Devon Gilfillian on What It Means to Be a Creator

Photo by Jacqueline Day

For our May issue, artists across the Blue Ridge talked with BRO about what it meant to make music in a year without in-person performances. For the next four weeks, we will be featuring each of those artists and taking a deeper dive into their creative process.

In January 2020, Devon Gillfillian released “Black Hole Rainbow” and was preparing for a year promoting his debut album. BRO caught up with the Nashville-based singer, songwriter, and bandleader, whose sound fuses a dynamic blend of R&B, hip-hop, rock, blues, and soul, about how his plans shifted after COVID-19 hit. 

BRO: Heading into 2020, what were your plans, and what did your year end up looking like?

DG: It was so promising. We were getting ready to go on tour with Grace Potter. I was turning 30. I had fallen in love and she was coming on the road with us. We had South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, Firefly—all these festivals I went to in my early 20s and fell in love with so many bands. The year was going to be on fire. We played CBS Saturday on March 6. As we were playing, the headline on the big screen was coronavirus. We were like, “man, hopefully that doesn’t get too crazy.” 

Figuring out who am I as a musician that doesn’t play music in front of people in a live music setting and what does that mean. It didn’t really take away any part of my identity. It made me go oh, I’m a creator now. I’m a writer. I want to produce my own music, so why don’t I learn how to do that, get deeper into the creation side, and figure out how to connect with people without playing live music. 

Virtual shows took off in 2020. How did you approach staying connected with fans and audiences during this time?

We did a couple of live streams during the pandemic, and I think it was the perfect amount— two. People want music badly; they want to see live music, but watching it through a screen, for me, is the last thing I really want to do. Unless you are doing something insane in this performance. If you’re going to be on TV, show me some movie magic. Make it interesting, make it fun. It should be different than just a band playing live in some kind of way. 

For me, putting out music was a way of giving my fans something while I was gone. This is what I can give you right now. This season of no live music is coming to an end pretty soon, and I think that’ll make it even sweeter when we get back on stage.

In 2020, you re-recorded Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s Going On.” What drew you to taking on that project? 

The “What’s Going On” project specifically came out of the death of George Floyd. It was inspired from going to a protest and seeing people playing instruments. I learned “What’s Going On” on guitar, and at that moment I realized what Marvin was trying to say 50 years ago. The fact that no one actually listens killed me, put a knife in my chest. I was weeping and angry. In that moment, I decided that I wanted to cover all of it. I wanted to cover the entire album and use this music to fight voter suppression. I wanted to use it to get Trump out of the White House because he’s destroying this country. 

Why am I a musician? And in that moment, it was because I needed to inspire people to make the world better. In this moment, the world kind of sucks. We’ve got to fucking make this happen. Listening to that album, for me it was therapy. It was also insane to me how prophetic the words were and are, and how 50 years later they mean so much more.

All proceeds from the album and his “There’s An Election Going On” live stream concert are directed to The Equity Alliance.

You talked about wanting to get more into the creation side of music. What were some of the things that you were personally exploring as an artist to help you grow as a musician?

The most important thing to know is that everyone can do it. You have the tools at your fingertips. If you have an iPhone, you can do it. And that’s where I started. I wanted to record some stuff on the road, and I started using GarageBand on my iPhone. That’s what Steve Lacy does, who produces tracks for Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, all these amazing artists, just on his iPhone. 

That inspiration and creativity inspired me to take that to my computer and start using Logic, and really getting into having the whole creative picture of the song. Having not only the guitar, vocals, melody, and song structure, but knowing what the bass, keys, drums, and strings want to sound like and really taking ownership of all of those sounds. During the pandemic I’ve really gained that confidence to take hold of that. 

In a year when we’ve all been pretty socially isolated and unable to do a lot of our routine things, what were some of the things that helped you get through the past year?

I have been reading so much more. And also going to therapy. I think that it’s very important to continue to grow emotionally and dig into yourself as deep as you can. That’s something I just started doing during this pandemic on a professional level. I think that’s so essential as an artist to be in touch with that. I’ve been cooking my butt off, too. That’s something that I feel like I honed in my skills. I want to keep that going, but it’ll be hard to do on the road. 

Everybody in the club needs therapy. After getting out of an abusive relationship with Donald Trump, I think the whole country needs therapy. Battling systemic racism in this world, we are just at the beginning of that battle. Just because Trump is out doesn’t mean we’re safe. That’s something that I want to continue. I want that fight to continue for everybody. I hate to be political and everything but I also firmly believe that there’s some waking up that needs to happen in this country. I’m not scared to say that anymore. 

You can see Gilfillian at a few upcoming outdoor festivals, including Master Musicians Festival (Somerset, Ky. July 16-17), FloydFest (Floyd, Va., July 22), and Bonnaroo (Manchester, Tenn. September 2). 

Places to Go, Things to See: