Martin Devaney has a made a career out of championing the underdogs of the world. Looking back on his 12 years of songwriting, some of his most memorable songs are also the most heartbreaking; from “Bowling on Valentine’s Day” to “Outside Looking In” to “Flowers on the Doorstep,” his protagonists are constantly being put through a series of trials and near-misses. But if there’s one thing that ties them all together, it’s that his characters have also been eternally hopeful romantics.
Devaney’s latest, House of Rust, is easily his most hopeful record yet. The album was recorded in two short sessions at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Sound studio with Devaney’s longtime collaborator Jake Hyer on strings and vocals, plus bassist Steve Murray, keyboardist and vocalist Kate Murray, and drummer Mick Wirtz, and the sessions led to the most relaxed, confident, and downright content vocal delivery of Devaney’s discography to date. There are still some classic Devaneyisms laced into that contentedness, of course—sighs about holding down dead-end jobs and lines about “still standing, even if I’m standing still”—but House of Rust is generally an uplifting album, despite its macabre name.
And yet, there is conflict at the heart of this release. The album captures Devaney in the midst of a happy romantic period of his life that has since come to an end, and the dissolution of his last relationship led him to question whether it was even worth releasing House of Rust at all. But as I discovered while talking to Devaney over a round of drinks at the Muddy Pig recently, he eventually came to the conclusion that the album was too good to keep hidden away.
Martin Devaney celebrates the release of House of Rust at the Cedar Cultural Center tonight, with support from Mattson’s Ol Yeller and country band the Cactus Blossoms.
Local Current: When did you start working on this record?
Martin Devaney: We started recording it in October of 2011, we did basically two weekend jaunts up [to Sparta Sound], for three days or two and a half days at a time. So it was late 2011, and then early 2012.
Were the songs written around that time?
The songs were written gradually, throughout 2011—but at random times, and they came very quickly. It would be like we’re getting ready to go out on a Friday night, leaving around 9:00, and at 8:00 I start fooling around with something, and then it’s pretty much done. I’d just throw it in the notebook, and they just kind of accrued that way. I remember being up there, and we had a really productive first couple days, and [my girlfriend] was like, ‘When did you have time to write this? I live with you, when did you do this?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know; they just came.’ So it was different in that regard. In the past I think I’ve made a lot more of an effort to craft songs, nuts and bolts, and this was like stuff would come quickly and I’d just have to maybe tighten it up a little later.
How did you first decide to go up to Sparta?
Rich and I had been talking about doing a record together for 10 years. Having talked to Rich a bunch of times, and hearing some stories from people who had been up there—I wanted to experience doing a record where that’s the only thing we have to do. In the past it’s like, you book some studio dates and there’s weeks and maybe months in between, and you go over there at night and record and then you go home and go to bed and go to your job the next day. This gave us the chance to immerse ourselves in the vibe of the whole thing. You get up there and you’ve got your dogs and you’re cooking together, and you track some tunes and then have dinner and work a little bit more, and then go have a campfire. I think doing it that way, the record ended up being more cohesive and feels like one work rather than a collection of songs. I think this is the most seamless record I’ve made, from top to bottom.
If everything was recorded in the colder winter months, do you think this is a winter album?
I think it’s an autumn album. I mean, we started it when it was warm enough to still have a bonfire at night. But then going back in January or February, it’s a totally different deal up there. No one’s leaving the house. But it feels like a fall album.
Do you have times of year when you feel more creative?
Definitely fall. I’m always at my best personally and creatively. I love summer, but a lot of times if it’s hot I’ll just be drained, and I don’t have the impetus to do anything. I can work well during the winter, but it is a little more shut-in. Winter’s a good rehearsing season. And spring isn’t terribly different than autumn, but I think for as long as I’ve had creative pursuits, I think I’ve done best in that September through the end of the year. And I’ve certainly lately been writing more than I had been all summer.
It’s been a while since you finished recording the album. What led you to decide that now is the time to release it?
I really wanted to put the record out about 18 months ago, and I think I ran into—well, there werea few things. Like we needed to get pedal steel on a couple more songs, and I couldn’t get the studio time lined up. And there’s always a financial hurdle. And when s**t kind of hit the fan last fall, by that point I decided, I can’t deal with this. There’s no way I can put this out now. So I was like, you know what? A lot of people have lost albums. I’m content with this being mine. I’m ready to move on.
