“Once you tell something to someone, and you put it out there in the universe, you’re free from it. When you say those words or you write them down, they no longer own you. They belong to the world then. So this is my whole hope with this book, is that as soon as it’s out there, those things aren’t mine anymore.”
When I spoke with Janet Devlin back at the end of May, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter was just about to release her third studio album, Confessional, as well as her debut autobiography, My Confessional.
Regarding the deeply personal nature of the book, which examines past battles with addiction, self-harm, heartbreak and more, she said, “I know it’s a lot, but it’s no different for me than going to confession; it’s exactly what I’d tell the priest, only the priest doesn’t have time to listen to me spew the book for so long.”
Removing the priest from the equation would also (in theory) eliminate the dreaded penance portion of a traditional Catholic confession, but Devlin certainly paid hers during the writing process, which, she admitted, was difficult at times.
“I definitely feel there were a few stories in the alcohol chapters where I just sat at my computer and thought, ‘Are we really gonna write this down?’ Some things I hadn’t even allowed myself to think about, because I’d had so much shame over having done them,” she said.
But she was also sure to always “do a bit of after-care after writing really heavy things, like I’d make sure to go for a walk, have a nice little sweet something to eat, just try and pick myself back up because it’s obviously an emotional roller coaster.”
The unflinching openness has paid off; as highly individual as Devlin’s story is, many have been able to identify with elements of her struggles. “I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said that I get hundreds of messages a day,” she told me. “Obviously I have to be really careful when I choose to engage with things like that, because there are days when I’ve got a lot going on on my own plate; I’ve got my own recovery to take seriously. But it means a lot, because when I was going through a lot of it, I felt very isolated. I felt like nobody was really talking about these things, or if they were, it seemed like they were still holding back the truth. And in a way, that makes you feel even more isolated; if somebody’s talking about something you’ve been through but they’re not really going into the nitty-gritty of it, you’re like, ‘Well, if you feel shame in talking about it, should I?’ So when I talk about the things I’ve been through, I really try my best to just be open and honest.”
Of course, Devlin is no stranger to honesty, especially when it comes to her online presence. “I’ve been posting on my YouTube channel since 2006, which is absolutely mental.”
This has undoubtedly given her a leg up during lockdown, at least when it comes to being comfortable engaging her audience virtually; many artists who are less digitally established have struggled to adapt to these unprecedented times. While Devlin agrees there’s no substitute for the live experience, she wants both artists and audiences to consider giving online performances a fair shake.
“I’m hoping that people embrace the online music world, and that they see it as an option. I think everybody should try at least one online show before this is over. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you, but just try it. I also hope people won’t take live music for granted when all this is over. I hope it reignites that fire in people, to make them want to go to live shows.”
And as more and more information comes to light about the projected course of the pandemic, it seems we will need to embrace digital alternatives for quite some time. As such, when the day comes that in-person gigs can return to normal, one would hope that none of us would take it for granted again. (Only time will tell.)
Fortunately it seems the curve ball logistics are less complicated when it comes to writing and recording new music, which can obviously be done and enjoyed from most anywhere.
“In lockdown all I’ve been doing is writing country songs. I want to do a country-bluegrass thing next; this album was so deep and personal, which was obviously amazing, and it was a mammoth task, but there’s something I really enjoy about simple bluegrass and country music. The simplicity is very soothing. So I’d just like to do a wee album like that; not too deep.”
And indeed that would be a departure from the new LP and its ultra-personal themes, although musically, a country-bluegrass vibe would (in some ways) similarly echo the instrumentation used on Confessional, which features elements of a traditional Irish sound; Devlin grew up playing in ceilidh bands and playing traditional Irish music, and so the return to roots felt very natural.
“Whenever I went to Dublin to record the traditional parts, I felt like I spoke the language; I was able to ask for specific things and actually speak the language of Irish traditional, which just felt really empowering. I’d never had access to that language before; I’d never dealt with traditional players since I was a kid, so it was nice to know I could still do it.”
And there was also a level of stylistic intentionality at play in the decision to incorporate a traditional Irish sound. As the product of an integrated school in Northern Ireland (which is still majoritively segregated into Catholic and Protestant schools), one could presume that Devlin has a natural tendency to see more potential in harmony than dissonance, even when it comes to her creative process. Specifically using Confessional as an example, she blended two seemingly opposing concepts to achieve greatly successful results. “When it came to making this album, it was obviously going to take a long time to be released, so I had to figure out a sound that wouldn’t age or date. By marrying elements of pop and contemporary with my traditional upbringing, I felt like it would give me an individual sound, but also would still be able to pass as contemporary music.”
The resulting body of work feels definitively timeless (which oddly couldn’t be more appropriate in 2020, a year where our collective concept of time has been completely flipped on its head); there’s certainly something to be said for seeking middle ground between opposing ideas when it comes to establishing lasting effects. There’s also something to be said for taking an honest look into one’s past in order to move forward, and Devlin certainly does that with both Confessional and My Confessional; regardless of what happens in these increasingly uncertain times, it seems she’s got nowhere to go but up.