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. Always one to make unique inroads with many different styles of music, he has followed his particular muse in any way it leads for almost three decades. Although heavy metal and progressive rock has always been his primary focus, each recent year that passed 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 accurately classify what he does and what he represents. Who is Devin Townsend? What is his musical identity?
The answer? — EMPATH. With this ambitious new album, he has decided to see what would happen if all the styles that make up his current interests were finally represented in one place. To finally shake the fear of expectation, and just do what it is he was meant to do creatively, EMPATH, true to the name, is about allowing the audience to feel a variety of musical emotions. The musical dynamics represented on this single album are broad, challenging, and immense. To approach this sort of work with a long history of what makes heavy music “heavy,” allows this to be done with a type of power rarely heard. Through the entire process, either intentionally or by happenstance, Devin found himself in contact with many brilliant and unpredictable collaborators and people willing to help and inspire. Among the list of people involved were Elliot Desagnes, Steve Vai, Chad Kroeger, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Ché Aimee Dorval, Ryan Dhale, and the fabulous Elektra Women’s Choir, as well as several renowned orchestras from around the world. The process became increasingly more fantastic and eclectic the more it all began to grow and take shape. The results are undeniable. ‘Empath’ serves as a bold statement with massive production values and dynamic, uncompromised musicality. This is a statement about not only pursuing creative freedom in a conservative scene, but also trying to show that heavy music is truly a valid musical tool.
Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Devin Townsend to discuss his evolution as an artist, the making of ‘Empath’ and what the future holds for him as an artist. Along the way, he offers insight into his work and his creative process.
What went into finding your creative voice as a young artist?
I think the things that propelled me back in the beginning are the same things that propel me now. That is a sense of compulsion to follow things that feel emotionally important to me to solve on some level. I don’t think that with any sense of nobility, altruism, or anything. I get stuck on certain problems in my life, certain people or situations. In order to get by them, which you would be foolish not to want to do, the byproduct has always included music. Since a very young age, music has been a loophole for me where I could express myself emotional and kind of get away with it with my family. As a family, I think we were maybe a little emotionally reserved or closed off. The fact that as a very sensitive kid I had that loophole, everything got hardwired to it. As I started and as I continue, it’s all based on that. I identify certain things in my life that need work or analysis on some level, pound my way through them and music is the result of that!
You’ve built an amazing career through your hard work and dedication to your craft. What do you consider the keys to longevity in the music business?
I think there is one thing that is more important than anything else. That is learning how to fail efficiently. I think, now more than ever such as it is lately, simply putting yourself out there and doing something that is against the grain, even if that is not your intention, you are exposing yourself as a target for immense criticism. There is a whole litany of people, specifically people who tend to not do anything on their own musically, who are professional critics, if you know what I mean. They are people who make money off of being critical of other people’s work. That’s a thing now, right?! Part of any creative growth is trying things in spite of having a great probability of falling on your face. If you do that, there are going to be all those people lined up to tell you how much of an idiot you are and that you shouldn’t continue. If you really want to succeed, it’s about learning how to get back on your feet after situations like that. You also have to learn how to take all those criticisms in the ways they are truly presented, which typically says more about the other person if they are that critical of your work than it does about you. Learning how to get over that stuff and learning when you make a legitimate mistake and learning to move on is one of the most important keys, I believe.
What goes into fueling your creative fire these days?
I think that getting a little older has provided me with a bit of a kick in the ass! I don’t mean it to sound as dramatic as this, but time does have a limit for you as an artist and as a human being. I’ve been fortunate enough to make it to this age but now, being a little bit more aware of that mortality and time limit that’s imposed, I feel like, “Shit! Now’s the time for me to do all of those things that I want to do. Maybe it’s the orchestras, the commercial album, being able to tour without compromise with people who I know will be accurate for each one of the tours, having different bands and really branch out and spread my wings.” Slowly, I’m kind of scheming all those things right now! It takes a lot of foresight, I’ve found. Just haphazardly running into any of these things, which is something I have tended to do in the past, didn’t help at all. So, now I’m just putting the pieces together now to attack all of those things!
Seeing that you are plotting your course for the future, what can you tell us about capturing those ideas.
Everything I’ve done is about creating a vibe. When I get it right, it’s a really specific vibe, so when you put on the album it takes you to that place. You look at ‘Casualties of Cool,’ ‘Deconstruction,’ ‘Empath,’ or any of these albums, what goes into making it work is that I find myself interested in a certain thing. Then I just keep on investigating, based simply on being interested in it, what makes that thing make me feel the way that I do. Usually, it’s a combination of a lot of things ranging from sounds, vibes, tempos, aesthetics, fonts, colors, shapes or images. The more I get a clear picture of what the vibe is that I’m trying to achieve, the more I can articulate it. Right now, it’s almost about trying to define which one of these current vibes that I am working towards is the most important one to me. Once I have decided that, I can start really digging into it. It’s also not something I can rush. It’s not a conscious thing. I write and poke around doing what I do and eventually one of these things takes a pole position and that’s the one I begin to work one.
