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June 10, 2011 5:16 pm

Twists and turns

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Devon Sproule
 Devon Sproule: grew up in a commune

When we talk in London, she admits that she uses cover versions as a way of voicing sentiments “I don’t feel I’ve earned”; her own songs are defined by three pieces of biography. She grew up in a commune. She is married to a musician. And she is 29. Although she records her life and her preoccupations, she writes elliptically; the lyrics of her new album, I Love You, Go Easy, glance off each other arrestingly, juxtaposing images.

The music is correspondingly complex. She already has five studio albums under her belt, all recognisably old-time country. Her new one, though, runs the gamut from jerky piano ballads to funk, from the swing of a pocket marching band to what sounds, on first listen, like a nursery rhyme about a dog, and only slowly reveals itself as a song about quarter-life crisis. Her melodies, in the past sweet to the point of hokiness, are now more angular, full of twists and turns that resolve only on the last note.

For these new recordings she was joined in a Toronto studio, at the suggestion of her producer Sandro Perri, by The Silt, an avant-garde Canadian three-piece. The clarinet, brass, flute and keyboard textures that they add turn Sproule’s country palette into something more idiosyncratic. “They went to school for it and everything,” she enthuses. “The most minimal, fluid music ever. For these guys, definitely less was more. It was like they were using music to quiet their minds.” On this tour, Sproule’s four-strong British band (two of them labelmates on Tin Angel, her Coventry-based record company) are playing the new songs tough and loud, with the dynamics of country rock; the recorded versions, with their layered textures and unexpected lyrical piano codas somewhere between jazz and hymnal, have a centripetal stillness about them, as if suspended for a moment out of time.

This mirrors her upbringing. Sproule was born in an Ontario commune in 1982, but soon moved with her parents to the Twin Oaks community, an enclave in Virginia. “It was growing up in the country in a Southern state but having a lesbian mother, a polyamorous father and a black stepmother, a hundred neighbours. All-you-can-eat tofu. It was definitely not Virginian. It was beautiful like Virginia is, but different.”

Some of the songs on the new album are intimately bound up with that Southern pastoral landscape. “The back part of the pond,” she sings at the start of the album, over flutes that recall King Crimson at their most bucolic, “belongs to the pilots and yellow-belly sliders”. But soon she pushes through to the other side, musing about the “terra bathers” – the bodies buried in “God’s Acre”, the commune’s graveyard.

This song starts as a meditation on a recently deceased friend, then muses on her sister-in-law Maria, a harried teacher living a “miserable rhythm”. It ends, over faint organ, by reflecting on the six years since Sproule’s wedding day, with their friends “pudgy and young, gold ties straightened” and the changes wrought on all of them in the time since then. “If I can do this,” she sings – “this” being coping with bereavement, with pressure, with the passage of time – “I can do anything.”

Aged 15, Sproule moved out of the commune and into Charlottesville, the local town where, for now, she still lives. There she helped to make ends meet by busking, honing her craft on the songs of the assertively feminist rock singer-songwriter Liz Phair. When Sproule started to play small gigs she met Paul Curreri, now her husband, when he jumped uninvited on stage and insisted on singing backing vocals. As well as playing guitar with Sproule, Curreri, eight years her senior, has a parallel career of his own, including an album entitled Songs For Devon Sproule (2003). “One of the things we had to decide,” says Sproule, “is whether it was OK to write songs about each other. Could we complain? And we decided that we couldn’t.”

Her childhood offered few models of conventional family relationships. “My parents are kinda into their own lives. They’re into parenting too, but in their own way. I lived in a building with other kids and slept in a building with other kids. They loved being parents but they loved that there were other adults around so they had a lot of childcare.”

Marriage has required her to deal with relationships in depth rather than breadth. She affectionately describes the tug between herself and Curreri as mirroring the difference between nighttime and daytime. “He’s into the present, and I’m into the future.” In this light, some of her lyrics break into the abrupt directness of a fragment of reported conversation. “I know I’ve been a bit of a broken record darlin’ as of late,” she sings on “The Warning Bell”. “I grind my axe in the morning, pick a bone at night/Sometimes it’s you I’m picking on, sometimes I think I’m saving your life.”

I Love You, Go Easy is an ambitious record not only in terms of its music, but also in the sense that it is about ambition. On another marital communiqué, “Now’s The Time”, Sproule makes an argument for getting out into the world, while “our folks don’t need us around”, to “give clean living a chance”. And from September, Sproule and Curreri are relocating to Berlin. The original Berlin, she clarifies. “There is a Berlin, Virginia. People keep thinking I’m moving further to the country. Which in a way I wish I was.”

She twists uneasily. “We’re moving to make the most of what’s going on over here,” she says. Her career in Europe is taking off, and now requires her to spend nine months of the year there. Berlin is conveniently located between her fanbases in the Baltics and the UK, and, “for Europe”, is cheap.

“Paul has lived in New York and places, but he found the pace very fast. I haven’t really moved before. Neither of us personally really, really want to. It’s definitely a move for work.” She dutifully notes down the details of some books about her new home-to-be. “I think moving there 10 years ago would have been a little bit better, some kind of cultural heyday.” She cheers up. “But I think it’s still totally kickin’.”

‘I Love You, Go Easy’ is released by Tin Angel

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