Debra Devi: A ‘Wild Little Girl’ In a Man’s World

We spoke, at length, with Debra Devi about her new EP release, her award winning book, and what's next for her.

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 Debra Devi is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, author, and musicologist who currently makes her home in New Jersey. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Devi dreamed of playing rock and roll guitar, but was told, “that’s what boys do.” After her first experience attending a live blues show, then a life-changing night watching Bonnie Raitt on stage, she’s been proving the nay-sayers wrong ever since. If there is any doubt, her latest EP release, Wild Little Girl, dispels it with prejudice.

We had the opportunity to speak with Devi about her music, her award winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, and what it takes for a “Wild Little Girl” to make it in a man’s world.

JD Nash for American Blues Scene: So, your EP, Wild Little Girl. How is that going so far?

Debra Devi:

You know it just came out recently, so it’s beginning to take off. We’re starting to book interviews. It was just went up on the Women’s International Network blog, so that was nice. I’m scheduled to do a two hour, live radio show here in New Jersey next week. We’re booking shows now, mostly for the Spring and Summer so far. But I am putting together a really cool show here in Jersey City. There’s a new venue opened up called White Eagle Hall that’s just gorgeous. It’s a refurbished Polish meeting hall that’s been redeveloped, but they kept all the original molding and things intact. They really did a beautiful job with it. So I put a show together there for January 19th. It’s going to be five Jersey City based bands including my own.

Jersey City is actually one of the most diverse cities in the country. So, the bill will draw from hip-hop, reggae, rock, and indie, making it just as diverse. I’m really excited about that.

Using Jersey City as a launch pad, Wild Little Girl will spread from there.

Yeah, exactly. My last album, ‘Get Free,’ got a lot of press that I didn’t anticipate, since it was my first solo album. I got a lot of attention for my guitar playing, which I was really grateful for. So now, we’ll see what the journey is with this one. I have a manager now, and I just started working with a booking agent, so I’m not as completely on my own as I was last time around. (laughs) It will be fun to see where this goes.

Great, hopefully then your tour will bring you out our way to the Midwest, and you can indoctrinate us to your style of rock and roll. You are, at heart, a rock and roll girl after all right?

Yeah. Well, I’ve kind of gone through a circuitous journey as a musician. I started really late on the guitar because growing up as a girl, I was discouraged from playing electric guitar. It wasn’t really considered a ladylike undertaking. The story that I tell is that I had a friend who was 19, when I was 16 and was in a band in Milwaukee where I grew up. He was booking this little theater in downtown Milwaukee, and he was bringing in Chicago blues artists. At that time, I had never heard the blues. My parents did play jazz in the house, but I really hadn’t ever heard the blues. This guy invited me one night, and kind of snuck me into the club. I had confided in him that I had aspirations to play guitar, so the show he took me to was Koko Taylor with Son Seals on guitar. I just freaked out! It was so amazing.

I was a very Midwestern, white, suburban girl, and at one point I just found myself flying onto the dance floor, and I had never really danced before either. I just felt very much overtaken by the spirit of the blues. That was my first introduction to the blues, and to that kind of guitar playing.

Wow, what a baptism. As an artist though, you’re not really a blues act.

No. Not at all. I’m kind of a 70s influenced rock artist. But what happened for me when seeing Son Seals was a moment of commission. I had this long-standing desire to play electric guitar, but, number one being a girl, I wasn’t encouraged. Number two, I would hear the rock players on the radio, and they were playing really, really fast. It was intimidating. But Son Seals demonstrated a much more mature approach to music. “I’m not going to show off all my licks, and scales, and how fast I can play. I’m going to choose notes that are going to knock you on your face.” That’s what I got from it. That was a revelation to me. The power in his playing was the notes that he chose. Meanwhile, the space that he left, had so much more impact. It also made me realize that this was a different way of thinking about music. Maybe this is what I should pursue.

After that I started going to tons of blues shows. I saw BB King, John Lee Hooker, and anybody that came to Milwaukee. It gave me a different way in to the instrument. From there, I saw Bonnie Raitt play, and that gave me permission. There was a woman playing electric guitar. So, the day after I saw her, I bought a guitar, and six months later I moved to New York.

I didn’t play very well at all, but I started going to auditions, and I got into a punk band. I played the punk scene for a really long time. In fact, the band I was in got signed by Dead Kennedys, to their label, and we toured all over the world. That was another place where I was given permission to not be very good, but to be in a band, and get to grow and develop. Between those two things I began to develop my own style. I started singing, and writing songs, and what came out was what you hear now; 70s influenced rock and roll. I don’t know where it came from, other than inside me, so that’s the only explanation I have. (laughs)

I think every artist has to find their own voice. When I started to sing, I didn’t know what I was going to sound like. Some of my favorite music is blues. Some of it is Ministry. My voice doesn’t really lend itself to either. But musically, I love it all. We love to jam and improvise live. Like on the live version of “Tired of Waiting.” We get to stretch out, and explore.