When did your vision for the latest album, ‘Empath,’ begin to take shape?
It was about 2 or 3 years ago. I was still with DTP and I started to get the idea for the tropical island, the monsters, the good creatures and the bad creatures, and how the protagonist is trying to transcend both those things in a way. It’s one of these things that I don’t think has anything to do with me necessarily. It’s more to do with following the path of least resistance and allowing myself to investigate certain things that seem important to me. Inevitably, if the theme is the one that I got right, then all paths lead to it in my life. My entire world tends to get consumed by that vibe. I think ‘Empath’ had a lot to do with mid-life and wanting to reflect on my past and my back catalog and use the concept of emotions and emotional dynamics to rationalize making a whole bunch of different vibes in one place. It’s maybe a little bit different from some of the records I’ve done in the past where it’s definitely one thing. ‘Casualties of Cool’ is definitely one vibe but this one is a lot of things in one place.
What did you learn about yourself as an artist through the process of creating this album?
There were parts of my creative identity that I had relegated to a sort of no man’s land — the aggression, the anger, the fast stuff or the Strapping Young Lad sort of style music. For the longest time, I thought the fact that I had done that was like an aberration or there was something wrong with me. I consciously decided not to investigate that style of music for almost 10 years. With ‘Empath,’ it became clear those things are a big part of my creative identity, a big part of what I’ve done and the longer I go without figuring it out, the more control it has over me. I sort of dove into this time and participated in my fear of it. I came out the other side with a much more accurate view on that part of myself and that was hugely beneficial!
You’ve lived with album for a bit and you mentioned branching out. What does that mean to you are this point in time?
I could go one of 3 or 4 ways right now. Currently, I’m doing acoustic touring right now and it’s almost a way to give myself a break. Although there are a lot of ideas bubbling under the surface right now, I’m also thankfully not to concerned about starting them yet. It will be one of 3 or 4 directions and the one that will take pole position hasn’t presented itself yet.
I wanted to ask about the artwork for ‘Empath’ because it’s absolutely incredible. What went into bringing that part of your vision to life?
I start the artwork now, sometimes years before the album. Of these 3 or 4 projects that I’m working on next, all of the artwork has been started for each one of them. In the past, what has happened is that I get rushed. The record will be finished, and I don’t have a cover, like I did with ‘Physicist’ or ‘Epicloud,’ and it just ends up being the logo on the cover. There are certain ways with both of the albums I just mentioned that we still made it cool but it’s really important for me that the artwork evolves at the same time as the music. It gives me a visual representation of what I am working on, so I will start the art and as I’m working on the project, I will keep updating the artist’s work as my desktop. As I start getting more ideas for the music, I will send out an email and say, “Hey, I’ve been looking at this and there is too much blue. Maybe we need to put a whale in there. Maybe it needs to be raining.” By the end of the process, you’ve got something that’s symbiotic with the music. In the case of ‘Empath,’ what I was hoping to do is create a world for people that they could explore and potentially get lost in for an hour and a half or what have you. Having that kind of really deep artwork went hand-in-hand with that objective.
You’ve got a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the music business. What lessons did you learn early on that have had the greatest impact on you over the course of your career?
It’s a small industry. Being polite and being a kind person to the other people in the industry goes way further than we are told or than one would expect. You’d be amazed by the amount of people in this industry that don’t say “Good morning!” or “Hello!” or “Thank you.” Simple things like that, there are tons of them, right? You find that the people that do are successful! [laughs] Ya know what I mean? They are appreciated. I think the worst offenders of this are intermediate or upper-intermediate bands that are just starting to get success. Having been in that place a couple of times now, I’m well aware that you are all of a sudden surrounded by people who are getting paid to make you happy. It’s easy to take that for granted and have a tantrum if you don’t get things your way or demand things from people. Typically, these people want to keep their jobs and they’ll do whatever they can to keep the artist happy. Those are the same people who work together with other people who are much more successful or become much more successful than you. Everybody talks! It’s like if you ask, “How was your day?” You might hear, “I just had to wait on this guy who is just an asshole.” You ask, “Did you do it?” They are like, “Yeah, I did it. Of course, it’s my job. He got what he needed but I got the fuck out of there.” That’s when someone starts to get a reputation. A lot of times, people can’t sustain that success. They might have one hit or one record that does well and then it goes downhill or what have you and all those same people are there. I tell you what, man. If you’ve been a dick to somebody on the way up, no one forgets that on your way down! At the same time, if you were nice to people, they don’t tend to forget that either. I have a bunch of really good relationships with people who are much more successful than me. That doesn’t have a lot to do with music. It has more to do with the fact that we were at the same place at the same time and we like each other’s company, much more so than anything that was to do with music.
