Jersey City Rocker Debra Devi on the Music Scene, Her Career and Ladies on the Mic
Host and organizer Beth Achenbach welcomed a capacity crowd to Made With Love cafe on Sunday, March 11 with peppery wit and self-deprecating modesty. She did several pieces, first recruiting a member of the audience for a mock-dramatic reading of a Whitney Houston song lyric. Later she read an autobiographical work that described the different stages of her life from infancy to adulthood, each ending with the tagline “where’s the food?” Achenbach’s delightfully wry sense of humor came through on each piece she did; she might call it spoken word, but with a little tweaking, she could be doing stand-up.
The other women who took the mic during the event brought a range of experiences to their work: Stephanie Thornton Bryant, who had her five-month-old son in tow, read a piece that described in excruciating detail the process of giving birth, which had the audience both cringing and roaring with laughter. Christine Goodman, a key figure in the Jersey City arts scene for more than a decade with her work at Art House Productions, read several pieces, the most moving of which detailed the death of her aunt and the reactions of the other women in her family. Wendy Weber Eaton, an artist, actress and spoken word performer, and Jennifer Egert, a clinical psychologist by trade, also performed personal and affecting pieces they had written.
But Achenbach had saved the best for last, a performance by Jersey City rocker Debra Devi, who brought an electric guitar and a small amp and ended the early evening performance with a set of her bluesy rock. Devi explained that she normally performs as a trio (currently composed of brothers John and Kevin Hummel on drums and bass) but her solo renditions more than captured the songs’ hooky resonance and gritty passion. She opened with a cover of Neil Young’s elegiac The Needle & The Damage Done and included several of her originals, including Get Free, the title track of her group’s debut album.
Devi (pronounced “Davey”) is part of a growing community of musicians moving to Jersey City’s Downtown neighborhood – she lives around the corner from Made With Love – and the Jersey City Independent spoke with her before her recent appearance about the neighborhood, Jersey City’s music scene and her career.
Devi is not only a career musician but a published author. Her book The Language Of The Blues won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award and was just reissued as an e-book available through Amazon.com.
“I grew up in Milwaukee, and that’s really where I was first exposed to the blues,” Devi explains. “There were all these Chicago blues guys always passing through town on tour, playing these little places on their way to better-paying gigs in Minneapolis or wherever. So when I was a teenager, I started seeing Koko Taylor and Son Seals and people like that. It was the first live music that I really saw, and I just thought, oh my God, I want to do that too.”
Like so many female musicians, Devi got a late start. “I played acoustic a little bit in high school but I didn’t pick up an electric guitar and get really serious about it until senior year in college,” she notes. “I had been fighting the urge for a really long time and finally broke down and got an electric guitar. My mother gets really tired of me telling this story, but I asked her if I could learn electric guitar when I was about 15 and she told me that it would be unladylike, so that discouraged me for a long time.”
Devi eventually decided to leave Milwaukee and follow her muse, which brought her first to Manhattan and then Hoboken.
“In Hoboken, I was living in a rent-controlled apartment and then someone bought the building and shoved us all out, so at that point, I had been hearing a lot about Jersey City,” she says. “So I started poking around downtown and it reminded me so much of the East Village back when there were still a lot of cool things happening with underground art there, and clubs were popping up all over the place. So I felt very at home here, more than I did in Hoboken actually. I was really happy to find this place and I really love it here.”
“People ask me who my role models were growing up, and they were really all men,” Devi adds. “There were people like Patti Smith and Joan Jett, and I loved the Pretenders, but it always bothered me that when it came time to play the solos, a male guitar player did that. And it bugged me. I wanted to play the solos. What was the deal with that? It couldn’t be that hard, I figured. So I was into the Sex Pistols and Led Zeppelin and bands like that.
“The one exception was Bonnie Raitt, who was one of the first women I ever saw play electric guitar,” she adds. “I was just thrilled by that. I love her slide playing. And she blurbed my book, which was very exciting for me. She’s very generous when it comes to the blues and very supportive of anything that tries to bring the blues to a new generation.”
For that reason, Devi became involved with Fender’s Girls Rock Nation program.
“The thrust of the program is to have young girls have role models to pick up instruments earlier,” she explains. “When I was growing up, I’d read guitar magazines and there was not a single woman in them, unless she was wearing some sexy leotard straddling a guitar. It was really frustrating. But then Daisy Rich came out with this line of guitars for women, and I wound up going to a trade show and I wound up stalking the Fender guy. I gave him a copy of my CD and I showed him that I played a Strat, and they took me on as a spokesperson. Girls Rock Nation is a separate website that they have and artists like Avril Lavigne and Ana Popovic, the great blues guitarist, and some really top-notch artists on the site to encourage girls. It’s not just about picking up the guitar, their slogan is for women to ‘rock whatever you do.’ Which I think is a really great message for young women, and I really appreciate the chance to be a role model for them.”
While Devi has worked as a writer and editor, she didn’t start out with the intention of writing a book about blues.
“I came to New York with this great love of the blues, but when I got here, I pretty much played in punk bands,” she explains. “Nobody wanted to jam or have me play anything bluesy. So I got away from it for a while. Then a few years ago, I was a little bored intellectually and was trying to figure out something to do, and I had some work as an editor for Blues Revue magazine. And I thought, I’m bandying about these terms like mojo and hoodoo like I know what they mean, but do I really know? And more interestingly, where do words like that come from?”
Her interest in the etymology of blues terms led her to realize that while there were plenty of academic books on the topic, very few authors had actually interviewed blues artists to get a firsthand account.
“Nobody was asking these people, what does the word mojo mean to you? So I thought, that’s a contribution I can make, and that’s how I wound up writing the book.”
Devi has high praise for Achenbach and Ladies On The Mic. “Beth just sets up these great events around Jersey City to bring together female poets and singers and musicians to do these shows, so I was very pleased that she asked me to do this show,” she says enthusiastically. “I usually play through a big Marshall amp and I have my band members with me, but it’s fun sometimes to just bring my Strat and do a quiet solo set.
The band – which is just called Devi – temporarily lost its regular bassist, Dan Grennes, who is touring with the national company of the Green Day musical “American Idiot.” So Kevin Hummel – brother of drummer John Hummel – has stepped in and the band plans on performing regularly in area clubs.
“It’s really amazing having a pair of brothers in the band,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s almost like they have this mental telepathy, they always know what the other is going to be doing, and it’s been really exciting playing with them.”
Devi will play at Groove On Grove Wednesday, April 11, with Sylvana Joyce & The Moment and the Static Sea. The next Ladies On Mic takes place April 25 at the Groove On Grove series outdoors at the Grove Street PATH Plaza.
Also, Devi’s new album is available for free. You can download it from her website.
Photos by Jim Testa