Of all the folks Donovan Wheeler has talked to and written about, Jennie DeVoe is the one who is a star.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Jennie DeVoe
But I was still “eating” all that “fast food music” back then. Like a lot of Gen-Xers I got married, quickly had kids, scored that career job, and all but missed anything cool about the ‘90s. We traded Pavement and Weezer and Radiohead and Ben Folds for Raffi and Barney. Young parents like me didn’t know that Thom Yorke was a creep and a loser, but we did know that Sally the Camel had five humps. The closest thing any of us could claim as “hip” was recognizing the melody to something other than “Ants Marching.”
The day I began to rethink my musical tastes was the day I discovered DeVoe. Actually I had showed up to see Tad Robinson. It was the autumn of 2011, and a steady downpour—the first one we had seen in months—had washed out Greencastle’s Crown Street Music Festival. Under the mammoth trusses supporting DePauw’s Lily Center, Tad belted the best songs of his canon. A satisfying show, despite the echoing reverb that comes with playing in a place that is half concrete and half cave. As Robinson moved to his finale, a restlessness wafted among the seats, and I kept overhearing the same name: Jennie. Jennie’s here. Have you heard her? She’s amazing.
Four minutes into her set I knew who Jennie DeVoe was. I wouldn’t forget, either.
“I remember that [show],” DeVoe says. “I remember people going around the [indoor] track while we were playing. I thought ‘I love this little town.’” She laughs when she calls up the memory, an authentic chuckle, the enthusiasm of one who appreciates that everyone has her own story, and that hers does not sit at the center of the universe.
To say that DeVoe’s story is like a lot of other local and regional musicians would be more than misleading. Sure, her bio carries a lot the same markers belonging to other artists: She’s opened for (and is on a first-name basis with) some big names, and she’s recorded with sound engineers who have worked on some big-time records as well. But in so many ways DeVoe is “name-drop” worthy herself. And had she launched her career a decade—even five years—before Napster, a Jennie DeVoe encounter at J.C. Penney would go around the cookout patio with the same gravitas as bumming a smoke off Mellencamp in a McDonalds. She was that close. For her part, the humble and effusive DeVoe never says anything coming close to this, but if you listen to the narrative, that’s the only conclusion you can reach.
A Hoosier Childhood
Raised in Muncie, adorning the same trademark hairstyle she sports today, DeVoe describes her youthful self as “bored” and “wild,” often getting grounded…usually because she snuck into concerts. She even cashed her first college loan check and spent it on a guitar and amp setup, despite the fact she couldn’t play a single chord. It was an impetuousness borne out the love for music she adopted from her father. Influenced at a young age by his “fantastic taste in music,” she grew up singing along to the likes of Billie Holiday and Louie Prima, even tapping her feet to the work of Glenn Miller. The turning point happened midway through the ‘90s, when DeVoe and her husband attended a work-related function.
Jennie DeVoe: “They had a band, a sort of side-gig for several of Rob’s coworkers. It was a bunch of engineers and ad-agency people who were all good musicians, one of them was Dean Metcalf, from Q-95. Somewhere in the middle of the gig they said, ‘We need a new singer.’ I said, ‘I can sing.’ When we moved to Indy, my husband didn’t even know that I could sing. I remember he looked at me, and his eyes said, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to ruin my life…”
Shortly after that set, her husband approached her with gift-wrapped microphone.
DeVoe: “He said, ‘I don’t know where this is going to lead us, but this is actually what you’re supposed to be doing in life.’ I started writing from that moment on, and never looked back.”
In the months that followed, gigs around the Circle City sprung up. Her first incarnation was a blues band at the Slippery Noodle, but it wasn’t long before she assembled her own group. Except for her original bassist, who moved away after a handful of years, she’s kept the team together. In those early years the act toured across the country in a fashion she describes as “scattered,” including opening gigs for Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. It was the sort of hard, grinding work that young people do when they’re hungry and when everything about the job is fun.
Finding the Space in Her Music
A lot of things happened the right way for DeVoe out of that gate. Both Universal and Atlantic Records showed interest in signing her. She won Billboard Magazine’s “World Song Contest” with her track, “How I Feel.” Her music ended up on a host of TV shows and even a national Corona Beer ad. It was still the late ‘90s, however, and DeVoe’s one problem was every musician’s problem.
DeVoe: “I was really considering [signing with a label], but everything I read—from Rolling Stone to Billboard—all talked about these closing labels and people getting cut.”
Against everyone’s advice, she cut her own record in Bloomington with the help of producer Rich Morpurgo.
