Devon Gilfillian is not a name that is known yet to most music fans, but his debut album, Black Hole Rainbow, is one the most impressive debuts of the year. The singer/songwriter released his album on Capitol Records in January, just two months before the coronavirus shutdown began. The pandemic has prevented Gilfillian and other artists from touring and promoting their albums, but it’s only a matter of time before more people hear about this talented artist.
Gilfillian has a powerful, soulful singing voice, that is reminiscent of R&B legends such as Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. He is also an inventive guitar player, who’s been inspired by the cutting-edge, electrifying style of Jimi Hendrix. But what makes Gilfillian’s music unique and contemporary, is that he’s not simply replicating these classic styles. He has created his own sound by infusing modern, electronic instruments and hip-hop beats. As a result, his music sounds classic and fresh at the same time.
Notably, Gilfillian has found an outlet on radio for his distinctive style. The first three singles from his album—“Unchained,” “Get Out and Get It” and “The Good Life”—have all reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative (AAA) chart. “Unchained” made the Top 10, and his current single “The Good Life” is approaching that level.
Gilfillian grew up in Philadelphia, where he was introduced to R&B and rock by his father, who’s a musician. He would listen classic artists like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and the Temptations, while he also discovered the new sounds, beats and rhymes of his own generation, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z.
Gilfillian moved to Nashville in 2013, and he released his independent EP in 2016. In Nashville, he developed relationships with musicians and songwriters, and he formed a band and began touring. Then in 2018, he signed a label deal with Capitol Records.
Here’s the video of Devon Gilfillian’s song “Unchained,” which
was inspired by his brother, Ryan (who’s in the video).
For his album, Black Hole Rainbow, Gilfillian has teamed up with Grammy-winning producer/engineer & mixer Shawn Everett, who is known for his work with The Killers, Alabama Shakes, Kacey Musgraves and The War on Drugs. Everett worked closely in the studio with Gilfillian, and helped him create the album’s unique mix of classic soul, combined with fresh beats and instrumentation.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Devon Gilfillian. He tells how he got started as a musician & artist, and how he wrote the key songs “Unchained” and “The Good Life” for his debut album.
DK: I read that you’re from Pennsylvania. How did you get started as a musician and artist?
Devon Gilfillian: My dad’s a singer, and he’s the one who got me into music right away. I fell in love with music, and I was 14 when I really got into playing guitar. The first song I learned to play was “Under The Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My dad heard me and said, “Oh, this guy sounds like Jimi Hendrix.” And I was like, “Who’s that?” (laughs). Then he hit me in the head (laughs) with a Jimi Hendrix greatest hits CD and I listened to that, and I my brain just exploded. I was like…Yep, this is it. This is what I need to do. I need to figure out how to make more sounds like this.
DK: You’re a young artist, and yet you’ve been inspired by classic artists like Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. How did you become a fan of soul music?
Gilfillian: That was through my dad at first. He was like, “You’ve got to listen to Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, and to the Temptations and Motown. When I was a kid, soul music and Motown was huge in my house. But [a big moment was when] I discovered Jimi Hendrix. My brain was like…Wow. This guy is doing all this crazy stuff with guitar, making it sound like an animal…who else does that? Then I discovered Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page, and I was hungry for more music like that. And then [I listened to] the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones and then the Beatles, and growing more appreciation for the Beatles and their songwriting.
DK: I like how your album mixes the classic soul sound with modern, electronic sounds and fresh beats. It makes your music stand out. So how did you decide to mix the classic with the modern sound?
Here’s a video of Devon Gilfillian performing his song “The Good
Life” on CBS This Morning.
Gilfillian: Thank you. I love hip-hop—I love Kanye West, the Wu-Tang Clan and Pharrell. And you know, they all sample old soul stuff. Kanye samples Curtis Mayfield, and I wanted some of that heavy drum feeling. I wanted to incorporate that for “Get Out And Get It” (from his album). I took all the instruments and uploaded them into a drum machine and replayed the drums, with an Akai MPC drum machine. I think just using the hip-hop sampling techniques, and drum tracking techniques too, and sampling my own drums was really fun, and that’s kind of what gave it that hip-hop feel to it.
DK: In 2016, you released your own EP, and two years later you signed with Capitol Records. Can you talk about how your career developed, and your label deal?
Gilfillian: Absolutely. After releasing the EP, we toured, and I put the team together and I got an agent. I wanted to take the band that I had on the road, and build up the presence and buzz here in Nashville, so that industry people would come to shows. I think that was a huge part of it, building a buzz and getting the attention of Capitol Records. And once that happened…[the people at Capitol] wanted me to be me…Devon Gilfillian. They didn’t want to change my name, they didn’t tell me what producer to work with, and say, “Do this.” They wanted me to have all creative freedom, and that’s been really cool with Capitol. And I got to make the record of my dreams with (producer/engineer) Shawn Everett, who’s like a crazy person and really fun to work with. So it’s honestly been a positive experience.
