Interview by Robert Cavuoto
Live Pics: © Zenae Zukowski
Devin Townsend will be releasing a new CD entitled, Empath on March 29th via Inside Out/Sony Music. Over the course of the last 25 years, accomplished heavy music artist Devin Townsend has remained consistent. Consistent-that is-in that he’s rarely consistent in what we’ve come to expect from him. Constantly making unique inroads with many different styles of music, he has followed his particular muse in any way it leads him for almost three decades.
Although heavy metal and progressive rock has always been his primary focus, each year that passes recently has resulted in new peripheral works that have seen him branch off to everything from country, new age, ambient noise or even orchestral musical theatre. As endearing as that has been to his constantly growing fanbase, it has also made it difficult to classify with much accuracy what he does and what he represents. Who is Devin Townsend? What is his musical identity? With his new album, Empath we find that Devin Townsend is actually all of these things.
I had an in-depth conversation with Devin about what went into making this CD and how it was recorded around the world utilizing different musical textures.
Robert Cavuoto: For Empath did you find yourself creating something special then carrying through with a theme or concept?
Devin Townsend: It’s my mid-life crisis put to music. I can sex it up and make an analogy for a lot of things, but if I’m distilling it down, it’s about heading towards 50. It probably has more to do with it than I would like to admit. I feel that certain things are getting better while in direct accordance with that; some things are getting worse.
I think my work, in general, has always been based more about the actualization of trying to become a better version of myself. Even when I was younger and didn’t realize that this is what the function of the music was; in hindsight, I think it always was. When Strapping Yong Lad was over, I had a different perspective on how I related to those types of emotions. I think that has always been the case. Going back to the mid-life thing; for this album, it certainly has an aspect of let’s take stock in life thus far. It’s like laying it out in front of you and analyzing your relationship with all these different emotions and how they manifest their way into the different styles of music. Empath as a name would imply something of an emotional nature. If you’re an artist and have a highly sensitive nature like I do; the idea of being able to not only explore your relationship with those emotions but to use that as a way to express a bunch of different styles in one place on the record. It ended up being this overarching theme of empathy.
Robert Cavuoto: Does it feel cathartic to get it out and did you feel good once it was completed?
Devin Townsend: [Laughing] There are all different levels of good. I’m very fortunate that I can walk and have use of my arms for example. I have a family that I love dearly and a job. I would be lying if didn’t say a project like this isn’t psychologically challenging. This was an 18-month process; when you give yourself a grace period of three days then a tsunami of repressed shit for the past year that hits you in the back of your head, and then you spend another two weeks wondering; “Where am I at?” I think I just made it out of that phase. Bottom line is everything is good, I’m happy, but it is a little trying at times [Laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Do you often self-sensor how much goes into a song? At what point do you say, it’s perfect and done?
Devin Townsend: I spend a great amount of my day centered through meditation or by my family. Without that, it goes south pretty quick, and I have proven that to myself in the past. I spend a significant amount of time trying to keep myself together. Fortunately, my style of writing is what I like to call “vision based.” By that I mean, I’ll have an experience in the beginning of a project, which has an emotional significance in some way. It could be someone passing or away or being born. It’s that say of “Ahh” that you are fundamentally a part of and more than you. That experience imprints itself on me in a way that I have a hard time not thinking about it. Then my language is to express how I feel about it through my music. A result of that I know when the song is done when they hit the boxes that make me remember that initial experience. Knowing when to quit and let it go, you can only do your best. I often like to say this about myself, “I’m a relentless perfectionist who is completely imperfect.” The combination of those things is like grasping at straws through most of the process.
Robert Cavuoto: One of my favorite songs is “Borderlands.” Could you share some insight into its creation?
Devin Townsend: It’s about infidelity but not with another person, it’s with the muse. It’s with the creative inclination that it can be all-consuming for an artist. If we are not careful, you can be fascinated by the beauty of what it is that we are trying to represent through your work and end up losing the plot altogether. Even the line at the end of the song, “Shine like the galaxies although no one will hear.” When I play with artists, they say, “What’s the point, nobody is going to hear this or I can’t get my record out.” What makes following your creative path so important on a personal level is doing it for yourself. I think “Borderlands” as a zone represents that cusp of the healthy pursuit creatively and an unhealthy obsession.
Robert Cavuoto: In the song, “Borderlands” there is a baby crying, does that represent anything?
Devin Townsend: I think it may represent a dose of reality, amid the creative process. Prior to having kids, I could rationalize the “insanity” within myself because it was romantic not having those responsibilities. Once I had kids, the things that I thought was beyond my capacity as a person, when thrust into that situation, I could do it. I realized that all of that romance that I adhered to for my creative process was selfish in a way. Once having kids, I realized I can put a cap on that if I want to, even if you didn’t want to.
Robert Cavuoto: Your music has merged so many different musical aspects. What are some of the emotions that you like to evoke from your songs?
Devin Townsend: All of them! [laughing] I want it to evoke so many things that it becomes overwhelming. By the end of the record, I want the listen to be overwhelmed where you spend a couple of minutes reeling and then forget about it. It’s almost like letting it go that is too much. I had to make something that was extreme to evoke that sense of “What the fuck!” After 18 months of working on it and I listened to it in its entirety that was my initial thought! A few minutes later I was like “What’s for dinner?” [laughing]. In a way, that is almost the goal of it. To let it go.
Robert Cavuoto: I felt as if this CD took me around the world with its different cultural music elements.
Devin Townsend: Actually, it was recorded around the world. Every project that I do reveals itself to us as artists. Making a record like this and discovering the parts that are wrong and then removing them until the things that you are left with are in the ballpark. I realized that it needed to have a ton of people on it and be recorded in different locations with a mix of different cultures. It was recorded in Serbia, America, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Sweden. In the end, it is supposed to represent all of these different emotions, and those emotions are like colors so you will want to add colors and textures. It’s what this project asked for.
Robert Cavuoto: As I was listening to the CD, I was wondering how you know what elements to add to a song.
Devin Townsend: I opened myself to doing things that I wasn’t allowed to do for most of my career for insecurity reasons or feeling that it won’t be accepted. I had to break down the bias I built up in my own mind; the creative floodgates opened quickly. It becomes less about, “What would be cool here” and more about “Why not?” The writing process included a lot of that. When I had to put it together in the studio, I realized what a mess I had made for myself. [laughing] It was written with a lot of freedom. Retrospectively adding all of these elements seems like a clever move, but at the time it’s all about “Why not?” You can rationalize anything in hindsight. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, you can play that card and say, “It was a very intentional statement on this or that.”