Devon Sproule
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Devon Sproule

Austin, Texas, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2000 | SELF

Austin, Texas, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2000
Band Folk Jazz

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When we talk in London, she admits that she uses cover versions as a way of voicing sentiments “I don’t feel I’ve earned”; her own songs are defined by three pieces of biography. She grew up in a commune. She is married to a musician. And she is 29. Although she records her life and her preoccupations, she writes elliptically; the lyrics of her new album, I Love You, Go Easy, glance off each other arrestingly, juxtaposing images.

The music is correspondingly complex. She already has five studio albums under her belt, all recognisably old-time country. Her new one, though, runs the gamut from jerky piano ballads to funk, from the swing of a pocket marching band to what sounds, on first listen, like a nursery rhyme about a dog, and only slowly reveals itself as a song about quarter-life crisis. Her melodies, in the past sweet to the point of hokiness, are now more angular, full of twists and turns that resolve only on the last note.

For these new recordings she was joined in a Toronto studio, at the suggestion of her producer Sandro Perri, by The Silt, an avant-garde Canadian three-piece. The clarinet, brass, flute and keyboard textures that they add turn Sproule’s country palette into something more idiosyncratic. “They went to school for it and everything,” she enthuses. “The most minimal, fluid music ever. For these guys, definitely less was more. It was like they were using music to quiet their minds.” On this tour, Sproule’s four-strong British band (two of them labelmates on Tin Angel, her Coventry-based record company) are playing the new songs tough and loud, with the dynamics of country rock; the recorded versions, with their layered textures and unexpected lyrical piano codas somewhere between jazz and hymnal, have a centripetal stillness about them, as if suspended for a moment out of time.

This mirrors her upbringing. Sproule was born in an Ontario commune in 1982, but soon moved with her parents to the Twin Oaks community, an enclave in Virginia. “It was growing up in the country in a Southern state but having a lesbian mother, a polyamorous father and a black stepmother, a hundred neighbours. All-you-can-eat tofu. It was definitely not Virginian. It was beautiful like Virginia is, but different.”

Some of the songs on the new album are intimately bound up with that Southern pastoral landscape. “The back part of the pond,” she sings at the start of the album, over flutes that recall King Crimson at their most bucolic, “belongs to the pilots and yellow-belly sliders”. But soon she pushes through to the other side, musing about the “terra bathers” – the bodies buried in “God’s Acre”, the commune’s graveyard.

This song starts as a meditation on a recently deceased friend, then muses on her sister-in-law Maria, a harried teacher living a “miserable rhythm”. It ends, over faint organ, by reflecting on the six years since Sproule’s wedding day, with their friends “pudgy and young, gold ties straightened” and the changes wrought on all of them in the time since then. “If I can do this,” she sings – “this” being coping with bereavement, with pressure, with the passage of time – “I can do anything.”

Aged 15, Sproule moved out of the commune and into Charlottesville, the local town where, for now, she still lives. There she helped to make ends meet by busking, honing her craft on the songs of the assertively feminist rock singer-songwriter Liz Phair. When Sproule started to play small gigs she met Paul Curreri, now her husband, when he jumped uninvited on stage and insisted on singing backing vocals. As well as playing guitar with Sproule, Curreri, eight years her senior, has a parallel career of his own, including an album entitled Songs For Devon Sproule (2003). “One of the things we had to decide,” says Sproule, “is whether it was OK to write songs about each other. Could we complain? And we decided that we couldn’t.”

Her childhood offered few models of conventional family relationships. “My parents are kinda into their own lives. They’re into parenting too, but in their own way. I lived in a building with other kids and slept in a building with other kids. They loved being parents but they loved that there were other adults around so they had a lot of childcare.”

Marriage has required her to deal with relationships in depth rather than breadth. She affectionately describes the tug between herself and Curreri as mirroring the difference between nighttime and daytime. “He’s into the present, and I’m into the future.” In this light, some of her lyrics break into the abrupt directness of a fragment of reported conversation. “I know I’ve been a bit of a broken record darlin’ as of late,” she sings on “The Warning Bell”. “I grind my axe in the morning, pick a bone at night/Sometimes it’s you I’m picking on, sometimes I think I’m saving your life.”

