On his latest release, Love You Anyway, Nashville-based singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Devon Gilfillian channels his musical inspirations and crafts an original sound while exploring themes of love, humanity, and acceptance. His soaring vocals and infectious grooves are a reaffirmation of the righteous joy that music can bring.
For this Acoustic Guitar Session in Place, Gilfillian performed unplugged versions of two songs from the new record: “All I Really Wanna Do” and the title track, “Love You Anyway.” I caught up with Gilfillian over Zoom to talk about his new album, how percussion influences his guitar playing, and how a riff on a parlor guitar turned into a fully-fledged funk anthem. —Joey Lusterman
I understand your dad is a percussionist, did growing up around drums and rhythm inform your guitar playing?
I definitely think about groove when I’m writing. The first thing that pops in my head is usually a melody. Then I’m thinking about the groove of a chord progression that would go along with that. I feel like drums and guitar are always linked together in my brain. I hear the drum beat and the chord progression and a guitar line all together, grooving off each other.
My dad was always in love with music that had rhythm and groove. Stevie Wonder was his North Star. Rhythm & blues, Motown, all that music that he was inspired by seeped into my inspirations, too.
You seem to be drawing from different roots of African-American music: soul, R&B, gospel, hip-hop. How did you find your own sound in music that’s rooted in these cultural traditions?
To me, it’s like cooking in a big way: finding the right ingredients that inspire you, but making your own dish that’s unique. I look to all of my inspirations, find the right ingredients, and put them together. I take some tones from afrobeat and funk, add them into rhythm & blues and soul, and sprinkle in some pop melodies to make it sweet. But it has to work; you can’t mix ice cream and black beans, you know? And if there isn’t that genuine appreciation of the ingredients, people can taste it. They’ll think “This is off!”
You’ve said that Jimi Hendrix sparked your obsession with guitar when you were a teenager. Can you point to something in Hendrix’s sound that is still with you now?
The first time I put Jimi into my headphones, it changed the way that sound was painted in my brain. But in general his playing stays with me; he was an insane rhythm player and he was a chameleon, playing with so many genres. He changed the way I heard music for sure.
For this Session in Place you did a solo acoustic version of “All I Really Wanna Do,” which is quite different than the track on the album.
Definitely, it has to be different. When you do an acoustic version of your song, you have to fill the space. It’s a different vibe without the bass line going, so I make the chords a little juicier, a little fatter. It’s also the campfire test: “When I strip it all down, is the song still doing what it should do?”
And you wrote that song on that acoustic guitar?
Yeah, I was in L.A., and I had a writing session with my buddy Ran Jackson. Before we got started, I was sitting with just my acoustic [a Martin 0-X1E Road Series] and my phone. I love that guitar; it’s parlor-sized, so it’s nice and snug and has a super-balanced, warm sound. So I just started playing that little guitar line [sings the main riff from the track] and recorded it as a voice memo. I took that to the studio and Ran looped the guitar part from my phone and I played drums over it. Ran came up with the bass line and it just all glued together perfectly. It was a fun process.
Going back to these two songs that are in the video, “All I Really Wanna Do” and “Love You Anyway,” they seem to be on opposite ends of spectrum in terms of subject matter and for lack of a better term, vibe.
I feel like I’m able to be fully myself on this album. I was able to reflect different parts of me: the love, the joy, the part of me that wants to have a good time and forget about the heavy, heavy, shit that’s happening in the world. But, also, I know we have to pay attention to the heavy shit. We gotta let people know that we’re here to fight the power. There is change that has to happen.
So, how do we build a bridge? Love You Anyway” is a song about loving people regardless of our political stances, so we can work together and have real conversations; so we can start holding politicians accountable. There are definitely bad guys out there that we gotta fight, but our neighbors are not the bad guy. And my neighbor might not yet understand how the world affects me, but I want to try and communicate instead of villainize. That’s what that song is about. And that fight is something I needed to bring to the album, but at the same time, I want to reflect the love and the joy that I have.