I had planned initially to either start a new project, more of a rock thing, or revive Crossing Guards and change it a little bit. So I worked on a lot of material last fall and winter that definitely will never see the light of day. It’s not finished or anything, but I banged out all this stuff thinking that I’m starting something new, whatever. And a lot of those songs ended up being more cathartic than anything, and not things I would actually release.
And I never made any grand proclamation, like ‘I’m not putting out this record!’ But just talking to Rich, and talking to people I know, it was just like, I can’t do this. I don’t ever want to listen to this. Because this record was made at a point in time when I was relatively happy, and I thought I was on a certain path, and I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with this person. And when that ceased to be true, the record didn’t feel as true to me. It’s a snapshot of someone else that I was, somewhere else I was. And trying to deal with the things in my own personal life was just too heavy to deal with the things in my creative life. Eventually, over time, through enough conversations and thought about it, I came around to the idea that this is a piece of work that I did, and I can be proud of it. Ultimately I came around to the idea that, to be truest as an artist, this is what happened.
Then, revisiting it certainly was tough, because we had to do final mixes and get it mastered, and then I had to make sure everything was right, get test pressings and listen to those. I have a good distance from it now, I think. And with, also, the double thing of Jake moving back east in November, that’s the end of a partnership as well. So it’ll be really nice to put this to bed. I think this will be the last record I do under my name for the foreseeable future, so as not to repeat myself and get pigeonholed too much as this kind of singer-songwriter guy. This stuff was all written when I was doing a lot of those duo tours with Jake, and playing a lot of shows just the two of us, and kind of mining that sound that was my thing for so long.
What’s it like to have your art and your aesthetic be tied to your own name, like a brand?
It’s odd. It’s always been a weird thing where it’s like, I get the credit, I do the interviews, I write the songs. There’s no clubhouse mentality really. A lot of people call me by my first and last name, and they joke about it. And it’s weird, because I did that initially—the reason I started under my own name was because I got booted from Heiruspecs, you know, and I wanted to start something that couldn’t break up. So in a way, I’m trying to break up with myself now, I suppose. [laughs] Which is a weird, psychotic thing.
Anyway, it’s strange having it out there. And that’s the other thing, too, is, when you put out a record—any record’s personal, you know, and this one is in a certain way. But it’s weird in this case to be putting this out and having it be pretty explicit in its themes, which aren’t truths anymore. And then to have to go out and talk about that and support it and play the songs. Not all of them are going to get played. But then again, it’s that same thing too, when you put something out it becomes everyone else’s, to take as they want to take it.
I’ve always wondered about that. When you go to a show and see someone play a song that’s so personal and so sad, and you know they’ve played it 100 times. Does it eventually become its own thing?
It’s not like being on autopilot exactly, but it sort of is. There’s songs that I’ll play still that I wrote seven or eight years ago, for very specific reasons. And I was effected in a certain way that manifested itself in me writing this song. And that’s the moment when it is you—the moment you finish writing it. And then it becomes reproductions of that. And there may be times when you’re playing a tune and something strikes you and you feel a certain way again. But most of the time, it’s just about doing the best version of that song that you can do. And then it becomes somebody else’s.
Do you think there’s something inherently vulnerable about being a songwriter? Or like you have to be willing to open yourself up to people in that way?
Yeah. Not to de-romanticize it—but also not to over-romanticize it—I think at some point you start to think of it as your job and your craft. It’s some level of narcissism and insecurity coming together in this unholy mix, where you think that anyone cares what you think, but also you’re brave enough to reach out. I think the reason that most of us do it is for that connection. It’s a desire to connect with a greater energy, and a greater audience. And that might just be one person on a particular night. But you might also have the motivation to write a song to cheer somebody up, be that someone specific when you initially write it, and then a greater audience when you play it again.
The title track of this record was meant to be a really specific ‘hanging in there with you even when you’re down and out’ kind of song, meant for one person. Now, maybe it’ll be for more people. It’s a completely strange thing to do with yourself. It is. There’s no joking about that. It’s not for everyone. But I guess the idea is to look forward, not to look back.