Songwriter Interviews

Devon Allman

by Leslie Michele Derrough

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It's Sioux City, Iowa, and Devon Allman (son of Gregg) is kicked back waiting for soundcheck. He is out on a short solo tour before doing a final few months with Royal Southern Brotherhood, a New Orleans-flavored ensemble he has been playing in since 2011 alongside Big Easy favorites Cyril Neville, Mike Zito, Charlie Wooton and longtime Derek Trucks Band drummer Yonrico Scott. He loves being a part of Royal, but Allman feels it's time to move on and focus more on his solo work. "It was a lot of fun and that was hard to delete," Allman says of his decision to leave. "It took me about a year to make my decision 'cause I really love it. But I just couldn't juggle two things anymore. It was just too much."

Allman has been in this situation before. His trio Honeytribe, with George Potsos on bass and Gabriel Strange on drums, recorded two very strong blues rock albums before he decided to join Royal. But his 2012 debut solo album Turquoise sparked a new bonfire in his blood, and following his 2014 sophomore effort Ragged & Dirty, he knew it was time to follow his instinct and dig deeper into what he has to say with his music.

If Allman is one thing, he's passionate to his musical intuition. It comes out in all of his songs, whether he is singing about love, life or his endless quest for spiritual fulfillment. Onstage, Devon is even more alive, losing himself in solos that harken memories of his legendary uncle, Duane Allman, whose famous charisma and stage presence have rubbed off on Devon. And like his famous family members, Devon writes songs that stick in your psyche.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): You have such a passion for life, for love and for music and that all shows up very strongly in your songs. That's just you, right?

Devon Allman: Yeah, I think so. I just really embrace life. It's a fantastic time to be alive and yeah, it's a reflection of my personality. I've always been a go-getter and a big lover: lover of people, lover of life. I guess it's the Leo in me. I'm very passionate. But it's a fascinating thing, this life we have, and the lives that were lived before ours. I'm way into history and art and music and not necessarily religion, but spirituality. It's cool to just kind of learn about all the different flavors that are out there.

Songfacts: When music first starts to come to you, what do you hear first – the words or the melodies?

Devon: It really comes in so many different ways. It could be a line you overhear someone say or it could be something out of a story in a newspaper. It could be a riff that starts up at soundcheck. When you're not really thinking is when the doorway to a song gets opened. At least for me. I'm not one of these cats that can sit down every day at noon and write tunes. It has to kind of hit me. I need to live a good little portion of life - six months, twelve months, whatever it may be - and be able to reflect on that time.

I always keep my radar up. Thank God there's a recording function on your iPhone with the voice memo 'cause I use that damn near daily. Then lately I'll even pull open GarageBand on my phone and tap out a beat or come up with a bass line or chord progression. I guess that is a really long answer to a very simple question [Laughs].

It just happens so many different ways. I might have a beat in my head and sing it into my phone. I might just start writing lyrics freestyle. I might pick up a guitar just to warm up and come up with a riff. You never know. You just really never know what's going to make that door open.

Songfacts: Can you pull a subject out of the air and write about it at that moment?

Devon: I can to an extent but a lot of the music kind of flows. It's happened sometimes where I've decided to write about something in particular but usually it just kind of happens. That's a tough one. I've done it before but it's not typically the way I write.

Devon is the second-oldest child of Gregg Allman. He was raised by his mother (not Cher) away from the spotlight in Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri, allowing Devon to have a normal childhood and develop his own musical voice. He reunited with his father during his teenage years but Devon, while embracing some of his father's sound in his own music, continues to branch out in pursuit of new musical horizons.
Songfacts: You were raised a pretty normal kid. You went through your childhood not in the Allman Brothers spotlight, so that helped you develop your own sound without that influence bearing down on you.

