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Guitarist Devon Williams is a solo act in name only
Imagine being in a club and having to sit through three dull, treacly acoustic folkies—a long night, indeed. But then LA wunderkind Devon Williams takes the stage with a three-piece backing band, and tears into gauzy, jangly guitar pop that has nothing to do with singer/songwriter chic. That’s what happened when Williams first embarked on a national tour.
“The promoters weren’t really familiar with us, and just assumed it was a guy with an acoustic guitar,” he remembers. “We’d go on and [play] really loud. So that’s a bad part of having my name be the name of the band.” Asked if he ever plays alone, he quickly replies, “No. That’s my least favorite thing.”
Williams’ pristine debut, Carefree, released earlier this year on the taste-making Brooklyn label Ba Da Bing, fades between twangy tunefulness and rollicking build ups, alternately bookish, ethereal, sleepy, noisy and propulsive. The 27-year-old has cited influences from the Go-Betweens and Aztec Camera to the Beach Boys and Everly Brothers, and you can hear them all in his perfectly constructed tunes. Standouts include the indelible refrain of “Fragile Weapon,” the jaunty sprint of “Stephanie City,” and the brief burst of energy that is “Bells.”
With such a rich marriage of reverb and string arrangements, it’d be tough to guess that Williams not only doesn’t consider himself a singer/songwriter, but also cut his teeth with punk bands in high school. He started playing guitar at the age of 13 and burned through a few young bands before striking a chord with Osker, a trio who got signed to Epitaph. They put out two albums, Treatment 5 and Idle Will Kill, before splitting in 2000.
After a stint living in Ohio, he moved back to his native LA and started Fingers Cut Megamachine, a band more akin to indie folk and alt-country. “That was just more quiet,” he says. “Not really punk music, per se. It was always just me playing with different people.” Like Osker, the band delivered two albums before Williams shelved it. From there, he joined songwriter Becky Stark’s folk-pop project Lavender Diamond, whose debut album Imagine Our Love saw a very visible release on Matador last year. In that band, though, Williams was playing guitar mostly for touring purposes, and he always considered it a temporary gig.
Exiting Lavender Diamond to pursue his own material, he hooked up with Allen Bleyle and Greg Arnold to begin work on what would become Carefree. It wasn’t easy. It took three studios, more than a year, and plenty of personal upheaval before the album was finished. As Williams tells it, it was a weird period in his life. He quit his job, gave up his apartment to crash with friends, and chipped away at the album sporadically at most. With that said, he’s happy he took his time.
“I intended to finish it all in one week,” he explains, “but stuff wasn’t as finished as I wanted it to be, and there were only nine songs. So I did as much as I could [and] every time I got the money, I found time to do it. I’m glad I did it that way, because I got some songs on there that I wouldn’t have.”
Despite it bearing his name, Williams isn’t ready to call Carefree a solo album. “I guess it’s a solo album, but not really. It’s the most ‘band’ effort I’ve ever done.” The album has an alternate title, Careerfree, which has confused some listeners and reviewers. “It’s an inside joke that’s not that funny,” Williams demurs. “I’d rather be playing music than doing anything else, and I’m not really able to invest myself in anything else that much. So it’s like I put myself in a position where, unless I hit it big in music, I’ll always be without a job or a trade. Careerfree was our joke [about that].”
BeforeCarefree came a 7-inch single of the album tracks “A Truce” and “Elevator,” the first release from the indie music newspaper L.A. Record. Williams also recently toyed with a Replacements tribute band, but he’s eager to keep touring behind the album. He’d like to have a follow-up finished by next July, before his 28th birthday. After a creative dry spell following the completion of Carefree, he’s finally found himself in the right frame of mind, thanks in part to returning to his music-loving roots.
“I love pop music, and I love the earnestness and rawness of punk music,” he says, “and I find that early-’60s rock just encompassed [both] for me.”