cabinets. From this, songs are born. Even with the success of her latest album, she would rather move on, begin another.
She was a wild child
Munsonians might not remember Jennie DeVoe as this songwriter, this fiery siren who slides around on stage and at her home, blowing herself up so that listeners may, too, discover themselves. Who leaves reminders on her own answering machine the start with “Jennie!” then do-this-or-that and end with “Goodbye!”
Despite the fact that both DeVoe’s parents played piano and could sing, they never suspected the depth to which their daughter loved music. “I really kept it
kind of under wraps,” DeVoe says. Her mother, Judy McCoy, never considered what her daughter might grow up to be. But there were some signs.
“My piano teacher was always surprised at the songs I wanted to learn,” DeVoe say. “I wanted to learn the theme from The Godfather.” And at home, DeVoe’s
father turned her on to the artists to whom, after all these years, she keeps going back.
Then music started coming at her. A handful of her friends asked her to sing at their weddings. Some of her husband's co-workers had a garage band and DeVoe joined it. He had no idea she could sing.
Success happened fast
DeVoe credits her husband, Rob, whom she met in high school in Muncie but did not date until college, with helping her to discover her inner songstress. "I probably wouldn't do anything I do without him," she says. When DeVoe's husband saw her with his co-workers' band, he saw a new side of her.
She's sparkling at this more than just having fun, he thought. And he knew what the future would hold for Jennie. "I knew there was something different about her than just playing with the little neighborhood band," he says. So he bought her a microphone.
"It kind of scared me," DeVoe says. "I kind of thought, yes, this is what I want
to do, but there is a lot of responsibility to getting good. You can't fiddle around with it and playing, you have to really bear down and get good."
And at home, DeVoe's father turned her on to the artists to whom, after all these years, she keeps going back. "My dad was so musical," DeVoe says. "I grew up
listening to everything from Gershwin to Scott Joplin, Big Band GlennMiller stuff to Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday." Sometimes, Jennie and her best friend would
record themselves laughing, play the tape back and laugh even harder.
At 15, she started waking up at night, unable to sleep. It frustrated her. Now, she keeps a journal on her night table, along with two-dozen books. In Muncie, she did not understand why she couldn't sleep. Now, she stays up for hours writing songs in her journal. As a teen, the energy that hit her at night also burst at the seams during the day. "I used to be kind of wild [with] all that partying and stuff. I think I just had energy to apply," DeVoe says. Her mother at first saw it as a normal teenage thing.
"When it was time for her to go to college I think she would have liked to forget about that and just go someplace to do music instead," McCoy says. "But we insisted." And DeVoe obliged, earning a degree from Ball State in telecommunications, and a minor in counseling. As a weathergirl for WLBC, she sometimes mispronounced things on air, although it often came across as endearing. But she excelled at counseling.
"I would have probably loved to have been a social worker or counselor," DeVoe says. "I had had some friends who had big issues with drugs and alcohol and I thought I got it, I just understood it and I was effective in doing the tough love thing with people. Ironically, people come to my shows and will say that certain songs helped them with some stuff, so maybe I am doing it."
She caught a break early at The Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, where she was singing covers with a blues band. The venue's soundman also drummed for Larry Crane, John Mellencamp's guitarist. Impressed by her vocals, he invited DeVoe to sing backup with Crane. "It all happened very fast," DeVoe says.
When that gig ended, she started working at Ripple FX, a sound studio in Broad Ripple. At first, she was pouring coffee, getting doughnuts. But the owners sensed her talent. "They really taught me how to sing in a studio," DeVoe says. "I had the talent, but I needed help. They gave me break after break."
There were other steps along the way. Ripple FX helped DeVoe land a five-year contract with Meijer, the food chain to sing and record voice overs for their 'commercials - commercials her parents taped on their VCR and have kept all these years. She taught herself to play guitar. And quit her day job at Ripple FX. "I gathered my band and I just started doing my thing, and built everything around what I wanted to do, which you have to do," DeVoe says. She had found her calling, discovered what all that energy was for.
"You can't fake it," DeVoe says. "People do, they will fake it, but you have to be willing to let go of your past and go, 'OK, now I need to become who I am supposed to be’ and then you've really got to pay attention to what the universe is telling you." The universe is casting sunshine. Strange sunshine, and she is following it, at home and in the warm stage lights. Who knows where it leads.
"I don't ever want to get stuck in an 'oh these are all Jennie's great songs and she never wrote any other ones,"' DeVoe says. "I hope I die still trying to write my best song."'
Fans want to reach out to her
Half the fun of seeing DeVoe live is to watch the audience. Her fans lean in when the warm stage lights go off. They are ravenous with cheering, yelling. Now they are on fire.
A line begins to form at the back of the stage. People are desperate to tell DeVoe how they feel. To congratulate her. To tell her they love her music. DeVoe stays after the show for hours laughing, talking to every person who approaches her. She answers their questions, listens to their stories. Says 'thank you' because that is what you say, even though It is an apologetic form of the gratitude, the shared connection those two words are really trying to express.
Everyone has seen her bare the bliss of her soul on stage, and they now know the secret of her fiery performance.
It is real.
Megan McNames is a contributing writer to M Magazine