Since it’s been five years since her last full-length album, fans might be under the impression that Irish singer-songwriter Janet Devlin has been taking her sweet time with her art. But when you consider that she has written a book to go along with that album in that time, her work ethic actually seems awful impressive.
The fruits of those labors have finally arrived. Devlin’s new album Confessional (order) powerfully evokes some of the difficult times she’s faced in the past decade, including her mental health and addiction issues. And, to put an even finer point on that past, her memoir My Confessional offers a more detailed blow-by-blow.
In both cases, her courage in digging so deeply into raw wounds is notable. And in the process she has delivered her finest album to date, as she lays bare her emotions with soul-searching lyrics and stirring music. Devlin spoke to American Songwriter via e-mail to tell us about how she juggled the new projects, the process of revealing so much of her personal life to the world, and what lessons she hopes others might learn from her experience.
Which came first in this process: the idea to write the book or the album that is based on it?
The idea for the album came first. I wanted to share the experiences that I’ve been through and be the most honest version of myself. When I started writing though, I realised that the songs were sounding very self-indulgent. So I took a more metaphorical approach to the writing but in doing so, realised I wasn’t being as honest as I wanted to be. This led to the idea of writing the book. I could write my story without limitations but also allow myself to have an album that was still relatable.
Did you realize what a massive undertaking this was going to be to do these projects simultaneously?
I had an idea but I was wrong. It was much more of a task than I thought it would be! Luckily, I don’t have too much of a personal life anyways, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my time to this project! The juggling was the hardest part. When I’d have a good month on the book, the music would fall behind and vice versa. There were just never enough hours in the day.
As a songwriter, how did you approach trying to capture what you had written about in the book, and how did you bring your collaborators into that process?
I would bring my list of topics and ideas into the studio session. I’d pick the three that I would be comfortable writing about that day, then I’d run them past the person writing the song with me. I wanted to make sure there was a choice because you would never know whether someone you’re working with may have been affected by a particular topic. Then after settling on a subject, I’d fill them in on the nitty-gritty details. Usually I had an idea as to what type of track I wanted to write – mostly because I knew what I needed and what was missing on the album so far. So it always just ended up feeling like a therapy session mixed with an English literature exam!
Obviously, the book has to be a bit more linear in its storytelling while the songs could be more metaphorical about the issues you were facing. Did you find that to be an interesting dichotomy as you took this on?
It was in equal measure fun yet difficult. Put another way, it was fun to have such a difficult project to work on! The book challenges were very different from the music. I would have difficulty articulating what I’d done in my past whilst writing the book, but then I had struggles with getting the right metaphors or clever wordplay in the songs. But like I said, it was fun for that exact reason. I loved playing with phrases that sounded innocent on the surface but knowing they held a deeper meaning. It was also very liberating being able to play with words in the book because I’d never had so much room to convey my thoughts as I’m usually confined to the verses of a song.
How difficult was it to revisit some of these life events where you might not have been your best self?
I can’t deny that it was tough. I cried a lot. I often asked myself the question “If I’m a good person, why have I done so many bad things?”. Though I may not be proud of some of the situations I put myself in or things that I’ve done in my past, I’ve made my peace with them now. My past no longer defines me. But I had to write it all down to get to where I am now with it all. The process of purging made it real, but it also took a lot of the hurt out of a lot of things that I held onto for so long.
These songs do a great job of capturing modern influences while still incorporating traditional Irish elements as well. How important was it for you to strike that balance?
I’ll be honest, I was never altogether too worried about the balance. I suppose that’s why some songs lean more heavily on this influence than others. I just knew that I wanted to get the sounds of home on this album. But each song had its own varying degrees of how much of that sound suited the style of writing. But I feel as a whole, the album has balance. For one example, “Holy Water” and “Better Now” are somehow songs on the same album, and not only that, are beside each other! But it just works.
What strikes me about this album and the book is how brave it all is. It must have been tempting to sugar-coat a lot of this, but instead you kept it as raw as possible. How scary was it to expose yourself in this way?
It probably should’ve been scarier than it was. I did get a few phone-calls from my editor asking “Are you sure you want to include this?” But that’s how I knew I was on the right path. If it was a pleasant book to write, I wasn’t being truthful enough. I think I get too much joy out of shattering illusions though. I like that the book destroys peoples pre-conceived ideas of who I am. Though it’s scary to be this honest, it’s also in a twisted way, fun.
I was really struck by “Better Now,” such a beautiful song, but an interesting one in that the music seems to push against the notion of the title, suggesting that the narrator is far from better now. What did that song represent in this story you were telling?
If the album were a movie, ‘Better Now’ would not have to exist. There would’ve been a happy ending and everything would’ve worked on in the end. But I’m human so this was not the way my life panned out. ‘Better Now’ isn’t about being better. It’s about the fact that life will continue to be a struggle. That I’m going to have days where my demons will catch up to me because I’m not perfect. I am human and I am flawed.
How excited are you for both the album and the book to come to light after so much time working on it?
Excited isn’t a large enough word for what I’m feeling. I loved the process of making it all but after almost six years, I’m ready to get rid of it now! Like most artists I believe that the work is no longer mine when it’s released and for that I’m excited. I can’t wait for all of it to belong to everyone else.
What do you hope that other fans listening to this record take as a lesson from the experiences you’ve endured?
Selfishly, I don’t know! As I did this for myself, it’s completely self-serving. I wanted to get rid of my sins. The fact is though, as a consequence, it appears to have helped others too. But I can’t claim that as intentional! It has been completely overwhelming to read others’ stories and experiences in response to the songs and their meanings, so in a way there is perhaps some good that has come from the dark times.