evon Gilfillian is curious by nature and finds joy in unraveling the intricacies of human understanding. It’s why the Morton, Pennsylvania, native obtained a degree in psychology from West Chester University.
He previously told the West Chester Alumni Association, “I studied psychology because I was fascinated with human behavior and how the brain worked and functioned. I also wanted to be able to identify my own neurosis and the neurosis of the people around me.”
Even though Gilfillian ultimately went on to pursue his music career, he still applied what he learned in psychology to help him explore human behavior through his art.
“I use it to understand people more as best as I can and empathize with people on a deeper level,” Gilfillian tells Rated R&B over a video call. He continues, “I feel like studying psychology has also helped me with knowing my emotions and how to deal with them.”
It’s a rainy May afternoon, and Gilfillian is chilling in his hotel in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. He has a gig later in the evening as an opening act for Grace Potter.
The Nashville-based artist is touring to support his sophomore album, Love You Anyway, released April 7 via Fantasy Records. The genre-expanding album is like a flavorful Sunday dinner, offering served with a delicious mix of soulful melodies, heartfelt lyrics and exquisite instrumentation.
As the album’s title suggests, every song is informed by a facet of love. Listeners are encouraged to be open to giving and receiving love, with tracks like the irresistible “All I Really Wanna Do,” now available with a Sunrise Mix and soon-to-be Sunset Mix. Lyrically, the song highlights Gilfillian’s exhilarating journey of embarking on a new relationship.
The intoxicating “Right Kind of Crazy” further probes the depth of love, as Gilfillian finds himself hooked on a partner. “The Recipe” is a flirtatious groove that hears Gilfillian indulging in a tasty dessert in the bedroom, while the Janice-assisted “Brown Sugar Queen” is a sweet ode to Black and brown women.
Love You Anyway embodies Black joy through the lens of a Black millennial living in America. While the album is bright as Gilfillian’s radiant smile, it also illuminates the injustice in America. “Let The Water Flow” is a gospel-infused response to voter suppression.
In Gilfillian’s message, he asks for divine help to give folks on the ground the sustenance needed to keep fighting against the tactics used to deter them from exercising their constitutional right to vote. “Let the water flow to Georgia / Like sweet rain in the southern heat / One day we’ll find freedom,” Gilfillian sings, along with a choir, over a piano accentuated with reverent handclaps and resounding foot-stomps.
The antepenultimate “Righteous” is Gilfillian’s attempt to extend an olive branch to folks he may disagree with politically, to find common ground. He vows to spread love to all even if he doesn’t get it back in return. Gilfillian’s guitar-laden finale is a powerful declaration of his unshakeable Black joy, which he protects with love. He sings, “We’re all broken / Cracks in our hearts / Let hope in / Light in the dark / And I’m gonna love you anyway.”
In Rated R&B’s interview with Devon Gilfillian, the singer-songwriter and musician discusses his early beginnings, his decision to relocate to Nashville and unpacks some tracks from Love You Anyway.
What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
It’s funny, my daddy tried to get me to play piano when I was 12. I was just like, “This is wack. I don’t wanna do this” (laughs). I was like probably like 13 or 14 when my friend Steve Kennedy played guitar and the movie School of Rock with Jack Black had just come out. I watched that and was like, “Man, maybe guitar is what I want to pick up.” So my dad was like, “All right” and got me an acoustic electric Ibanez guitar.
You graduated from West Chester University with a degree in psychology. Was that once a passion or was it a backup plan for music?
At first, it was like a backup kind of deal. I was between psychology and history. I would’ve went to Temple to study history, but I ended up getting accepted to West Chester University in Pennsylvania. I really wanted to understand why my family was so crazy, why I’m so crazy and why everybody’s crazy (laughs), and just trying to understand myself more and humans on a deeper level. I was flirting with the idea of music therapy, but I really wanted to be a musician. That was always the goal: to get on stage and to do the damn thing and make music.
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You relocated from Philadelphia to Nashville nearly 10 years ago. What attracted you to that city and what was your experience early on?
[After] I graduated from West Chester [University], I was like, “What am I gonna do? How am I gonna make music, pay back my student loans, get a job somewhere and juggle all these things?” My friends did AmeriCorps and was like, “Man, AmeriCorps is cool as sh*t. Why don’t I go somewhere in [a] musical city?” I got accepted into a program in Nashville called Rebuilding Together, similar to Habitat for Humanity.
When I moved down there, I learned a lot. I learned that there’s amazing country music. There’s the Willie Nelsons, but now there’s Margo Price, there’s Sturgill Simpson [and other] cats out there doing some cool stuff. I’ve also learned the scene is diversifying. I found the jazz and R&B scene that was there. This guy, Jason Eskridge, was curating Soul Night every other Sunday at The 5 Spot. So I found my little community. It’s growing and getting cooler. I’m happy for that.
