Spotlight: Devon Gilfillian
photo: Emmanuel Afolabi
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Devon Gilfillian is checking in from Austin, Texas. The Philadelphia-born, Nashville-based soul artist is in town for South by Southwest and he’s gleaming. He’ll be doing what he loves most over the next couple of days—showcasing music that introduces an unabashedly love-enkindled world entirely of his own making. And he’s happy to gush about the experience.
“I’m a goofball, just a straight nerd and goof, and my girlfriend knows that,” Gilfillian says with a visible grin. “It took me a while to get better as a songwriter and let my personality come through in that way, and I feel like it’s finally starting to get there.” Over the years, Gilfillian has shared the stage with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Lake Street Dive, Mavis Staples, Lucius, Langhorne Slim and many more—all of whom took note of his spark.
“One time, I was on tour with Chaka Khan and Michael McDonald–which is crazy–and Michael asked me to come up and sing ‘Takin’ It to the Streets’ with him,” he remembers. “Chaka and Michael would do ‘What’s Going On?’ as well. So he calls me up for ‘What’s Going On?’ I didn’t know, ‘What’s Going On?’ like the back of my hand at that point— it was like the back of my thumb. I went up and sang some background vocals, and then Chaka threw the mic back at me for the third verse. And I was just making up whatever lyrics I could. Then we walked offstage, and she was like, ‘You better learn that song.’”
In 2020, when Gilfillian participated in a series of protests that defined that era for many, he decided that he wanted to spread some love so he set out to finally learn “What’s Going On?” on his acoustic. “I broke down crying in the middle of that,” he says. “There was this moment when I realized this shit had already been said; Marvin already said it. But then I listened to the whole album, front to back. 50 years ago, he already fucking said all of this! It killed me so bad. I was like, ‘I don’t give a shit about anything else other than trying to get people’s voices heard in Tennessee. We have to make people care about voting and make it easier for them.’”
The experience not only inspired Gilfillian to record a track-by-track cover of the entire album, but also to donate the proceeds to low-income communities of color, providing resources and education around the democratic process.
On Love You Anyway, his second full-length studio album, Gilfillian offers another 10 tracks of soulful, genre-defying self-reflection—all steeped with an unfettering belief that love is it. Gilfillian’s internal coup d’œil naturally responds to the world around him. At times, Gilfillian uses the project—which was produced and recorded in Nashville by Jeremy Lutito—to recognize and make sense of the strange and impactful past few years. With “Let the Water Flow,” he’s direct in his singing, offering lyrics that unflinchingly address the absurd voter-suppression laws the Peach State implemented during the mid-term elections while utilizing a contemporary protest chant: “Let the water flow to Georgia/ Oh because I have to believe/ One day we’ll find freedom/ Till then no justice no peace.” At the same time, he uses his often lush tracks to celebrate the beauty that exists around him.
“I wrote ‘Imma Let My Body Move’ with Jamie Lidell, an audiophile, disco-funk freak; he sent me this crazy track that he was working on,” he says. “We were trying to brainstorm lyrics, and I couldn’t think of anything. So I just started dancing around in my underwear in my room and singing, ‘I’m gonna let my body move!’ And that’s how the chorus came about. I’ve never written a song where I just danced and then the lyrics came from letting myself go and feeling free in that moment. To me, that is definitely a feeling that I want people to have when listening to my music. I want them to feel like, ‘Fuck this, just dance. Who cares who’s watching? Let’s just dance this bullshit away.’”
Throughout his new LP, Gilfillian also offers a celebration of Black beauty (“Brown Sugar Queen”), a call to overcome apathy (“Better Broken”), a message of kindness (“Love You Anyway”) and so much more. His hip-hop inclinations, raw R&B abilities, impressive vocal range and guest spots from artists like Rateliff (“Righteous”), not to mention inspiration from luminaries like Gaye, provide several welcoming entry points.
“Loving, to me, feels like something that we need the most in the world right now. Despite hating everything that someone’s talking about, and their views and all those things, we have to somehow find humanity in this person so that we can speak to the human part,” Gilfillian says. “I hope [Love You Anyway] gets out to everybody, and I hope it helps people to want to speak to each other with love, respect and humanity. I hope it helps people put aside their differences because we need to stop watching Fox Goddamn News.”