I Love You, Go Easy is an ambitious record not only in terms of its music, but also in the sense that it is about ambition. On another ma - Financial Times


Chances are none of us will ever be truly happy with our lot, especially not if contrasted with Devon Sproule’s almost idyllic existence. Aside from the enormous touring costs incurred by an independent artist lugging vintage instruments everywhere, something Sproule complains sweetly about on this set recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall towards the end of 2009, the Ontario-born songstress sounds so free, unharried and sure of herself here that we’d happily offer a life-swap.
Born into a (happy) hippy commune, 28-year-old Sproule now lives in rural Charlottesville, Virginia with husband and touring partner Paul Curreri, a man whose wit and faraway imagination has lit up several terrific albums of his own. And their pastoral life together is borne out in Sproule’s dreamy and serene confessionals, all of her intensity put into pin-point observations of love and life, winding, earthy narratives and the lush, mellifluous brew of her (and her band’s) playing. It’s really not the sort of fare peddled by Americana stereotypes – the earnest Stars-and-Stripes hoisting yeehaws or the bone-weary, hard-bitten troubadours – that continue to overwhelm us.
If Sproule’s tender, uplifting style – a twangy Southern Belle influenced as much by the Jazz Age as she is Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin – were just a little too slight on her most recent (fifth) album, Don’t Hurry for Heaven, from which most of the original tracks aired here are taken, Live in London fulfils the promise and then some.
On stage is where Sproule is at her finest, where her songs are delivered with a sweet little growl to enliven things and tell us when she’s feeling antsy, angry and sexy, as on the high-energy Old Virginia Block. Where her string work is so prettily nuanced but sharp it makes her contort her face, as you’ll see on the accompanying DVD. And with Sproule joined by now-regular guest BJ Cole on pedal steel and a cast of others on violin, viola and percussion, she and Curreri stitch together a rich, luxuriant comforter that casts an eye on the gathering storm clouds suggested in the dustbowl-reworking of Black Uhuru’s Sponji Reggae and green-eyed One Eye Open. Really, who wouldn’t feel jealous about an impeccable, precocious talent like this? - BBC Music


“Devon Sproule could charm the birds right out of the trees. Four stars.” - Mojo


As a young singer/guitarist growing up in the Virginia commune Twin Oaks, Devon Sproule says she was almost expected to write songs. “You’re in a creative environment, everyone loves you and supports you,” she says. “But it wasn’t the healthiest way to come into songwriting, because I felt like I should be writing, which is a weird situation to be in when you’re 15 and you have no clue who you are.” If it wasn’t the best way to start, it certainly didn’t hurt Sproule’s ability to write, as the jazzy, literate, richly detailed songs on the 25-year-old’s new CD Keep Your Silver Shined (City Salvage/Waterbug) amply demonstrate. Sproule has integrated a love of jazz and its probing harmonic language with her nuanced fingerpicking and a poet/storyteller’s ability to paint colorful sketches of the world she and her friends inhabit in Charlottesville, Virginia. This mix creates a sound that conjures a sort of downhome, beatnik, guitar-playing Norah Jones

Sproule took up guitar at 14 and was soon taking lessons and learning songs from a teacher in Charlottesville. “He just taught me songs that he knew,” she says. “He had a little bit of swing/jazz stuff, so I got to learn a few ‘non-nut’ chords.” Sproule’s musical precocity led to a performing career when she was still relatively young. “I played small gigs when I was 16 and bigger and bigger gigs the later half of my teenage years,” she says. “It became tricky not just because I was self-conscious and didn’t have much practice [at performing], but because I was also being a teenager. I would say to my boyfriends, ‘Music will always be my priority and you have to know that,’ [laughs] but really it was the other way around. I was getting better at having boyfriends faster than I was getting better at writing songs, which was probably a fine thing to be doing at that age. So it was nice to settle down in my early twenties and actually start becoming comfortable with my songwriting process. It is still pretty slow; I’m not superprolific, but I’ve come to terms with that.”