Devon: Yeah, for sure. Growing up away from it allowed me to just have an organic path to music that was my own. I think there are some genetics at play. Obviously people will say, "Man, you know, you sound a lot like your dad;" but it's all so relative to the person. You know, I've finished shows and gone to do the autograph signing at the end of the show and back-to-back heard one guy go, "Man, you sound just like your dad," and then the next guy goes, "Man, what I really love is that you sound nothing like your dad." [Laughs] So everybody's got their opinion but I never sit around and think about who my Pop is 'cause these are my words and my music. I like to spend my time working on music, not worrying about the music that my dad made. That's his bag, you know, and I've got my own.

Songfacts: Was your mom very supportive when you started to take your music seriously or was she a little worried that you were going down that path too, like your father?

Devon: No, no, if anything, it was the opposite. She knew that I was going to do this and was very supportive, and my father was very supportive, everyone in my family. When I started writing music and making demo tapes and playing my first few gigs, I think everyone knew how much I loved doing it. So like any good family, they're going to support whatever it is that brings you happiness.

Songfacts: But not every family is like that, Devon. I've talked to many musicians who had it hard and left home.

Devon: That's true. I know that there is that element out there where people say, "You're never going to make it at that, do something real, blah, blah, blah." I just never had a plan B and I think that's the key. Like, I'm going to do this - I will find a way to do this.

I think there's a bit of philanthropy involved as well. You're helping people. I can see it on people's faces at the end of shows. Like, man, they just had a great ride for a couple hours and de-stressed and decompressed.

Songfacts: A song that is really special to a lot of your fans is "Salvation." Why do you think it speaks to so many people?

Devon: Well, I think that there's a point in time where you really have to let life happen and chill out and trust that there is a higher power that is out there kind of helping this whole thing roll along. And that's really what that's about. It's about, "Hey, chill out, take your hands off the wheel and trust the universe." So I think a lot of people can relate to that because maybe they've had things they have been dealing with. It's a song of hope, because you know this crazy ride here only lasts, what do they say, about eighty-three years, which is the life expectancy. And that's not a whole bunch of time.

Songfacts: Everyone has that first song that totally blew their mind when they first heard it on the radio. What song was that for you?

Devon: "Norwegian Wood" by The Beatles, age five. It's such a strange song really but I think it was the melody, the harmonies on the vocals, the two vocal harmonies; "In My Life" was also on that record. And there was such a beautiful slice of somber that they served up on that tune, but also bittersweet, really kind of sentimental. Those two songs just knocked me in the head when I was five years old and I felt like I got it. I listened to the radio all the time and I loved listening to all the different types of music, but for some reason when I heard those two songs – Rubber Soul was my first record – I was like, I want to do something like this. I want to make music.

Songfacts: When did you really start paying attention to the lyrics and the meanings of the songs you were hearing?

Devon: Man, I was in my heavy metal phase. Once I started playing guitar I started listening to Hendrix and I started listening to metal. I started listening to metal when I was around ten, but I started playing guitar at thirteen. Hendrix' lyrics and then the lyrics on the early Metallica records were kind of mind-blowing for me at the time. Like Ride The Lightning, which is about capital punishment - ride the lightning was like the electric chair - and some of those lyrics. I was a youngster so it was pretty impressive. But I would say probably at twelve or thirteen the lyrics really started to say something, that there was really a message here. That's when it hit me.

Songfacts: As your own music has evolved, do you find that your musical interests have changed more as well?

Devon: Definitely. Because it's just a really big, long love affair with music, you know. People would probably trip out on my record collection because it's not just slab after slab of southern rock. It's everything. It's true alternative music from the '80s like The Smiths and The Clash, it's real deal jazz from way back in the day, Nigerian jazz to thrash metal to old-school blues. It's really all over the place. But I really like listening to different types of music, radically different.

Songfacts: When you first started writing songs, were you able to be your own person or were you almost trying to mimic your influences?

Devon: That's a really good question. I think my first few hundred songs were complete garbage, and I think most writers will say that and probably most painters throughout their first couple hundred paintings. It's just kind of how it is. Or you'll hear a movie star bring up their first movie and they'll go, "Oh my God." You like to think that you get better at the craft the more that you work it.

