Inside the Musical Mind of Sean Devine
Sean Devine’s gift to the world is a sliver of sanctuary amidst the chaos of real life. His songs have been crafted to stir, console, and comfort, the Livingston musician having long ago realized that his musical compositions would become destinations for understanding, commiseration, and empathy. There are no unseen procedures in his line of attack; he arrives with a guitar at a spot where folks converge to share his need.
“There is still an implicit mandate that exists for me to make art,” says Devine. “I feel as if it must be witnessed. It’s similar to if you paint a picture, the picture needs to be seen. I’ve always wanted the songs to be heard. If you have any question about the importance of art in your life, remove all art from your life for a week. No music. No painting. No movies. Nothing. Take it all away, and see how desolate that feels.”
Sean Devine has been a singer-songwriter in some varying capacity for as long as he can recall: putting his soul on the page, running the risk that someone is going to stomp on it; building up a bit of a tough skin.
After decades of constructing the puzzle and crafting the clues, the artist within has arrived at a better and more honest place. Indeed, what makes Sean one of the most appealing singer-songwriters in Montana is his patience (Austin Blues, from 2015, brings to light his finest work). He will touch upon the tinkering and noodle over the word or phrase to get to where its heart is. He will bat around cutting great swaths, sometimes, and move things around, whatever it takes to unearth a song that needs to be told. They don’t all have to be created as joyful waves of sunshine, but they have to be engaging and interesting.
“The singer-songwriter, the guitar and the song, that tends to work better for me in smaller rooms with intimate audiences. There are some fragments left on the national scene of nightclubs and venues that are all about that, and so what I understand is that those are the places where I need to be playing my songs. I’ve spent 30 years on the scene, of playing every $100 dollar gig that I could get my hands on, and been through the necessity of earning my stripes. But you also have to pick your battles.”
In order to make his songs genuinely shine, Devine understands that he can’t be playing in a loud room where nobody is going to hear him and expect to progress in his career as an artist.
“You won’t build an audience playing in a sports bar underneath a television set with the sound turned off,” says Devine. “And sometimes the sound turned off comes to be the best-case scenario."
"There are places that don’t care about music at all. Places where it’s just a facet of the bar business that will generate income, like a pool table, or having video game equipment, or TVs tuned to MMA fighting while I’m in the corner of the bar singing my heart out. It’s exactly like pissing in the wind,” adds Devine
Part of Devine’s solution is to be heard in the right type of environment that best matches his music, or “authentic settings on the troubadour’s circuit,” as he calls them. On a recent night at the Magnolia Motor Lodge in Fort Worth, Texas, the Montana Press Monthly met up with Sean during part of a recent two-week road tour across The Lone Star State.
“Texas has a robust culture of songwriting,” says Devine. “You could be in a coffee shop in Texas and at any given time someone will talk to you about their favorite singer-songwriters, their parents’ favorite singers. There is a generational pride and a regional pride to it and people in Texas seriously revere their songwriters. I feel as if I bring them a song that’s worthy, that they will embrace it, too.”
It’s not the size of the venue that counts most to Devine, but the level of engagement therein, since any number of people listening to an hour set about the trifles of daily life is a victory.
“People gathered for the reason or purpose of listening, who want to be touched: that’s powerful,” says Devine. “Then it doesn’t matter if it’s 30 people in a coffee house in Iowa, then it works as essential communication.”
Songs come from a mysterious and cathartic place in Sean’s psyche. What he writes and what he says reveals reams about him. Song writing allows him the illusion of understanding, of control. Although it’s a treatment rather than a cure; the illusion lasts only as long as he is immersed in the act of writing and performing. But to focus only on the artist is to overlook the shared continual experience of the work.
“The songs have been helped into the world to become a thing and to convey the human experience, emotions, feelings, thoughts, and recollections. If I’m doing my job right then I’m getting them down and out in front of people. How do you receive the song? I don’t pretend to understand that part. It’s none of my business. It’s your song, you internalize it, and its awakening your memories and it’s there for you to sort out your experiences of life. It becomes your song. That’s what it’s there for.”
The songwriter in Sean still struggles with the unpredictability of true craft. He knows that in real life there are no clear-cut solutions, no neatly tied parcels of right answers. What is the songwriter’s duty to mankind?
“I don’t want it to be hokey or corny,” says Devine. “The tinkering and fashioning process, that’s fun, and it causes my mind to rise to it and to be thinking from a higher plain…it’s an incomparable feeling, like goose bumps, the hair-raising feeling of a thing that’s trying to come into being. It’s those moments when I feel like I’ve been chosen to be the vessel or conduit for that thing that wants to come into being. I try to stay faithful to the thing itself that’s playing in my head…I’ve learned how important it is to make a song, but more importantly how to stay out of the way of one. Not to diminish it by trying to tinker and analyze it and make it a small thing. To trust that the experience is valid and the experience was what it was meant to be.”
At 50, life is bright for Sean Devine. He’s persnickety about his work but he doesn’t have to force himself to do it. He has endured major hardships (divorces, the loss of a child) and emotional obstacles (the perfect clarity of hindsight, the allure of the green grass over yonder), but all of them have forced him to be more disciplined and made him stronger at even the most broken places. He’s in the music game full-time following many busy years of work as a contractor. While he still works as a contractor of wetlands and ponds projects, it’s more pleasurable and less time-consuming work that it formerly was, he says. It’s not a stretch to say that he has sung and narrated himself toward understanding, balance.
“I don’t wonder or worry anymore that I’m making a fool of myself,” says Devine. “That song - that’s what I was meant to do.”
Sean is pragmatic enough to bear in mind that his career as a musician may not get easier. But he is also plodding and methodical, able to breathe in the throes of what at times feels daunting – the never-ending challenge of not just creating the art but attracting the audience.
When he plays one of his best songs, like “Long Way to Go,” his crisp lyrics and vocals carry us vividly through his characters’ days and nights. And that’s the gift of Sean Devine: the surety that the stories are real, and the weight that lived experience imparts to narrative. It’s a present from him for you to recognize the value of and unravel.
“My music is like being read to as a child. While it’s my music, it’s going on in your head, and it’s your own story, your own trip, it’s interpersonal. In a larger, wilder room, then it’s the opposite experience. If you are sloshing beer and yelling, you are missing the show, and the show is supposed to be interpersonal. It can be intense and cathartic if you let it.”
After an extensive tour of Texas and the Midwest, Devine returned to Montana this past December and produced a series of Montana concerts in Lewistown, Big Timber and Livingston. The concerts were presented to “crowdfund” the finish work on Devine’s new album, Here For It All, which was recorded at Sonic Ranch outside El Paso, TX in June 2019.
Sean headlined the shows which featured Montana musicians such as Sara Horvath and Stephanie Jean, Quenby Iandiorio, Jessica Eve, Jad Souza, Melissa Forrette, Lee Calvin and Haeli Allen. He is constantly in motion, playing solo or accompanying or accompanied by various musical stylings. For an update on his touring schedule or to hear some of his work, check out the Sean Devine page on Facebook.