If Sproule is not prolific, that may be because her songs are carefully crafted, with unusual, leaping chord progressions and an abhorrence of lyrical clichés. For example, “Keep Your Silver Shined” begins simply enough with a I–V–IV–I progression in F? that abruptly (but musically) moves to a B?/D chord at the end of each verse line. After four repetitions of that progression, the B?/D lets Sproule modulate neatly into E for the soaring (I–vi–IV–V) chorus.

Sproule often begins her process by “ripping off some chords” from a song she’s learned. “Of course, you have to learn interesting songs if you’re going to do that,” she says. “Simpler jazzy songs like Fats Waller and Hoagy Carmichael songs, or bossa nova songs; they have interesting chords. I took these nice chords from an Antonio Carlos Jobim song, ‘A Felicidade,’ for ‘Stop By Anytime’—not all of them, of course.” Then comes the process of wedding a melody to harmony. “If I think about it, I can figure out what kind of chord I’m playing, but I only turn on the theory when I’m trying to figure out something that needs to be figured out, as opposed to letting it dictate what chords I write,” she says. “It makes melody writing more fun, because in order for all these chords to not sound sonically confusing next to each other, the melody has to glue them together.”

Lyrically, Sproule says that she’s “started writing more around refrains, coming up with a one- or two-sentence refrain for a song,” as in “Let’s Go Out” and “Stop By Anytime,” which are Sproule’s most obvious additions to the Great American Songbook. In a different approach, Sproule describes “Does the Day Feel Long?” as “experimenting with a refrain that comes in not at the end of each verse or the beginning of each chorus but that just pokes its head up once in a while.”

Sproule’s previous album, Upstate Songs, was spare and pristine, spotlighting the singer-songwriter and her guitar, but the new album finds Sproule fronting a small band, with a sympathetic rhythm section; occasional fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, clarinet, electric guitar, or accordion colors; and a live, spontaneous sound. “We recorded it in [producer] Jeff Romano’s living room, which felt perfect for these songs,” Sproule says. “It was full of light, full of house plants. We did my tracks first and then we would hear about a great clarinet guy over in Richmond, and we would think, ‘Clarinet, that would work great for these songs.’ And then the clarinetist [John Winn] would come and he would say ‘Oh, you should talk to this guy [Matty Metcalfe], who plays the accordion.’ Not everything worked, but it was fun to do it that way. And I had a lot of friends stop in and play.”

Though her songs are the product of some serious musical crafting, Sproule doesn’t have a regular writing routine, preferring to wait until she’s ready for the next song to emerge. “When I haven’t been writing for so long that it’s - Acoustic Guitar


On her fourth CD Virginia singer/songwriter Devon Sproule manages to sound both very contemporary and retro, venturing down old-time jazz, country, and moutain pathways. Sproule's vocals blend a delightfully contrary sense of phrasing with an authentic, if understated, Appalachian twang. Her sense of humor emerges on the slow, jazzy "Let's Go Out," while pieces like the title tune and "Does the Day Feel Long" are vivid photographic slices of rural Americana. Working with a small, low-key studio band, Sproule generates and amiable, laid-back groove throughout the disc, which concludes with Mary Chapin Carpenter on the traditional tune "The Weeping Willow." (MP) - Dirty Linen


Sing Out! - 10/07

This is not someone raised in front of a television blaring Gilligan's Island re-runs -- she grew up on a commune in the mountains of Virginia, and it shows in her refreshing jazz/folk originals (and two covers). She's just 25 but there's a hint of Gillian Welch here, of a maturity beyond her years but still with a playfulness to keep it all aloft. She wrote most of the songs in a stream-of-consciousness style featuring vivid descriptions and surrounded by sharp arrangements (thanks to producer Jeff Romano) -- from the smart aleck fiddle in the swing number "Old Virginia Blcok" to the wheezy accordion in "1340 Chesapeake Street." The title cut is a wistful ode to everyday life, including "A dresser drawer to put my pants in / What, oh, what more could a woman want?" The weary "Let's Go Out" has a cool dimly lit late night bar feel with it's lightly brushed snare and jazzy guitar. The disc ends beatuifully with the traditional "The Weeping Willow" featuring a vocal by Mary Chapin Carpenter. (JA) - Sing Out!