I love that live version of “Tired of Waiting.” What was the thought process behind releasing basically a five song EP versus another full album?

Good question. I think I just felt impatient to put out something new. It’s a long story actually. When ‘Get Free’ came out, the recession hit, and there just wasn’t any money to tour it. Then my nephew became deathly ill, and was hospitalized for almost a year. He’s fine now, thank God, but it was taking a long time to get back into the studio. When I did, I had this little group of fans that were eager for new music, so I wanted to do something that we could get out fairly quickly.

I do have to admit, that my favorite track on the EP is “10 Miles to Clarksdale.” It’s so much different than anything else on the release. Where did that song come from?

If I were to tell you, I’d have to kill you. (laughs) I can tell you a couple things about it though. First, my friend Anthony Krizan is singing backup with me on that track. He was in The Spin Doctors, and has written songs for Lenny Kravitz, and Gretchen Wilson. His new album, Dust and Bone, is just terrific. Secondly, when we were putting the video together for that song, Scott Rosenbaum, who directed Sidemen: Long Road to Glory, gave us some glorious footage of the area to use.

While we’re on the topic of Clarksdale, your book Language of the Blues, had to be a labor of love. It’s amazing to me how research intensive it is.

Oh yeah, it was crazy putting that together. (laughs) I dug pretty deep. That book became an obsession. I had been doing some writing about the blues as a freelance writer, and I noticed some words like hoodoo, and mojo, kept popping up. I started to wonder, where did they come from? What language is this? So, I started keeping a list. Once I realized that my list had a hundred words, I thought if I can get a deal to write a book like this, it will give the ability to find out all these things I wanted to know. As I began the research, I decided I needed to talk to the artists. There was a lot of academic scholarship on the topic, but none of it involved interviewing the blues artists themselves, that wrote these words as lyrics.

The first artist that I got to interview was Hubert Sumlin. It was funny because I approached him thinking that I already knew what the song, “Killing Floor” was all about. All my research told me it was about the Chicago stockyards, and the jobs that African American people, during the Great Migration, were able to get. Hubert looked at me and said, “That song ain’t about that at all.” Then he told me this whole other, incredible story about how Howlin’ Wolf conceived that song. That just blew my mind, and it made me realize I have to talk to the artists. After that I just went on a tear, interviewing Robert “Junior” Lockwood, Milton Campbell, Henry Gray, and really any elder blues person I could find that would talk to me. The book is also about the lack of education in our school systems as to the influence of West Africa on our language and culture. Nobody talks about that. It’s their contributions that helped make this country uniquely American.

Are you doing any other writing outside of music?

(laughs) Yeah, Matt Marshall has roped me into doing twice-monthly articles for American Blues Scene. It will be a history of cover songs. Looking back at the origins of the songs, and the history behind the cover. I’m actually looking forward to that. All current American music came from the blues. I mean, I’m a rock artist, but without the blues, I wouldn’t have my sound. We always have to acknowledge that heritage, and the power of that art form.

Back to Hubert Sumlin for a moment, I understand you got to play a couple songs through his amp at the EP release party.

That was so cool. It almost brought me to tears, because Hubert was such a lovely gentleman. He was so patient, and giving of his time when I interviewed him. It’s kind of funny, because the interview was a few years ago, and just this last year I met Louis Rosano, who owns Louis Electric Amplifiers. He not only made amps for Hubert, but the two were good friends. He made an offer to bring Hubert’s Baby Bluesbreaker amp to my EP release party, and I was just flabbergasted. It hadn’t been fired up since Hubert passed away, but that night, I got to play through it.

If there were one thing that people should know about you, that isn’t common knowledge, what would that be?

(laughs) I really don’t know. I guess, that I’m self-taught, as both a guitarist and a producer. I hope that encourages people to jump into whatever they want to do. Even if they don’t think they have the skill yet, if they have the passion for it, I would hope they’re inspired by me to give it a try. Also, the title of the record, Wild Little Girl, could be taken in a lot of different ways. But, what I’m referring to is the socialization of women, and how much it can crush little girl’s spirits as they become women. Girls raise their hands as much as boys in class. They’re just as good in math and science. They have these great, wild spirits, and then the pressure to conform to what women are supposed to be kicks in. They raise their hands less in class. They start to fall behind in math and science. It’s a real issue. I experienced it myself growing up, that pressure to be ladylike and all that stuff. With this record, I’d like to kick that door down, and encourage women in particular to express themselves and stay in touch with that part of themselves.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, and check out our other interviews with some of music’s biggest names here.

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