Debra Devi: Electric Guitar Connections
by Timothy Herrick
Debra Devi played acoustic guitar growing up and didn’t plug in until her senior year of college at Madison University in Wisconsin. She blames the delay mainly on her mother, who didn’t think electric guitar was appropriate for a young lady. When she moved to New York soon after graduation, electric guitar was central to her life and there was no going back. Debra answered classified ads for jams and band auditions in the Village Voice, and by the late 1990s was playing and touring in hardcore punk bands. Now a Jersey City resident, she splits her time between writing and making music, her work includes the award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, her debut album, Get Free and her most recent EP, Wild Little Girl. On Friday, Debra and her band play “Jersey City Rocks White Eagle Hall” on January 19, a show that includes: The Components, Universal Rebel, Hey Anna, Black Wail, as well as DJ Sirena Mercado and MC Constant Flow. As an artist, Debra is the rare rocker comfortable in the worlds of both punk and the blues. On Wild Little Girl, she uses her songs and electric guitar to “connect to the energy women have when they are girls, before they hit puberty and forced into assigned gender roles.”
Timothy: What was the last song you heard before talking to me?
Debra: I was listening to the radio while I was driving and it was the Rhianna song, Work, Work. It’s such a sexy song. I love it.
Timothy: What do you listen to at home?
Debra: It depends on whether or not I am recording. When I’m recording, I don’t like to listen to another artist because I don’t want to be influenced. When I am not recording, I listen to a lot of electric blues, like Freddy King and B.B. King. I also love great singers like Deniece Williams, Aretha Franklin and Prince.
Timothy: What was the first concert you attended?
Debra: I was 16, it was the Metropole in Wisconsin. I saw Son Seals and Koko Taylor and I fell in love. It was my first blues show. It was not until I was in college that I got into the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys and punk music.
Timothy: What was the first album you bought?
Debra: I can’t remember the first album I bought, but I really remember buying Never Mind The Bullocks by the Sex Pistols. I loved the cover. I was in college and lived in an apartment with four other girls, and they were all awesome but they loved “girly” music. I remember one was a big Squeeze fan, the new wave band, another was a big Willie Nelson fan. I bought the Sex Pistols and they didn’t like the Sex Pistols and I would have to put on the Sex Pistols when they weren’t home and mosh around the living room alone. I was crazy about that record.
Timothy: What is your earliest musical memory?
Debra: My parents playing records by Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk, I remember asking them to play the Monk record three or four times in a row. I remember I couldn’t pronounce his first name.
Timothy: You love both blues and punk. In your opinion, what blues musician is the most punk and what punk musician the most blues?
That’s a tough one. Hubert Sumlin for the blues musician as the most punk. The reason I say that is because he created his own vocabulary on guitar, which everyone draws from, if you look at Johnny Ramone, he had the same approach, that he was going with these cool licks that nobody was playing before him. For the punk musician who is the most blues, I would go with Billy Zoom from X, because he would just stand there and make incredible sounds. East Bay Ray from the Dead Kennedys was the same way.
Timothy: What is your favorite Wisconsin band?
Debra: Violent Femmes.
Timothy: Do you have a favorite book?
Debra: Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey.
Timothy: Do you have a good luck charm?
Debra: I have a gris-gris bag, but you are not supposed to say what is in your gris-gris bag. I will tell you one thing that I did put in it, a pecan shell from a pecan tree that is on Little Zion Church in Greenville, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson is supposedly buried. I keep my gris-gris bag in my guitar case and I always bring it with me on tour.
Timothy: What has been your favorite experience as an artist?
Debra: As a live performer, I’ve been lucky enough to perform in a lot of out of the way places, like rural Poland and rural Yugoslavia, and they really respond to music in a fresh and unaffected way. They are not as bombarded with marketing. You get people from all ages, young and old, and they are all so exuberant, and they express themselves in a free ways, like square dancing. I could really see this universal, human reaction to music. We can be so blasé about music, but it’s an amazing experience when music moves you outside yourself, into a higher experience. When I am onstage and feel connected to the audience, I feel it is a spiritual experience. Music has become so commodified in our culture and that created a gulf between audience and player, but the original purpose of music is spiritual.
Timothy: What is your favorite city to play?
Debra: Jersey City!
Timothy: Oh come on, you’re just saying that for this interview.
Debra: I’m not kidding! It’s so diverse. I love the audiences. When I first moved to Jersey City, I went to a party, and there were white people, Latino people, African Americans, everybody partying together. Where I grew up it was super segregated. I played a benefit for Puerto Rico at 660 Studios, and met Constant Flow and he’s going to be the emcee at the White Eagle Hall Show.
Timothy: Do you ever get pre-show jitters?
Debra: I don’t get nervous, but I pretty much shut down and withdraw into myself. I get uptight. People want to talk to me but it’s terrible, I don’t talk to people before the show. But after the show, I’m super gregarious.
Timothy: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I warm up my voice. I learned something from Lee Ritenour, the renowned session player. I met him at the Crown Guitar Festival in Montana, It is very cold there, very chilly at night right before the show. I was afraid that I wouldn’t play well because my hands were so cold. Lee was walking around with his guitar and he told me that he plays scales right up until the minute he goes on stage, up and down the guitar, ‘that I way I know I’m warmed up,’ he said. Ever since he told me that, and I do the same thing, play scales until I go on stage.
Timothy: Who would play in your ideal super-group?
Debra: Prince on vocals, me on guitar if I am lucky enough to be part of the group, Ginger Baker on Drums, John Paul Jones on bass.
Timothy: How difficult is it to make a career as a DIY musician today?
Debra: It is the best of times and the worst of times. It is the best of times in that we can reach more people. I did a pledge music drive to help me make my new EP, and I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago. You can reach more people than you ever could before through social media. But it is difficult to support a tour, especially when you book yourself. When I was in a punk bank, we would make a CD, sell like a 1,000 CDS to our friends, and make enough to rent a van and go on tour. Nobody is buying records anymore, nobody is even buying downloads, so the question is what are you going to sell? It is pretty challenging and only a few record labels out there are rising to the occasion.
Timothy: What are you most excited about playing White Eagle Hall?
Debra: The quality of the sound. The room is beautifully tuned and sounds incredible.
For More Information on Debra Devi and her music visit www.debradevi.com