“It’s going to be a crazy year,” Devon Allman says with a smile as he works on his guitar before his show in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve. Starting the year off with a bang with his bandmates in Royal Southern Brotherhood, Allman has been touring almost non-stop since. But we were able to catch the young blues man on a rare day at home in St Louis, fresh from the Rock Legends Cruise, to talk about his new solo album, which officially premiers tomorrow, February 12. Titled Turquoise, it has a fun Caribbean vibe amidst some of Allman’s most honest and biographical lyrics to date. Not as bluesy as his previous work in Honeytribe, Allman takes a more singer-songwriter approach this time around. With the focus on his new record, MY ROOTS delved into the heart of Allman’s musical opus.
Why put out a solo album right now when you already have both Honeytribe and Royal Southern Brotherhood? Why go solo?
Well, I guess it does seem like yet another iron in the fire to people but I think anybody that kind of knows what I’ve been doing intimately over the last ten or fifteen years would realize it’s probably kind of long overdue. With Honeytribe, the name of the band really reflected it’s approach to music, which was sweet like honey and fierce like a tribe; really kick you in the teeth one minute and then really soft. And dynamics were key to that. I always wanted to do a record that had no dynamics: here is a song, it’s not going to be brought down to a whisper and it’s not going to be heavy; it’s just going to be a song. Kind of like Tom Petty songs, you know. They’re just one even keel. So when I wrote my songs that ended up on the Royal album [released in 2012], I really tapped into that mode of songwriting for the first time in my career. For the first time in my career I wasn’t writing for the Honeytribe blueprint. It was just kind of wide open. When I wrote “Left My Heart In Memphis,” I kind of felt like there was more of a mature rendering of what I offer and I was like, you know, I think it’s time to really do a record of songs.
So you don’t think that will kill the momentum of your other bands?
No, no. For one thing, Honeytribe was a band for ten years and that’s an established brand that whenever I choose to resuscitate it or not, it’s always going to have it’s people. We worked real hard for those fans. Royal Southern Brotherhood is an extravaganza. It is a combination of multiple careers and that’s everyone’s priority. So the Devon Allman record is not coming out to compete against Royal, it’s coming out to be within the Royal family and push that entire brand forward. The whole concept of Royal Southern Brotherhood was to create an umbrella to which Cyril and me and Mike Zito can be a part of so that from the Royal family, so to speak, every three or four months, you’re going to get a new release: you’re going to get a Cyril record and then a Royal live record and then a Devon solo record and then a Royal studio record and then a Mike record. It just became a family and family comes first. We’re just lucky enough to be able to release solo records within that family.
One of the things I found interesting about the packaging of your CD is that you tell a little story about each song in the notes. When you were making Space Age Blues with Honeytribe, you took the fans into the studio with you by doing little video snippets. So here again you are giving the fans another little inside peek into your creativity and keeping them a part of it. You just did it a little differently.
Yeah, I did do it a little different this time. There is a very cool thing about bringing fans into the studio but, man, it took a lot of my time. I would finish a twelve-hour session, and I was the producer of that record, of Space Age Blues, and then I would kind of have to edit together a video clip and get it posted up and all that. But this time I was like, I really need to work on my songs and not like bring people with me. So since I kind of didn’t bring anybody into the studio, it was just a lot more private and closed off. I figured it would be cooler than printing the lyrics to go ahead and print where the idea of the song, since it’s such a song-based record and a lot of the songs are personal, just to kind of provide a little background on the songs.
But it still keeps fans a part of it, like they know a secret.
Yeah, like they kind of got the inside track. Like they’re sitting with me having a coffee and I’m going, “Hey man, it’s funny, this song was written at soundcheck in San Diego” or whatever the case may be. I always liked having a little insight on things. I’m still, to this day, I’m so grateful for things like Google or Wikipedia where I can go, man, I love that Stones record Goats Head Soup. Where was that recorded? And who wrote “Hide Your Love?” And who played on that? I geek out on that stuff. If I can provide any glimpse into the process in nice little bursts, that’s a good thing.
One of the little differences I noticed between your solo CD and Space Age Blues was that this one has an almost Caribbean soul vibe to it where Space Age Blues had more of a variety of songs. Turquoise has a whole different feel to it yet it all seems to fit together.
