Words by Tommy Johnson
According to Devon Church, the album title Strange Strangers comes from Marxist eco-philosopher Timothy Morton: “The strangeness of strange strangers is itself strange, meaning the more we know about an entity, the stranger it becomes.”
The familiar strange influences of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan have now become embedded into Church’s vocals. That smoke-filled range was heavily highlighted in his debut album, We Are Inextricable, along with textural electronic elements and traditional folk-rock songwriting. Those same atmospheric elements have continued with his latest album, showcasing his best work to date with tracks being powerfully harmonious, incorporating tape-saturated vocals, combo organs, and guitars.
Off Shelf: Before we get into our conversation here, how do you feel about the new album finally being out? Starting a handful of years ago, do the songs seem like a distant memory for you, or do they still feel as fresh as the day you wrote them?
Devon Church: There was a very long gap between the completion of this album and its release for a bunch of reasons. I was worried I would feel really disconnected from the material when it finally came out since I’ve been working on a lot of new songs in the meantime. But now that it’s out, and we’ve played the whole album live for the first time, it feels really fresh and alive to me again. I hadn’t been listening to these recordings much since they were mastered over a year ago, and it has been really nice to live in them again.
OS: What could you tell me about your earliest days exploring music? When did you begin to fall in love with it?
DC: I got a guitar in 6th grade if I remember correctly, but I didn’t play much until I was in 8th grade and was the somewhat unnecessary second guitarist in a Nirvana cover band. I played one show with them, a tribute show at our junior high school – back in Winnipeg – after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Then I got really into political punk rock and hardcore and started my own band. We also played only one show, also at the school gymnasium. After that, I wanted to be a poet or a novelist and didn’t play music as much for a few years. I didn’t play in any more bands until Exitmusic, which was my only band for about ten years.
OS: Living in New York City now allows you to have a diverse level of musical influence surrounding you. Was this primarily the decision to move here from Winnipeg, or did you have other factors come into play?
DC: I came to New York directly from Delhi after leaving Winnipeg and spending a year teaching English in Taiwan, which funded my trip to India. I spent four months traveling in India and a month in Thailand. This was all the way back in 2002. But I came to New York for love, not music, although I had started to write songs again then and was traveling with an acoustic guitar. My ex-wife was a New Yorker, but we wound up living in Los Angeles for most of the time we were together. New York feels like home to me now, though, and the level of musical and artistic excellence in this city is hard to imagine going without.
OS: Before venturing into your solo work, you were one half of the project Exitmusic. When the time came and the band dissolved, how much worry did you experience about going in your direction alone?
DC: Well, to be honest, it was absolutely agonizing at first. I spent ten years as the guitarist and producer in a band that played a completely different style of music from what I’m doing now. I had no idea that it would take so long to get good enough at singing and writing and arranging the kind of songs that I make now to not just cringe when I heard them played back! The guitar and recording styles are totally different too, and I had to relearn a lot of things. Performing as a singer is a totally different experience too! But Exitmusic breaking up was really a liberating thing for me, as painful as it was. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, you know?
OS: Buddhism has become a vital part of your spiritual journey. How much have the principles of religion helped you in some of the darker moments of life?
DC: Well, you know, I feel like ‘religion’ is such a complicated word for people; it makes some people recoil. But I’ve always been fascinated with religion, especially its more esoteric forms, as you can probably tell from some of the lyrics on this album. I had some super intense, ‘mystical’ experiences in the years following my divorce, in addition to some really dark times, and Buddhism really helped to clarify and contextualize them.
But to answer your question very procedurally, the first principle of Buddhism is that ‘life is suffering.’ That’s the first noble truth. It sounds bleak, but once you accept that you can stop beating yourself up for being depressed all the time. This is what capitalism does to people – makes you depressed with work and bills and worry and advertising, and then torments you with spiritual pyramid schemes that make you feel like if you’re not happy all the time, you’re somehow defective. Capitalism really is samsara incarnate as an economic and political system. That is, the endlessly spinning hamster wheel of greed-hatred-ignorance in Buddhism.