DK: Your album is titled, Black Hole Rainbow. How did you come up with that title, and what does it mean?
Gilfillian: I’d been banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out the title (for the album). And sometimes my life…I attribute it to being a black hole (laughs), that my thoughts when I’m sad and depressed, it feels like it’s all getting sucked into a black hole. But at the end of the day, at the end of the tunnel, there is beauty at the end. And you have to push through the black space, that dark space, in order to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, which turns out to be a beautiful, colorful world if you get through it. Those are the lenses that we’re given, if we decide to push through that dark light, and that’s where it came from. The song ”Lonely” is about going through depression, and “Get Out And Get It’ is about trying to motivate yourself to get out and live your fullest potential. So a lot of the songs on the record come out of this place of trying to motivate yourself, like “Find A Light” and “Unchained” as well.
Here’s the video of Devon Gilfillian’s song, “Get Out And Get It.”
DK: One of my favorite songs on your album is “Unchained,” which is a powerful mix of uptempo soul and cutting-edge sounds. Can you tell me how you wrote that song and recorded it?
Gilfillian: I wrote that song with two of my friends: Andrew Petroff and Tim Bruns. Originally, we wrote the song for this movie about Brian Banks, who’s a black man (and football player) wrongfully accused of rape. But when I was writing the song, I realized it was more about my brother Ryan, who had an accident in 2008 that put him in a wheelchair. And he’s overcome this insane hurdle in his life, and watching him do that amazes me. It inspired me to do whatever I can do and be so grateful for my able-bodiedness. And so that’s what the song turned into, and then we also made a music video about it that starred Ryan. I’m so glad that the video happened, because it really embodied what my brother is about and what that song is about.
DK: Another song I like is “The Good Life,” which has a very positive attitude and theme. Does this song reflect the positive rainbow theme of your album title, Black Hole Rainbow?
Gilfillian: Definitely. [“The Good Life” reflects] the rainbow part 100%. The song is about how beautiful different people’s skin color is, how beautiful people from a different country are, and people who celebrate a different religion. It was written out of frustration of (President) Trump building a wall to keep immigrants and Mexican people out. And he was banning Muslims from coming into the country, and I was frustrated at the otherness and the racism that was being created, and I wanted a song to combat that and to say, “It’s beautiful that you come from a different country. It’s beautiful that you come from a different religion. And hopefully everyone can see how beautiful that is, because once we do, then we will hopefully fight and destroy racism in this country.
DK: Besides “Unchained” and “The Good Life”, what are your favorite songs on the album?
Gilfillian: Another favorite song is, “Stay A Little Longer.” It’s one that I love, because it’s a different vibe that I’ve ever put out musically, and it’s this love song that you’ve found yourself in this almost one-night stand situation, that you want to turn into a longer relationship. And that [almost] never happens…it only has happened to me recently, and I found myself in a relationship. But it’s such a sexy song that I never thought of myself writing and playing, and I’m glad I did…that’s why I love it so much.
Here’s the audio of Devon Gilfillian’s song, “Lonely.”
DK: In January, you released your album, but then a couple months later we were all hit with the coronavirus and shutdown. Normally, you would be on the road with your band, promoting your album. So what’s it been like for you during the shutdown?
Gilfillian: To be honest, it’s been more restful than anything. After the initial depression of not being able to play shows, I’ve been able to get into a creative space.
I’m grateful that we got to do a small tour with Grace Potter in January and February, up until everything hit the fan. [Since then] it’s been stagnant, not being able to play music live, and not being able to provide my band with shows and income for them. So that’s definitely been a hurdle.
We’ve been figuring out how to do virtual streams…virtual live concerts that can bring in some money. But mostly, I’ve been taking this time to write and create, and get savvy on Garageband and Logic and recording software. So that’s been nice, and growing in that way. And I’ve been writing a bunch of songs, about 15-20 in quarantine.
DK: I noticed that three of your singles have been hits on Billboard’s Adult-Alternative (AAA) chart, with “The Good Life” moving up the chart now. So that must be very positive, to see your songs do well on this AAA radio format.
Gilfillian: That’s been a huge help, for sure. I’m grateful that radio has been taking the songs, and [it’s given the songs] a life of their own. And that, coupled with touring and playing with the right bands on the road, has been a huge push. And we’ve gone to each radio station and played for them and that’s definitely part of the journey, and connecting with radio DJs and music coordinators. It’s like, “Hey, we’ll play this music right in front of your face…Let’s do it” (laughs).