My first few dozen songs were probably trying to emulate something, but then when I wrote something that was really honest and didn't sound like this band or that band - it just sounded like me - I knew that I had kind of my own thing. I was very young, 17 or 18 years old, when I knew I could do it. And by 20 I was writing serious songs.

Songfacts: When you look back at Torch, do you still recognize the guy who wrote it?

Devon: [Laughs] Yeah, we're coming up on the tenth anniversary of my first record, which is really cool. But yeah, I think so, for sure. It was really a wake-up call for me. I was 29 or 30 and I was like, Whoa, I really want to get out there, I really want to take this to the world. I was really hungry. It's time for me to do this. So there was a lot of energy there that was built up through my 20s.

I think there are some decent tunes on there. One that is still a staple of my live set is "Mahalo."

Songfacts: With your latest solo album, Ragged & Dirty, what do you think that collection of songs says about you as an artist today, even though some of these weren't actually written by you?

In 2011, Devon introduced his own brand of hot sauce, Devon Allman's Chipotle Blues. "Even though my family is known for music and I travel the world performing, my other passion is cooking," he proclaims.
Devon: Yeah, the record is really a third written by me, a third written by my producer and a third cover songs. And that really was the idea. I wanted a great collection of songs but it wasn't necessarily all on me to write. And that was the first time I had ever done that, so I was stoked to do it, shake it up and do it differently. I think it's my most mature work, my most honest work. The record before, Turquoise, theme-wise was really about home. This one is more about, Hey man, I'm ragged and dirty, I've been out here for a decade, I'm collecting the miles. And it's okay, it's a wonderful thing, a wonderful life. I get to play all over the world. It's amazing.

Songfacts: Having been in the studio for so many years, has being a producer or the technology ever swayed the way you wrote a song?

Devon: No, I'm still pretty old-school. I get a yellow legal pad and a pen or a pencil and my guitar. When I go in to do a record, I don't use any tricks. I like to just do it old-school. But I leave a lot of head room in the studio to kind of fly with something; whether that's a background vocal or secondary guitar part or something to layer for ear candy or whatever. I leave myself a pretty decent amount of head room to be able to make things like that happen.

So I'm not married to every part that's going to go on a tune prior to going in. There's a good chunk of it that is, but then there's a good chunk of it that's left. I like to be able to wing things, sometimes to just be kind of whimsical and take a pass through a tune with a guitar or to take a pass with a microphone after the lead vocals, double some things here or layer some harmonies there, and that's cool. But I don't really ever let the technology side of anything become the leader or the dictator ever.

Songfacts: Have you ever written a song that was so personal or emotionally raw that you had to step back and rewrite the lyrics or tuck it away completely?

Devon: Absolutely, because there is an art to the reveal. You want to reveal some things and some things are just kind of stepping over the line. And sometimes it's good to cross that line. A lot of people can relate to those things. So I think the trick is to balance on that edge between revealing just enough and not too much.

Songfacts: Can you name one you almost held back but didn't?

Devon: [Laughs] I'll let people go through my catalog and figure that out. I'm not going to give it up that easy.

Songfacts: Who are your Three Wise Men: the three songwriters who inspire you the most?

Devon: Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and George Harrison. That's some soul, some spiritual uplifting pop and some more soul. I just think they are the top of the top of the top.

Songfacts: Enough so that you tattooed Curtis Mayfield on your body.

Devon: He's my favorite artist of all time. That guy was a producer, songwriter, singer, guitar player and started his own label. Those are all things that I've dreamt of doing. He was the man and his music makes me feel so good.

That's my number one favorite artist, but as far as songwriters, I think that him and George Harrison and Ray Charles, you can't get any better than that. Not that this is a world of better or best or whatever, it's not a competition, but kind of a pinnacle. Like when I'm singing onstage and I'm trying to sell it, you want to sell the emotion. It's got to be real and the only way you can do that is to dig down deep into what moves you.

