By Rachel Hergett
for the Chronicle
Paradise Valley musician Sean Devine hopes he will never have to write his last song. Music is life. It is comfort. It is home. He can’t imagine living without it.
“Music has been a self-soothing activity for me since I was a child. Because I needed it,” Devine said over lunch at Faye’s Cafe in the Shane Center in Livingston on Tuesday. He started songwriting about the same time he was a student in the former elementary school. “It has been my most intimate friend throughout my whole life.”
Until recently, the music kept many of his secrets. Now, he’s opening up on “Pencil and Paper,” a six-song EP that is both a musical and an emotional exploration. The tracks are essentially demos, recorded at home on Devine’s iPhone. Devine was sending the recordings to a prospective producer, one who might help him shape an album. He imagined a full band and a big sound like 2015’s “Austin Blues” and 2021’s “Here for it All.”
But the demos are quiet. The recordings are Devine singing and strumming songs written over a span of 20 years on his guitar. “Presence of the Lord,” which was included on Devine’s 2004 album, “After the Big Parade,” is reimagined to allow space for a larger band — and possibly a Hammond B-3 organ. Other songs were penned this year.
“I had some songs laying around that I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything with,” Devine said. “I wasn’t sure what to do with them.”
Some, in this case, is upwards of 30 songs, Devine admits. He has wrestled with how many to release, and what he envisions for each. Recording albums in the studio takes time. With “Pencil and Paper,” Devine felt a need to express himself on his own timeline.
“This whole thing emanates from a basic fundamental need to communicate as an artist,” Devine said.
Devine was encouraged to release music by his wife, musician and actress Quenby Iandiorio. And the question whether or not to let the songs stand as they were became a “why not?” after Devine listened to the demo of “How Can I Love You This Time?”
“When I heard the playback, I thought ‘I love this song. This song moves me, very much. I want other people to hear this,’” Devine said.
As the EP’s first track, “How Can I Love You This Time?” sets the tone at the start of the album. In it, Devine sings to his parents, siblings, lovers and children, addressing scars of the past and trying to best move forward with love.
Devine allows the sparse recordings on “Pencil and Paper” to highlight the complexities of the human experience in the lyrics. Within the six songs, Devine is trying to “recognize a simple reality, to see things for just how they are, to encounter people and get to know them, just as they are, not for how you had already begun to think of them before you got to know them.”
Beyond what a space lends to the music, a keen listener will actually hear the room where Devine strums his guitar in the recordings — a slight scrape of a chair, the rumbling of a hay truck going by on the county road.
One song on the album is also more political than Devine has allowed himself to express in his music.
“I try to maintain a really big picture perspective on politics,” Devine said. “Things change and change again and they’re changeable.”
But he couldn’t ignore the stories of women speaking out across the country, or of women in his life.
Devine started writing “You Live in this World Too” in bed one night, not with pencil and paper, but in a note on his phone after listening to early news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.
“There were just women talking, sounding very emotional about their own personal experiences,” Devine said. “They were every kind of experience, every kind of reason or predicament that a person might find themself in, so that abortion is the only way out — even if that’s just the way they saw it.”
“You Live in this World Too” tells the stories of three women in some amalgamation of fact and fiction, then directly addresses those who might criticize their actions or make an already difficult choice legally impossible.
“I’d hold my tongue if I was you, before you ask what Jesus do,” Devine sings. “You live in a world where Christian girls get abortions too.”
Though more emotional and political than previous releases, “Pencil and Paper” isn’t Devine’s way of changing direction. He still plans to work with the aforementioned producer. He still loves working with the best possible session musicians and hearing the outcome of that collaboration on the record.
“I didn’t turn away from that stuff to make an EP of home demos,” Devine said, then laughed as he continued, “I did it on the side.”
“Pencil and Paper,” which went straight to streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music at the end of October and never was in a physical tape form, is in a way a return to the recording of Devine’s first album “Walking Down the Road.”
“It brought me back around in a way that I wasn’t contemplating at the time to a very similar place in my feeling about myself as an artist, in that I’m only responsible to this feeling of inspiration,” Devine said. “I’m not trying to figure out what everybody wants to hear.”
“Walking Down the Road” was recorded on a 12-track tape recorder and mixer in 1997. A new version, remastered by Jamey Warren of Soundcolor Studios in Livingston in honor of the album release’s 25th anniversary, is available this week on streaming platforms. For more information, visit www.seandevinemusic.com.