Most days, Devon Gilfillian loves living in Nashville. Today isn’t one of them. At the time of this interview, he’s three days away from the release of his second album, Love You Anyway, but his mind is elsewhere at the state capitol, where children have joined adults to protest lawmakers’ refusal to act over gun laws in the aftermath of the Covenant School shooting, barely a week ago. The protest will eventually result in the expulsion of two young, Black Democratic lawmakers by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“Right now, in this moment, I’m very pissed off at this city,” says Gilfillian, over the phone from his east side apartment. He breaks off, almost involuntarily, into a peal of laughter, at once full of humor and total bewilderment, as though there’s no better way to sum up his emotions. “I do feel empowered by all of the voices here and all of the community here that has banded together,” he says. “But it’s pretty insane.”
Three years ago, when Gilfillian released his debut full-length, Black Hole Rainbow, he likely would have felt differently. He was a young R&B singer signed to a major label, finally getting his big break after nearly a decade of trying. All he cared about was making the most of the opportunities in front of him. “I was definitely part of the problem,” he says, looking back. Then Covid-19 happened. His plans were put on hold, and the world around him burned.
“I just felt like, what am I doing as a musician? What is my job?” Gilfillian remembers. “Like, what’s the point, in this country, where all these things are happening and our voices are getting smothered?”
The answers to those questions, and to his own blunt self-assessment, play themselves out over the course of Love You Anyway‘s 11 tracks, bursting as it is with joy and movement, hardship and heaviness. Like its predecessor, there are thick R&B grooves, shuddering funk breakdowns, and crunchy rock riffing drenched in his Philadelphia upbringing, but there’s a new lightness to it all, an exuberance that’s downright contagious. It’s also, simultaneously, more grounded, more sensual, more real — from the self-love of “Imma Let My Body Move” and the love of Black female beauty on “Brown Sugar Queen” to the dancefloor foreplay of the single “All I Really Wanna Do.”
“I definitely came back down to Earth,” Gilfillian says of his latest recordings. “I want to reflect me, like really reflect myself, into these songs. I know who I am more than I did five years ago.”
One of the album’s guiding principles was to celebrate Black joy, which so often gets overshadowed by depictions of Black suffering. “There’s so much struggle — and, you know, I love that, I love those stories,” the singer says, singling out his admiration for the work of rappers like Kendrick Lamar. “But I also wanted to highlight and tell a story of just falling in love and just enjoying life, but still with the real stuff — the real shit.”
He’s found his own source of joy over the past few years by seeking out other Black artists in the city, something he hadn’t made a concerted effort to do before. Through that, he says, “I saw just how hard it is in Nashville for Black artists, for Black musicians, to really get the recognition and the space.” Gilfillian, who was steeped in the music of Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix by his father, gravitated toward events like the monthly “Sunday Night Soul” at East Nashville club the Five Spot, hosted by singer Jason Eskridge. Such platforms were more the exception than the rule. “I was like, OK, there’s a clear imbalance here,” he says.
Gilfillian had witnessed segregation firsthand when he moved to Nashville from his hometown, outside Philadelphia, in 2013, to work as an AmeriCorps volunteer. His job entailed helping to get air-conditioning units for poor and underserved members of the community, who, more often than not, were people of color. As he later tried to process the events of 2020, including the murder of George Floyd, he began to question himself as well, and whether or not he was doing enough. “I always feel like I have more work to do,” he says, “but I feel like I at least woke up a lot.”
His first effort to put those feelings into action was a song-by-song re-recording of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, featuring artists like Eskridge, Joy Oladokun, and Jamila Woods, ahead of the 2020 election. All proceeds for the album went to Equity Alliance of Nashville, which works to educate minority voters in Tennessee and fight voter suppression.
On Love You Anyway, Gilfillian teamed with a trusted circle of co-writers he’s cultivated during his time in Nashville, like Henry Brill, Ran Jackson, and the album’s producer, Jeremy Lutito. Among the highlights is “Let the Water Flow,” inspired by the “rage and anger” Gilfillian felt over the 2022 Georgia law banning the distribution of food or water to people waiting in line to vote. It’s all too easy, he believes, to dismiss the battles of the Civil Rights Movement as relics of the past.
“It’s happening now, man. It’s not as blatant. It’s not Black and white water fountains. It’s just really sneaky — but also not that sneaky anymore,” he says. Not so long ago, “Black people were killed and hung and dragged and beaten for showing up to the voting booth. So people forget just how much it’s our right that we’ve fought so hard — so hard — to get.”
At the same time that Gilfillian worked to expand his view of the world, he found himself facing his own upheaval on the personal front. Despite Black Hole Rainbow earning a Grammy nomination, a subsequent change of management at his label, Capitol Records, saw him dropped from the roster just one year after its release. That could easily have been enough to crush his spirits, but Gilfillian is propelled by a tireless optimism. He rebounded with a new recording contract with Fantasy Records, helped in part by the good word of friend and now-labelmate Nathaniel Rateliff, who lends his vocals to the song “Righteous.”
“It felt like everyone was in the same boat, you know. We’re all in the same boat, we’re all here together,” Gilfillian insists. “And I just always felt like everything happens for a reason, and my eyes were opening up for a reason.”
That attitude helps explain why the album takes its name from “Love You Anyway,” a heartfelt plea to work through our differences and to remember that friends and family aren’t supposed to be our enemies. Grounded though he may be, he hasn’t given up his hope.
“We have made progress, we have. We’ve made a lot. And it’s slow, and shit goes backwards. But I believe that there’s enough people here that want to fight and go forward,” Gilfillian says. There’s another laugh, one more tired and resolute than before. “I just got to, I gotta believe in that, or I’ll just be depressed. I gotta look forward.”