You know you always hope that for any album you do that you try and strike a balance. You don’t want ten songs that sound exactly the same but you don’t want songs that are just totally all over the place. You want stuff that maintains a balance of cohesion and a little exploration and you hope that the common thread is the sound of the voice or the sound of the guitar or whatever the feature instrument may be. For this one, I love the beach and I love kind of earthy rock with flourishes of country and blues and soul. So it really feels like for the first time that this record is just really me. And yeah, I love the Caribbean, I love the music and the vibe and the culture and all that. There’s a little taste of it for sure.
Why bring in producer Jim Gaines? You produced your last Honeytribe CD so why did you want his influence on this one, especially since he had just produced the Royal CD?
When I went in to make the Royal CD, they go, we got five days at Dockside Studios. And I swore everyone was absolutely insane. I said, “I don’t understand how you expect to make an album in five days. I spent thirty days in Ardent Studios making Space Age Blues and I was the producer.” “Oh no, man, this should go pretty quick.” I’m like, Ok, but I think I still insisted they book a few more days at another studio for any guitar overdubs or whatever. The process went four days and I was the insane one and it made me really rethink everything. But in the midst of that, Jim Gaines is a legend. I mean, “Fly Like An Eagle,” Stevie Ray Vaughan albums and the guitar tones he got on those, Santana records he’s worked on. I mean, his body of work is jaw-droppingly brilliant and he remains a good ole boy from Tennessee and can sit down on a back patio and have lunch with and laugh about random shit with. And he very much became a mentor and like an uncle to me. He made me believe in myself more than I ever did before I made that Royal record. He really helped me go to a new level and gave me the confidence. So based on all of that love, I had to have him for my solo record. He’s like the cool football coach that you always wish you had when all the other ones were just asshole tyrants. He’s the guy that is like, “Man, you’re playing great” and he celebrates your strengths and he is an amazing man.
I’m sure you learned a lot more about producing, which will help when you produce again.
Yes, absolutely, and that has always been a passion of mine. So I can’t wait to produce a record for someone else. I like having a producer for me but I can’t wait to produce someone else.
Have you got any in the works?
I do have one that I’m sniffing around but I’m sure in the next year or two I will have put a couple more notches on the producer belt.
You’ve said that these are songwriter songs and they are very personal. I found that they were very confessional without being arrogant.
Good (laughs) I try to stay humble
Let’s talk about a few of the new songs. The lead-off tune, “When I Left Home,” you kind of go through your history.
Yeah, that was an important song to kind of launch the idea of this record because it’s true, you know, I left home a week into my Senior year. The night that I signed out of school, I flew to New York City to go on tour with my dad and learn about the music industry and see if I wanted to really do this. Left my girlfriend and I left everything. Friends thought I was an asshole, like I had turned into some rich rock star kid overnight. And I was kind of looking back over my life and it’s like, that was twenty years ago and I’m still doing it. I’m so blessed. I never thought I would amount to shit. And that’s where that song is. It’s not a pat on the back because obviously I’m not big like Eric Clapton. I mean, I make a great living, I make a lot of people happy and I travel the world and I play my guitar. I’m kind of looking back to that moment when I left home and I was like, shit, this is great (laughs). So it’s a celebration of persistence.
What about “Time Machine”?
Well, it’s a three chord song; it’s a C minor, D minor, G minor. Very, very, very simple and that one was not ready when I went in to make this record. We were laying down basic tracks and I said, man, I got this thing with this nice progression that is very simple, now let me see if I can arrange it real quick and we’ll just record it and if I happen to come up with words then at least we have it. So we did and I got a CD copy and I put it down to my iPod and I would run every morning, do like a two mile run before the session, just way off out in the country. And I started figuring out, I’m going to have to really write words to that because I need enough material for this record. And I would just run and play it over and over and over and over again.
And, I don’t know, the first two lines fell out of the sky. I mean, literally, I was running and I started singing, “Come with me, let’s take a ride, through the best years of your life.” Those words were a gift. They fell in my lap. And I was like, wow. So maybe in this song I can be the narrator of like taking you through your life, the best parts. In music they call that greatest hits and in the movies it’s your most memorable scenes. What about the greatest hits of your life? And the most memorable scenes of your life? And I started going through all this and I was like, this is like a time machine going back and looking at your life. And then the concept hit and I tell you what, I ran back so fast. I mean, I sprinted a mile and a half and I sat down totally winded and just started scribbling and scribbling and scribbling, like a madman. Truly, just to try and get all this shit out and, once you open that door, you don’t know how damn long the door’s open. And the song wrote itself in five minutes. And every lyric that you see there is that madness of that door being open and going, holy shit, write it down, write it down faster. I’m real happy with that one. It was a gift; really, really a gift. And I think anyone can relate to it: people that turn thirty and forty and fifty and have kids and look back on life. That will probably be one that I will always be proud of.