Virginia ’s Devon Sproule makes a jazzy folk that doesn’t sound like any other singer-songwriter music of her generation. It’s both down-home and uptown, a delicate, Appalachian stringed-swing.



Vocally, comparisons to Rickie Lee Jones might come to mind. But Sproule’s message and image could not be more opposite than 1970s down ‘n out hipster cool. Sproule, 25, celebrates the quiet joys of community, the love of home, and the warmth of friendship and marriage in her new album, “Keep Your Silver Shined.”



Though the songs seem made with care, a light, dancing spirit of improvisation also visits her sound. Thoughts come in felicitous bursts, her fun, honest lyrics combining homey details with playful impressions.



- Dan Gewertz - Boston Herald



The nimble singer-guitarist Devon Sproule chronicles her ongoing love affairs with humanity, nature, and the state of Virginia. She performs with a sweet, round diction that shines through even her most ornate imagery and rambunctious melodies.
- New Yorker


On Keep Your Silver Shined, Devon Sproule sounds like a more carefree, less deathly serious Gillian Welch or a caffeinated Jolie Holland. Recorded in Charlottesville, Va., where she lives with Paul Curreri, her blues-songwriter husband, Silver digs into Appalachian folk and country sounds, but with a swinging old-time jazz sensibility (that's a clarinet tooting in the background) and a neighborly mixture of innocence and experience. It's the 24-year-old Canadian native's fourth album, and songs like the deceptively ambitious "Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest," mark it as one of the most fetching roots records to come down the pike in quite some time. - Philadelphia Inquirer


Easily the most joyous album I’ve heard this year. Sproule’s songs are something to behold:  Victoria Williams’ playfulness and spunk meeting up with Joni Mitchell’s confessional songwriting chops. To top it off, this is the sexiest, sultriest southern album since Lucinda’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. - Paste Magazine


THE OBSERVER

Devon Sproule
Keep Your Silver Shined (Tin Angel Records)

There's a refreshing sweetness about the work of this 24-year-old American songwriter -- there in her mellifluous vocals and poetic, freewheeling lyrics that, in the way of Bjork and Joanna Newsom, are more blank verse than rhyming schemes. Sproule's songs ooze the atmosphere of balmy Virginia days - she grew up in a commune in the state - and her sunny outlook is infectious. She even has a song called 'Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest'. This second album extends her musical reach into swing and country flavours, clarinet and pedal-steel accompaniments; even some erratic production doesn't dent Sproule's youthful charm."

- Neil Spencer - Observer


Upstate Songs is perhaps the most honest folk-pop album recorded this year. Sproule's vocal and lyrical beauty is unmatched. - Rolling Stone


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

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Bio

Born on a ecovillage in Ontario, raised on another in Virginia, singing, then busking, then touring and recording.  

Charlottesville, yes.  Berlin?  Conquered.  Now sitting on her couch in Austin, Texas.  

Married Paul Curreri in 2005.  Joined up with Tin Angel Records in 2007.

Worked hard on records later liked by Village Voice, New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Observer, Guardian, Mojo, Uncut, Paste.  

Got to play with lots of cool people who were almost all really nice too.

Newfolk Winner at Kerrville Folk Festival in 2008. Collaborated with Kenyan musicians in Nairobi in 2009.  Also in 2009, awarded Sammy Kahn award for excellence in lyric writing.  Nominated for the Rolex Mentor & Protege Arts Initiative 2011. Fall Fellow at The Lighthouse Works Arts Initiative in 2012.  

Toured the US, Canada, and Europe. Played hackey sack with her band in Shetland.  Sang with a cool choir in London.  Played for four old ladies in the orthopedic ward of University Hospital in Coventry.  Saw Manitoba from a Cessna.  Co-wrote songs with Mike O'Neill.  Ate tacos.

Band Members