You mentioned your new album Love You Anyway represents Black joy. What does Black joy mean to you?
It’s feeling no bit of sorrow and unapologetically expressing my happiness, which is me falling in love, having a good time, learning to love myself, making love and spreading that love. Over the pandemic, I started therapy. I was trying to figure myself out [and] learn how to love myself better. It’s pretty taboo not only in men’s culture but also in Black culture. I want it to be normalized that going to therapy and learning how to love yourself is essential. We’re humans. We fall in love, want to make love, and want to do all these things that are part of life. I wanted that to be portrayed in the album. I wanted people to focus on love and joy as well as the importance of what the f**k is going on in this country — the attacks on our democracy that are happening.
How do you balance the Black joy you want to exude in your music with the more politically-charged songs?
I love that question. I have become very political since [former President Barack] Obama got in office. I was like, “Hell yeah, let’s f***ing get to the polls and vote.” Now, it’s even scarier times. My eyes have been opening up more and seeing everything that’s happening; that affects me directly and in my heart. As an artist, if there’s something hitting you hard and it’s happening in the world, you should put it into your art. Your art is a reflection of your life, and what’s happening in our lives is what connects us to each other.
You open the album with “All I Really Wanna Do,” which hit the top 10 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart. What’s the story behind that song?
I started writing it in 2018 with my buddy Ran Jackson. We put it down and I knew I wanted to do something with it eventually. One drunken night, I was out with Ran and my buddy Henry Brill came along. They were having this songwriter ego moment of like, “I can write a better song than you.” And he was like, “Alright, let’s go and write some songs.” We went back to my house and pulled up “All I Really Wanna Do.” Henry just started blurting out lines and we’re like, “Okay, we gotta finish the song.” We put it down and eventually flew out to LA to Ran’s place and got it. I’m so glad we got it to the finish line. The song is about the opportunities of love that you’re presented with, finding someone and being like, “Wow, this person accepts me for my weird ass self. Let’s see where this goes.”
What’s the inspiration behind “Right Kind of Crazy”?
Me, Ran Jackson and Henry [Brill] wrote that as well. Songs sometimes just come out of our conversations. We were talking about relationships and going to therapy. I’m like, “Man, I can’t do this if you’re not going to go to therapy. I’m so over dating people that aren’t doing the work and self-reflecting.” And I think I said something like, “I just want the right kind of crazy,” (laughs). Henry was like, “That’s it! That’s the title.” I love that song because it’s R&B and it’s soul, but it’s rock and roll, gritty, and weird, which I love.
“Let The Water Flow” is a standout moment on the album. What was your intent with that song?
That song came from my frustrations with the election process, specifically in Georgia, but throughout this country, and how hard it is for people to get their voices heard. Brian Kemp was passing laws, making it illegal to pass water and food out to people standing in line to vote and just other bullsh*t laws making hoops for people to jump through to get to vote. That pissed me off and I was like, “I wanna write a song [about] everything happening right now and also touch on how hard it has been for Black people to get their voices heard in this country.”
You titled the album after the closing track, “Love You Anyway.” What’s the significance behind this song?
I wanted to punctuate the album with that song because it holds onto that optimism that we can come together and figure out how to hold these politicians accountable. This song came from me being pissed off at my nana that she voted for Trump and not understanding like, “How do you have a Black grandson and all these mixed grandchildren and not see this guy is evil?” He’s the worst — him and Ron DeSantis. They don’t care about us. I was villainizing everybody that voted for Trump. I have friends and family that, unfortunately, did vote for Trump and do vote Republican. We can’t villainize each other if we’re gonna get to any middle ground. We want to get the equity and the normal sh*t that we deserve. We’re not gonna get there if we say, “This person voted for this person. F**k them.” We have to listen and hear each other. When people feel heard, that’s when people open up.
What do you want people to take away from Love You Anyway?
I would love [for] it to open people up to conversations — hard conversations, political conversations, religious conversations, all conversations that are uncomfortable. I also want them to dance and forget about the sh*t that’s going on in their life. If I can get those two things to happen, then I think I feel like I did a good job.
Going through your Instagram feed, it’s pretty evident that you love to cook. What would you make if you were to host a dinner to celebrate your album?
That’s a great question. Jerk Chicken feels like the right flavor for this. It’s savory, like this album. Maybe some plantains, rice and beans on the side — just something down to earth but also with some spice.
Stream Devon Gilfillian’s second album, Love You Anyway, below.