Tell us about “There’s No Time.”
That one was written by a kid that I want to produce, Tyler Stokes. He’s nineteen years old. He used to be my neighbor and he would come around the Honeytribe rehearsals when he was like twelve, thinking like we were bad asses cause we all played rock and roll. And he was just a kid and he would just come around. I ended up giving him, I think, two guitars out of my collection cause he kept just getting better and better and better. And I always supported him. There hit a point where he went light years beyond me. Like he does jazz scales and all this crazy stuff and now he’s just really an awesome talent. He’s at college and I pretty much manage his career without it being official, because if something happens better for him, someone that has more time, I want him to be able to go to that. I’m just kind of getting him going right now.
But we were looking at songs for his first record and he’s sending me thirty or forty or fifty songs and one popped up and I was like, “Man, this one fits the vibe of my record. If you’re with it, I’ll take it, I’ll make it my own, of course you’re going to get your songwriting credit, and then you’ll have a published song out there before you even release a record.” And he’s like, “Yes, that’s great.” So I think once the people out there hear his record, they’re going to see that’s where it came from. But the theme is something that anyone can relate to: taking love to another level, the commitment. I think I wrote the second verse and just tried to stay with the theme so it ended up being a co-write. But he’s a great young writer. He’s got a band called Delta Sol Revival. It’s good stuff.
You do a duet, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” with Samantha Fish. How did that come about?
Samantha Fish is a modern blues rock artist. She has been out for a few years. She is quite big in Europe. She is on Ruf Records, just as we are. She just won Best New Artist at the Blues Music Awards. And just like Susan Tedeschi was kind of tagged the new Bonnie Raitt, I think that Samantha is the new Susan Tedeschi. She’s a bad ass, she’s a dear friend and just a crazy talent. And I’ve always liked that song – I’ve always liked Tom Petty – and I always had that idea in my back pocket for twelve years. Someday on some record, I want to find the right chick that’s at the right point in her career that’s got the right skills and the right voice and I want to do that song. I really want to do it a little slower than the original, a little sexier than the original and a little bluesier than the original. And it was the perfect thing. I told her about the idea backstage at a festival that we were both playing and she was like, “Oh, man, Tom Petty is one of my favorites and I could sing the shit out of that song.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, you go home, grab an acoustic, turn on your iPhone and just record me a minute of you singing that song cause I need to hear it and I need to know. You need to sell me on it.” And she was like, “No problem.” I think I had that little snippet recording in practically a day and a half (laughs) and I was like, “Oh shit, man, she’s going to rule.” So it was fantastic to go do that with her and we’re going to shoot a real deal big time music video for it and cross our fingers that it gets some airplay and all that. I think it’s great when you can kind of cross pollinate and join forces and do something unique.
You reference Tom Petty a couple of times on this album.
You know, I did that in the one song because it kind of ties it all together. When I was thinking of the blueprints of this record, of what I wanted it to be like, I kind of kept coming back to him in terms of bluesy, a little rock, a little country, a little soul, just songs, you know. And then he found his way into the lyric [of “Don’t Set Me Free”] as well. Like I said, it kind of ties it all together.
You have Ron Holloway playing saxophone on “Into The Darkness.” It’s really cool how he intros the song and it gives it that whole soul-like vibe. How did you get him again?
Well, I had the song written and that melody that starts the song off, I had the melody on guitar and so it was just going to be a guitar melody and a guitar solo, just a normal guitar-based soul song. And that’s the one song where I really kind of let my Curtis Mayfield influence kind of come out. The more I heard that melody, I was like, this would be way better with saxophone. He’s a friend and he played on Space Age Blues and I said, “Hey, Man, I know you’re busy and stuff but I got one song screaming for the sax and I’d love to have you on it.” And he made it work. He flew in to Memphis and got in at 10:00 am and laid his part down and flew out of Memphis that afternoon. He literally flew in, came in the studio, spent a couple of hours and flew out. And I’m pretty grateful that he took that time to do that. It ups the level of sophistication of that song and consequently the record when you have a world-class cat like that come in and put the music out there.
