Protest in Song 

Quinn DeVeaux opens his 'Book of Soul'

click to enlarge MUSICAL MIND: Singer-songwriter Quinn Deveaux

PHOTO COURTESY OF QUINN DEVEAUX

MUSICAL MIND: Singer-songwriter Quinn Deveaux

Quinn DeVeaux is sheltering at home in Palo Alto, writing songs and making plans for his next album. He said the still-unnamed record will include "Holiday," the protest song he recently wrote to address the wave of protests sweeping the world in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. The song recently made its video debut on the site of American Songwriter magazine and is slowly gaining traction online.

The clip is sparse, featuring DeVeaux picking his acoustic guitar and singing the compassionate lyrics in a warm, understated style. The song opens with a reference to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was tortured and murdered by two white men in 1955. The perpetrators were tried and found not guilty by an all-white jury. Deveaux sings softly:

"I can't forget the face of Emmett Till

And all the faces they take from us still

The lives we lost for reasons I can't say

I need a holiday..."

The use of the word "holiday," which usually signifies an escape from the workaday world, is jarring. It intensifies the message of the song's first verse. It's the effect DeVeaux was aiming for.

"I've been working on the song for six years," DeVeaux said. "I got the idea when Tamir Rice was murdered by the police in Ohio, back in 2014. There have been so many murders over the years. As I considered ideas about addressing these crimes that largely go unpunished, my heart was aching. I was thinking about the injustices down through history. It's hard to encapsulate into a song. There's so much housing discrimination, financial isolation, school segregation, all symptomatic of our situation, but, at the end of the day, stopping police-sanctioned murders is at the top of the list.

"I started the song with a verse about Tamir Rice, then I went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I've been wanting to go for years, but kept putting it off. I knew how hard it was going to be. I finally went and it was amazing, hard and very moving. I knew the story of Emmitt Till; they have an exhibit dedicated to him. Seeing his face—such a sweet kid—and the story of the brutality he endured, is tough to deal with, even knowing all the crimes that have been perpetrated on Black people.

"The last part of the song, I just wrote recently, about all the protests and Breonna Taylor's death, everything that's been happening recently. It's hard to put to music and I don't want to keep adding to the song, but I have a feeling I may have to come back to it and add more verses. I want it to be a song about history, but it's still unfolding."

After he finished making the video, DeVeaux put it up on his YouTube channel and his Facebook and Instagram pages. American Songwriter had published an article about his new album, Book of Soul, and got in touch with him.

"They were interested in taking it national, so I took it down, except on my YouTube page," DeVeaux said. "They did the official premier on June 10th. I'm in the process of recording a more produced version of the song—it's going to be on my next record and I'm still working on it. I don't know if there will be any more protest songs on the new set, but I write about what I'm feeling in the moment, so it's hard to know. There's a lot going on right now to write about."

DeVeaux said he's originally from a town near Gary, Indiana. He sang in the choir at his grandmother's church and played guitar in high school, but never thought about a career in music.

"I picked up the guitar to learn how to play songs I liked by Hendrix, Cream and Jack White, guys who have spent time playing their guitars," DeVeaux said. "Every time I sat down, it would spark a song. The guitar tells you where you're going. It told me I'm not a soloist—I'm a songwriter.

"I came out to Washington to attend Evergreen College. In my sophomore year, I got into a cover band that played an on-campus gig for the incoming freshmen. At the end of the show, they let me do a set of my own tunes with an acoustic guitar. The crowd went completely silent and I was hooked."

After graduation, DeVeaux found his way to Oakland.

"It felt like home, with an artistic and musical community that's culturally wide open," he said. "I started a band called the Blue Roots with Lech Wierzynski—it later became the California Honeydrops. There was always dancing at those shows and I got hooked. When I left that band, I started the Blue Beat Review with Chris Seibert, the keyboard player for Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers."

The Review packed Bay Area clubs for several years, with their wide-open blend of country, blues, soul, folk, R&B, gospel and swing. Before they went their separate ways, they made two albums—Originals and Under Covers, creative reinventions of the tunes that inspired the band's sound. As their tenure wound down, DeVeaux began splitting his time between Nashville and Oakland. He put together a band in Nashville and started writing the songs that became Book Of Soul.

"I don't know where the title came from, but the soul music of Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, the Meters and modern folks like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley is part of my roots," he said. "This album is my love letter to old-time soul music. I produced the album with the help of engineer Andrija Tokic. He brought in some session guys with impressive resumes—drummer Jimmy Lester (Los Straightjackets, Billy Joe Shaver,) keyboard player Peter Keys (P-funk, Lynyrd Skynyrd,) Jon Estes (Alabama Shakes, Langhorn Slim) on guitar and more.

"It's the first time I produced, so it was a bit intimidating, but they were all down to play the songs the way I had envisioned them. It was a fascinating experience."

The album was released in February and sounds like a greatest-hits compilation from soul's golden age. The sounds of Stax, Motown and Specialty blend smoothly with DeVeaux's expressive vocals on tunes like "All I Need," a funky blues/rock number; "Come On Home," a late-night ballad DeVeaux croons with a smoldering organ in the background; and "Take Me Home," a second-line strut that could have been a hit for Huey "Piano" Smith. DeVeaux said the tunes were honed on a month-long tour of Russia that he completed just before the lockdown started.

"We had an eight-piece band with two horns, two backing singers, guitar, bass, drums and keys," he said. "It was a dance party. We had a tour manager/interpreter along, and thank goodness for her. She smoothed things over and we had a great experience. Not many people speak a lot of English there, but they loved the music."

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