But whether I'm behind the mic in the studio making a record or behind the mic on stage, I've always thought, What if Ray Charles or what if Tom Dowd was to come down and was sitting right there. Could I sell it to them? Because if I could sell it to them, I can sell it to anybody. Those are two of the best pairs of ears that ever existed. I'll think about that probably once a night onstage and certainly in the studio. Like, if they were there and I could just make them smile by something I sang, I've got to be doing all right.

Songfacts: What is the story behind "Endless Diamond," which was featured on the Honeytribe album Space Age Blues?

Devon: It's one of the only tunes that was written and recorded with my telecaster. It's a definitive telecaster song. But that one was certainly in the vibe of Space Age Blues. Musically, that's a combination of my influences really mashing up. You can hear echoes of The Cure and Iron Maiden and R&B in the stylistic side of that song.

Devon plays primarily a Gibson Les Paul. In 2007, while attending one of Les Paul's regular gigs at the Iridium in New York City, Les Paul himself signed Devon's guitar before bringing him up onstage.
As far as the lyrics go, "Endless Diamond" talks about people through humanity's history reaching their potential. It was almost from a higher life form's perspective, saying that humans are the endless diamond, like we are unlimited potential, our place in the universe is unlimited potential. That's pretty much the message of the tune. So I wanted it to sound hip and kind of mysterious.

Songfacts: "Time Machine" from Turquoise proves your belief that songs just come to you.

Devon: I think some of the best songs out there are the really basic ones. That's a three-chord song, but there was a certain feel to how I was playing them. I recorded them into my phone, recorded about ninety seconds of it, and with that repetition I could hum along to it and see if some words, the vocal melody, comes.

We were about halfway through making the Turquoise record and I went for a run and it started coming to me. I started singing as I was running over the three chords, and I immediately curled around and started running back. I had this table and chairs sitting outside. It was in rural south-central Tennessee, a little Amish town. I ran straight up to the front porch, and as fast as I could write, the words were coming. It just wrote itself right there in about ten minutes. It was a gift. It's wild how sometimes it just comes and maybe with the first lyric all the other ones are birthed out of that one line. So "come with me, let's take a ride," could have really gone a totally different way but the next line is "through the best years of your life." So it's like, okay, this is a song about reminiscing.

Songfacts: "When I Left Home" has that reminiscing vein also.

Devon: I think the idea there was a lot of people are still kind of coming around saying, "Oh, we didn't know;" like Allman Brothers fans are like, "We didn't know you were out there doing this." It was kind of like an idea of writing my story in a song. It's pretty much like when I left home and left school and went on tour and was trying to figure out what I want to do.

Songfacts: What about the song you did with Royal, "Left My Heart In Memphis"?

Devon: That was a riff that I wrote in New Orleans and I knew it was special - just a little guitar lick, and it stuck with me and stuck with me, and I really wanted to do it on that first record but it wasn't a song. It was just a lick but I knew it was special.

I just have a real love affair with Memphis. I used to live there and made a bunch of records there, got a ton of friends there. So it was my little love letter to Memphis and it namechecks Jeff Buckley in the lyrics and it name checks Martin Luther King, and of course both of them died there in Memphis. It's just an open love letter to that city. I love it there.

Songfacts: One of your older songs, "Could Get Dangerous," what you're saying in that song is still, and even more so, relevant today. What sparked that song?

Devon: I think it was in 2010 and there was a massive earthquake somewhere when we were making Space Age Blues and it was all over the news for like the whole month. Between that and the Twin Towers, that whole decade, all of a sudden everybody was walking on eggshells. School shootings and everything seemed to escalate and I thought it was time to address it in a way. It's tough 'cause you don't want to get political but you want to touch upon it. So I think it's kind of a thing that anybody can relate to: things are getting dangerous, and hey, we're in this shit together.

Songfacts: You like to cover someone else's songs on your records. Do you pick the songs by the mood you're in or the vibe that's going on in the record?

Devon: It's just selfishness, just what I love [Laughs]. Totally self-indulgent, you know. I used to always do "No Woman No Cry" in my sets and never intended that to be on Torch. The record label heard it after we were done and they just insisted that that be on the record.

