Bad Books’ Kevin Devine on Writing Honestly and Responsibly About Himself and Social Justice

Bad Books' Kevin Devine (center) wants to make the world a little bit friendlier with his lyrics.
Bad Books' Kevin Devine (center) wants to make the world a little bit friendlier with his lyrics. Brian Manley

It's a historically hot afternoon in Brooklyn, New York, when Kevin Devine calls in to talk about the new Bad Books record and the second leg of their tour, which is coming to Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grill on Aug. 22. Bad Books is a hybrid band made up of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, both of the indie-folk group Manchester Orchestra, and Devine, who has been noted for adding a layer of political outrospection to the band's pattern of personal introspection.

For Devine, there is a certain method by which he comes to feel more confident about his ability to speak out against the powers that be — a method that begins with an honest look into himself and showing it to the world.

"I wouldn't immediately identify it as a priority for me to be expressly confessional," he says. "I've lived in New York my whole life as an Irish Catholic kid, who is a pretty deeply lapsed Irish Catholic at this point. So when I think of being confessional, I have a very specific iteration of confessional in my head and it involves, like, sitting in a booth."

Loaded though the term may be for Devine, the lapsed Catholic kid does confess that his writing is often doing the same kind of work between himself and the audience that would be done by the penitent through the latticed opening of a stall to a priest.

"The condition of writing about being a person indicates that if I want to be honest there's got to be some amount of skin in the game," he says. "That involves some amount of honest excavation and holding myself accountable as confessionalism."

When one looks at a song like “I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You,” the central track from Bad Books' III album, we can see this kind of honest excavation in the lines "I was burned out on obsessing with the end of the world / And the daughter I was helping to raise / With the total sum of everything awake in my lap / I could hear what you were trying to say."

"If I'm able to see what's good and what requires attention of me, then I can probably also see what is good in others and have empathy for others in the spaces where they need some work." — Kevin Devine

tweet this

In these simple lines, we see how the lens of the personal and political become entangled in the mind of the writer, but for Devine, 39, that is part of a necessary process.

"If I can write responsibly and honestly about myself, then I have an opportunity to write responsibly and honestly about other people," he says. "It's our job to look at where it starts, and it usually starts with me. It doesn't always mean it's my fault, but if I'm going to try to move around in the human condition, the human eye needs to be most ready to take apart a little bit of myself."

Looking deep into ourselves, according to Devine, allows us to gain a real understanding of what might be going on in the minds of others. While that might allow us to come closer to certain people, there is also the possibility that we may find real problems.

"If I'm able to see what's good and what requires attention of me," he says, "then I can probably also see what is good in others and have empathy for others in the spaces where they need some work.

"Part of being honest about people is calling out the snakes in the grass. Those are people you can have empathy or a psychological understanding of, but you also should probably keep a wide fucking berth."

Performing this kind of introspective and outrospective work on the national touring stage allows Devine to put a human face to the feelings of emotional turmoil fans may have about personal and political issues that threaten to undermine their peace of mind.

"My favorite songwriters, artists, playwrights, poets, political social justice activists or bartenders were people who presented an identifiable face to me for feelings and experiences for which I was having a difficult time identifying, digesting, understanding or accepting," he says.

By giving fans a recognizable face on which they may cast their anxieties, Devine and Bad Books hope to make the world just a little bit friendlier for people to feel in.

"It makes the world like a nominally safer, better place, because the more comfortable we are with vulnerability, the healthier we are as a people," he says. "We could certainly use that now."
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Fletcher writes about music, arts and culture for the Dallas Observer. You can usually find him at a show in Deep Ellum whether he's writing about it or not. A punk scholar and local music enthusiast, David focuses his attention on the artists screaming in the margins of Dallas' music scene.
Contact: David Fletcher