Image by Paul Curreri
Born in Kingston, Ontario but permanently based Charlottesville, Virginia following stints living in Austin and Berlin, Devon Sproule weaves a folk spun magic with her arresting, lyrical compositions and a soaring, subtly-accented voice that has enchanted a fan base the world over. Having recently released her first album in almost four years, The Golden Thread, and with a European tour that sees her playing Newcastle looming, I spoke to Devon Sproule about communal living, making art, and life as a musician.
Having grown up in a commune, it seems safe to say that Sproule has a perspective on community and cooperation that far exceeds your average folk musician. Sproule informs me, “I think living at Twin Oaks [a commune in Virginia] de-emphasized the importance of money-earning, for better or worse! I guess the better would be that I’m pretty okay living without a whole lot of money. The worse is that I don’t worry too much about it, so I don’t always push myself to do it. But certainly, there was a ton of creative encouragement there. And lots of exposure to art of all kinds. Even more so, maybe, having lots of energetic and creative people doing childcare, so just lots of positive stimulation.”
As such, the environment she works in has often had a pivotal impact on the work she produces. Discussing her previous two albums, 2011’s I Love You, Go Easy and 2013’s Colours, she reminisces about the process of moving to Canada to record these albums. “I had to muster some guts the first time I went north to record I Love You, Go Easy. I didn’t know anyone and was definitely nervous. But then I loved the place and the people and so I went back for another, and that became Colours.”
For her new album The Golden Thread, Sproule returned to Canada but chose to record the album in three different locations – Yukon, Ontario, and Nova Scotia – and also to augment the album with sessions in the Shetland Islands. It’s a process that’s resulted in a concise but dream-like work, with Sproule’s North American roots music suffused with a strangeness and expanded scope that makes it all the more powerful.
I guess sometimes after I make a record I need a long break from it
The travels she took to produce the album find themselves reflected in a set of lyrics that deal with a more existential, imagined form of wanderlust. Discussing her lyrics, Sproule says, “it’s fun to try to show people to a new place via descriptive lyrics. Sometimes that place is where I am when I’m writing, but often it’s places I’ve been that I want to revisit. I don’t know if other people are this way, but a lot of my dreams take place where I grew up. It’s already a kind of surreal place, Twin Oaks, and in dreams even more so. Those images often make it in too.”
It’s an album that took some time to emerge though, as Sproule wrestled with how to balance the practicalities of recording and releasing a record in this fragmentary age with more immediate concerns and duties. “I think the real reason I’ve been slow to put out another record isn’t really because of the changes in the music business. It’s more that I’ve been doing other things,” she explains. “When I lived in Austin, I took sign language classes and went on a lot of bird walks and also started thinking about having kids, and I helped some friends have their kids. I guess sometimes after I make a record I need a long break from it.”
“Making art is a great education, but not necessarily professionally. Sometimes doing it for money sort of waters it down, or exhausts you. And I really admire people who change careers. Unfortunately, I don’t have really have any other employable skills besides music though, so besides teaching music – which I also love – I haven’t really been making much money in the meantime. And I do really, really love touring. I’m just not great at music business stuff, and not highly organised. So that slows it down too. Luckily, in England, I have some great help through Tin Angel Records. So that’s why I get to keep coming back.”
Turning to her upcoming tour then, Sproule makes clear her preference for intimate, theatrical venues like the Cluny 2 to bring the audience and the artist closer together. “Generally I prefer theatres or clubs, yeah. Once in a while, an outdoor show will have great sound and the audience will be close and keyed in. It just makes such a big difference when people are involved, and when you can feel that involvement.”
She’s also enthusiastic about the other musicians joining her touring party for the trip. “A label mate of mine called Baby Copperhead is opening the shows – the guy’s name is Ben and I’m hoping maybe we can sing and play some together. There’s also two fellows named Rory Haye and Chris Cindy who will be with us. I’ve played with Chris but not Rory, and I’m excited about both.” Indeed, towards the end of our conversation she even teases the possibility of one very special collaboration. “I told Rory I was thinking about covering the Carpenters’ version of Leon Russell’s Superstar and he said, coincidentally, that he’s just been working on an arrangement of a Carpenters song with the choir he leads!” As always with Sproule, it’s her evident enthusiasm for collaboration, communication and art that makes her such a distinct and important musician.
Devon Sproule plays Cluny 2 on Friday 31st March. The Golden Thread is out Friday 24th March on Tin Angel Records.