Anyway, the other three noble truths of Buddhism are all about identifying the causes of suffering and the things you can do to liberate yourself and others from suffering. My main teacher is really focused on death and impermanence as a site of practice, and that’s been really powerful. I started studying with him right after Strange Strangers was finished, but in hindsight, that whole album is involved with contemplating death and impermanence. So, yeah, Buddhism has been immeasurably helpful!
OS: During the pandemic, you and your partner spent a period of time in Pennsylvania. Experiencing what many felt at the time, I would like to know if you found that time to be inspirational with writing?
DC: Yeah, certainly. The songs I wrote up there were different than anything I’d done in the city, pre-pandemic. But actually, the songs I wrote during that time are going to be on the next album! Mostly during quarantine, I was recording songs that I’d already written in New York.
OS: Returning to being quarantined in Pennsylvania, you recorded in a nearby rural barn. Would the new album have been recorded differently if you didn’t have that time where you were? Would the album have been produced quicker than previous efforts within your career?
DC: It’s possible I would have done the whole album in the studio, and I certainly intended to do it a hell of a lot more quickly than how things wound up. ‘Ephemera’ was recorded at my friend Gabe Galvin’s studio in Brooklyn, and you can definitely hear a certain sheen to that recording compared to the ones I did in the barn. But having all that time to focus on music was a unique experience for me – and not just that but to have time to spend in nature, spiritual practice, reading, and relaxing. I mean aside from all the anxiety and tragedy and global insanity, quarantine for me personally was kind of incredible. I work service jobs in New York to pay the rent, and it can be quite exhausting and not always the healthiest lifestyle, you know?
OS: Some songs on Strange Strangers are purposely crafted to be interpreted in various ways. When you were writing, how much emphasis was placed on creating this world where listeners can draw their conclusions?
DC: Lately, I’ve been writing songs that I want people to understand in a certain way. I’ve been writing some songs with a more political intent to them, and even some love songs and I don’t want them to be misinterpreted, which is a new experience for me. But on Strangers, you’re right; the lyrics are meant to be somewhat open-ended because they’re trying to point at something that can’t be pointed to directly. Or rather, they’re looking for something that can’t be looked at directly.
OS: After listening to We Are Inextricable, I felt that Strange Strangers was a beautiful companion. Strange Strangers provides a stronger sense of where you are as an artist. Did you think that you had a more profound understanding of yourself when putting together the new album?
DC: Oh, I don’t know about that! I suppose I must have had since Inextricable was made through times of considerably more turmoil and chaos in my personal life. But I think both albums are more about seeking and desiring a profound understanding rather than actually having one!
OS: Ada’s vocals are sprinkled throughout Strange Strangers. Was it designed to have her just be showcased a little, or were there plans to have her be more involved?
DC: Ada and I got married last September, which was the most fun and beautiful thing I’ve ever done. In the exact same place where the album was recorded. When we started doing music together, we made a conscious decision not to get too entangled creatively because I’ve done that before, and it can be pretty taxing on a relationship. Ada’s an incredible painter, and that’s her primary focus right now. Her voice is amazing though and I can’t imagine this album without her vocal parts.
OS: While I know that each of the songs on Strange Strangers is your favorite, which has a deeper emotional connection to you?
DC: I’m very happy with ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem,’ sonically and lyrically, but I guess it’s not really an ’emotional’ song in that way. I was happy to finally get ‘Bored of the Apocalypse’ on an album in a form that I enjoy. It was the first half-decent song I wrote as a ‘singer-songwriter’ or whatever I am now after Exitmusic broke up in 2013. Also the coda, ‘Deer Park,’ is a little instrumental song that is the only one truly written during the pandemic. We were quarantined in early April 2020 in a nondescript little Airbnb in upstate New York and I was getting over COVID and recorded it in some strangers’ dining room. But I really like that melody, and it takes me back to an ominous, disorienting time that, for some reason, I am oddly nostalgic for.