You wrote a beautiful instrumental for your girlfriend called “Yadira’s Lullaby.”
Thank you. That one is definitely designed for her. She puts up with a lot of me kind of being all over the place and touring the world and the story is in the liner notes. I would Skype with her to tell her good-night and I surprised her with this new guitar I had gotten and I wrote that on the spot for her. Thankfully, it was kind of catchy enough for me to remember it. For multiple nights I would put her to bed with her special little lullaby that I wrote for her. It became part of the live show and people would really kind of freak out on this cool-looking cigar box guitar and it was a nice different slant to the show. And I’m very grateful for her being accepting of my life and I’m very grateful that she is such a positive muse-type of person in my life.
The last time we did a big interview was in 2010. What has been the biggest change in your life since then?
I would say definitely having Royal Southern Brotherhood go from a concept discussed in an email to a full-fledged international touring band with a Blues Music Award nomination and being a viable brand this quickly. It was an email idea back then and it now plays in over twenty countries, dozens of festivals and in just a short time has just really branded itself very, very well. When I was making Space Age Blues, it wasn’t even an idea yet. I’m just very grateful that in such a short amount of time, that’s definitely the biggest thing to happen in the last couple of years.
Whose idea was it?
Rueben Williams our manager. It was really more than anything, a discussion of, man, I wonder why the Allman Brothers and the Neville Brothers never jammed or toured together? You got these two famous Southern musical families. Why didn’t they ever do anything? And him going, “Well, shit, I manage Devon Allman and I manage Cyril Neville, let’s put them together and see what happens.” And here we are.
You have a hot sauce, I hear.
I do. I love to cook, first of all, and sauces have always been a favorite of mine, sauces and marinades, because obviously when you cook that’s where the real flavor is. So I joined forces with a hot sauce company out of New Jersey and this guy is really good at making these sauces and we dialed one in to what I like and we’ve been marketing the sauce ever since. It sells very well. It just won a national hot pepper award for number one in the chipotle category. It’s available online at http://borntohula.com. I always sell them at shows. We’re starting to sell them at venues that I play in. So slowly but surely we’re really making an impact with the sauce. It’s been a great endeavor to have that I’m able to run it in tandem with my career but it’s not a musical endeavor, it’s a culinary endeavor, and it’s nice.
You played your Uncle Duane’s guitar the other night in Macon during a Royal show. That must have been very exciting.
It was unreal. There is a definitive energy that is emanating off of that guitar. I can feel it. I know that sounds real hocus pocus new wave bullshit but it’s true. It has a vibe and I got to play it at the Beacon Theatre last year, or two years ago maybe, and that was incredible but the other night I got to play it for the whole show and that was amazing.
You had Curtis Mayfield tattooed on your arm not long ago. He must be incredibly inspirational to you. Tell us why.
Oh man, I tell you what, whenever I hear his music I’m instantly good. It’s like instant spiritual medicine. It’s so true and that’s why I had absolutely no hesitation about having his image tattooed on me permanently. I wear it with pride. I have every record he ever made and, I don’t know, there was something about him. He was just so pure and such a writer and vocalist and such a good human being. He’s probably my biggest hero.
What have you got planned for this year?
2013 is an important year for me. I think I’ll look back on it as being probably my busiest. Royal is in it’s second year of existence so we’ve kind of gone out there and shown people what we are. Now it’s time to take it to a new level and get the band even tighter and get the shows even more multi-dimensional. We’ve got a live album and DVD that comes out in May. I’ve got Turquoise that comes out in February. Am going to be touring with both projects all year all over the globe: Australia, Europe, there’s been talk of Japan and hopefully that comes through, all over America. So it’s another year of really, really going for it. Then 2014 will be the same. There will be another Devon Allman record, another Royal Southern Brotherhood studio record. Maybe in 2015, maybe, maybe I’ll take a month off for myself (laughs).
Last question: When you get to be your dad’s age and you look back on your career, what do you hope you will have accomplished?
I don’t know (laughs) I’d love to have been able to have pushed it further, played in more countries, done more collaborations; have the vision to make a certain type of record and actually be able to do it. Just kind of keep on keeping on and make people happy with music. If I can just do that, perpetuate what I’m already doing and learn and grow, then life is good.
To read more about Devon Allman, check out my in-depth interview with him from 2010.