For Space Age Blues, I did "Sir Duke." I'm a huge Stevie Wonder fan and I just wanted to do that one part on guitar so bad. With the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks tune, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," I really thought that would be a cool idea to get a talented girl to do a duet and on that song Samantha Fish really killed it. We didn't reinvent the tune, we just tried to update it, have fun with it. And on this record, there are several covers.

Songfacts: Like the Otis Taylor song, "Ten Million Slaves."

Devon: I love that song. I was just watching the movie Public Enemies with Johnny Depp, and in the chase scene that's the music playing in the background, and it just slapped me over the head. I went on iTunes and bought all of Otis Taylor's records and then I got to meet him like two days later, which was so weird: I discovered him and then I met him. I told him I'd like to cover that tune and he was all about it. He even came to a gig about a month ago. Came backstage and gave me a big hug and said thanks for doing it and doing a good job. It was really sweet.

Songfacts: You also always include an instrumental on your albums. "Midnight Lake Michigan" is the current one. When writing songs without words, how do you find the emotions in the notes to convey what you're saying?

Devon: That one is kind of different. I could answer that question based on something like "Mahalo" but "Midnight Lake Michigan" was not written. I wanted to go in and hang on the one forever and then direction the band through going through the five and then the four, like really raging it, and then coming back down really softly on the one. So it was just a pattern. There was no melodies written, there was nothing written. They hit record and we played that thing for nine-and-a-half minutes. Boom. One shot, done. Totally live. That was all improv, and you can tell that it is. It would be very hard to write some of the things that were played because they were very off-the-cuff and just kind of winging it.

Now, "Mahalo" was written around a melody. So once you start and you have a main melody, it would be like any song that had lyrics. Like we were talking about that one song, "Time Machine," that first line dictated the rest of the tune: "Come with me, let's take a ride." Okay, What's this ride? What are we doing? And then you kind of figure it out. So everything responds to that first line, that entry, that doorway. And it's the same with an instrumental: everything has to support that first main melody. Everything has to be a tributary off of that. It has to be complimentary and expand outward but then come back home to that main melody. That's how I view instrumentals. So it's not much different than songs with lyrics.

Songfacts: How do you know that the song doesn't need words?

Devon: In a song like "Mahalo," or some of the greats - "Flor D'Luna" by Santana, "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers - these songs don't need words because that lead guitar is doing the talking and the singing. It's a strong enough melody to stand on its own. Words over that wouldn't make sense because it's already doing the speaking.

Songfacts: Have you started writing for your next solo album?

Devon: Yeah, definitely. I've got the iPhone full of ideas. Should be interesting.

Songfacts: What kind of mood are you seeing come through?

Devon: I don't know if I want to give it away just yet because it could change, but as it stands now, I think that it will be a complete left-hand turn from where this record is right now, from Ragged & Dirty. A totally different record, and I think it's cool. I think if you're familiar with my body of work, there's always been these songs that made me stick out as a little different. Like on this record it's probably "Midnight Lake Michigan." On Space Age Blues, it's probably "New Pet Monkey." I think that those songs that are kind of trippy and mysterious and dark. That's a cool avenue to explore.

Songfacts: What are your plans for 2015?

Devon: Well, it's the first time that I'll have almost the whole year to tour solo so we're going to go all over the world and play Ragged & Dirty for people. It's a fun show. It has elements of everything from my career – my Honeytribe stuff, my Royal Southern Brotherhood stuff, my solo stuff, some surprises. It's really a chance for me to stretch out, so I'm really stoked for that. I'm going to start writing the new record and I'm going to start producing again. I've got a couple of artists that I'm looking at working with, so we'll see how that transpires. But just constant music, music, music.

Songfacts: What inspires you to keep going in this crazy rock and roll world?

Devon: It's art and people need art, so it's the people. There are people out there that love what I do and I like making them happy. I love to play. It's really that simple. I know it probably sounds lame but I just really like making people happy with music and bringing them together. Our little community of fans are all over the world and is a great community of people.

January 28, 2015. All photos by Leslie Michele Derrough.
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