DeVoe: “I feel like it was a blessing that I got to meet Rich, but we were flying blind in those early days because we didn’t really know each other until we got to work on those records. I love them, still. I don’t play those songs very much anymore, but when I do I sound like a completely different person. When I sit down and listen to them—which is also rare—I appreciate the sonics…the engineering. I think, ‘I can’t believe I made them.’ I sound like a little girl when I listen to them. But I’m definitely proud of them.”
Listen to those Bloomington records—Does She Walk on Water and Ta-Da—and you’ll hear the sort of pop vibe that comes from a very active, very busy set of recordings. As DeVoe explains, the records were manufactured with air for precision, that clean commercial studio sound that defined her in the beginning.
DeVoe: “All the space, we filled up. Any hole that should have been left for a listener to think and enjoy a moment that they just heard…we stole that from them.”
DeVoe: “I interpret songs differently now. I’m more of a grown up. I have a lot less angst in me, and I feel that the skill of being a songwriter is my thing now. And I’m very big on space. Things have to breathe. One of my first bass players said to me: ‘What good is a note or a beat, if you don’t understand where the pocket is?’ What’s on either side of that hit, that’s what creates feeling. Let’s say you’re hitting a kick drum and then tom beat: the thing that affects people is what happens between those hits. Do it right, and you give people feeling. Do it another way, and you can take away that possibility to feel.”
Inspired by producer John Parrish’s work on Tracy Chapman’s 2002 record, Let it Rain, DeVoe reached out to the English performer. She didn’t expect a response, but she got one. He liked her work but wanted to hear something stripped down. So she sat down alone. Just her guitar and her voice. There she found the power of that “space” in her music. The resulting new sound—born out of multiple trips to the England to work with Parrish—is the sound most Hoosiers hear in their heads when her name crosses their minds. It’s a sound best exemplified in her personal favorite record, Fireworks and Karate Supplies—the one album which she says she “can listen to and get lost in.”
DeVoe: “I was trying to let go of this desperate need of approval. Then I started examining the music I really liked to listen to. What do I love to sing along with? And a lot of that was very lower in register. Less show-offy. More feeling. John kept me to task, because I found myself maybe wanting to please everyone or trying to show off a bit. That’s when he would remind me by saying, ‘You told me that emotion was the most important reaction you want from people.’”
DeVoe: “I want people to feel something when listen to a show. But more importantly, I’m trying to do that by not sounding like everybody else. My goal is making good art, not creating a replica of something else. I just want my work to be in its own little place.”
Keeping it New for Herself
DeVoe says she has at least “30 songs in the pot,” and you can tell when you talk to her, she’s ready to get to work on them. Typically, the melody and the lyrics strike her before she plies her first notes on an actual instrument. Sometimes those lyrics hold consistent musical form from conception to finished product. Often, however, she takes them to one of her longtime guitarists: Paul Holdman or Brett Lodde. At that point things change.
DeVoe: “I’ll tell them kind of what I’m thinking, and we’ll establish a rhythm. Then, instead of singing as I had begun or imagined, a new rhythm develops. I love how they can sort of ‘mess me up’ a bit. Sometimes I end up working additional lyrics in because I just love what they’re doing as they play. I would rather that I make the changes to suit them instead of the other way around.”
This give and take doesn’t limit itself a tune’s infancy, however. Even when they play established tracks in her catalog, changes happen on stage.
DeVoe: “I do everything a little bit differently every time we perform, and that’s fun, too. Because you’ve got to keep it new for yourself.”
In the meantime, she plans to expand her voice-over work. Since her early success performing voice work in Meijer television spots, she has gone to work for the Indiana Tourism office, Subway, Red Gold, and Delta Faucett. And if you flip your dial to WTTS, that vocal encouragement you hear…? The one telling you that it’s a “New Music Monday…” Yeah, that’d be her, too.
DeVoe: “I’ve been lucky. It’s neat and validating, yes. But it’s not like those experiences are the enjoyable part of being a singer-songwriter.”What has proven enjoyable for her has been mastering the balancing act between keeping things new and embracing what’s good about the same-old, same-old. Does she want to get back in a van and tour? Yes. Does she want to do that for 230 days a year? Hell no. Even without her guitar… Even without that voice… DeVoe has exactly the sort of life most people pray for. Her marriage is strong. Her dogs make her happy. Her fans are all right here, and they love her. So many artists, when they try to balance that widening gyre—that vortex of ego and humility—tear themselves apart in the process. What kind of person does it take to be able to sit in the middle of that storm, kick back in a Broad Ripple back yard, and simply be happy for the sunshine? It takes the confidence, the peace, the experience, and the wisdom of a Jennie DeVoe. Anyone who has that should count themselves among the blessed.