‘Empath’ is a great representation of where you are currently, as well as where you came from. When you look back at your career are there clear creative milestones?
That’s a good question. I yeah, I think there are milestones in a tangible way, like certain festivals or shows I’ve done, or certain sales things that have happened. There are definitely successes in that sense and there are a lot of them. However, I think my career is a little different than the standard arch of a musician in that everything I do is so intrinsically tied to me trying to become developed as a human that a lot of those things were never really as important, specifically in hindsight, as I expected them to be. Playing those bigger shows or getting those certain things never filled that void and didn’t become goal posts. Instead, it was like, “Oh, okay. I guess we did that now.” There are certain things that are easy to take for granted. I mean, I have a job, a great label, great management and I’m free to do whatever I want. These things were hard won and aren’t things that came easily. I take for granted sometimes that the position I’m in right now wasn’t always this way. I think the goal posts now are presenting themselves in more interesting ways. For example, I realize now that after I’ve had a bit of fame, notoriety and success that a lot of that I don’t like! [laughs] I don’t like the fame or notoriety. I like people enjoying what I do, being able to pay my bills and being appreciated for what I do, but I don’t want to be famous and a rockstar. I’ve found myself consciously pulling back from a lot of those things over the past couple of years. I can kind of identify that with that as the goal posts because it’s allowed me to recognize how this thing that I do fits into my life. I don’t know if I would have noticed that a few years back, so that’s certainly something that is interesting.
At the same time, it seems like your connection with your fanbase is very strong. I know you put a lot of work into bring us additional content and insight into your work. How has that connection with the fans impacted your work?
It’s had various impacts. If I think too much about it, it has a negative impact because a lot of what makes the work accurate for me is the fact that I’m really own my own. I’m still just me and a guitar in a room writing. Any time that I’ve tried to take into consideration what the audience wants or expects, it’s become compromised in some way. I think one thing that has been very important to me from the beginning is to put across the vibe to the audience that I view my participation in this relationship as equal. I don’t consider that because I do what I do that I’m above the audience or above people. It’s different than what the audience’s participation in this stuff is but it’s not any more important. I feel that you’re of service to the music as an artist rather than responsible for it. There are certain things with that I’ve had to learn. For example, I want to be there for the audience. I want to be able to provide the best content I can and be present for people when they are talking to me and not let it go to my head or whatever. At the same time, I have recognized recently that I need a lot more space from the audience than I thought I did. The bigger it had become the more draining I’ve found it to be present for a lot of people. It’s a very interesting symbiotic relationship that you have to learn where your parameters are and then go from there. I would say the most fundamental part of that relationship for me and perhaps the thing that people have picked up on since very early on is that I don’t consider what I do to be more important than anybody else. I mean that. I’m not saying it to be self-deprecating. I require things to be able to do it and I’m happy with what it brings me but the fact I play music doesn’t make me more important than anyone else. That’s an important thing to keep in mind.
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
You are not your work. You and I or anybody can make vast statements artistically with computers and take things in directions that are crazy. As such, we can also refine what it is that we present to people to be a really pinpointed thing. “I want people to think of me as this… Therefore, I will edit all the photos and make sure everything is clear, clean and homogenized in a way.” However, what I’ve realized recently is — “Who are you in absence of your work? How much of your identity do you have invested in the fact that you’re a musician?” The answer for me has, unfortunately, been a lot. I think that what I’ve really been working on over the past while is to change that and to really know that music is what you do and a big part of how you are and what you do but you are not that. It’s a byproduct of what you are. If you’ve got so much invested in your work, what happens if you can’t do it anymore? What happens if you lose a limb, can’t sing anymore or anything else that would prevent you from doing that? The lack of purpose that I think would come from that for a lot of people and myself, much more in the past, would be devastating but you still exist. You’re still who you are in absence of this, so what it has made me recognize is how fortunate I am to do this and how I don’t take it for granted as a result. If and when it does end, I don’t want to regret its absence, I just want to appreciate the fact that I did it at all. I think that’s something that a lot of us could stand coming to terms with.
Very well said, Devin. I want to thank you so much for your time and insight today, in addition to all the hard work you’ve put it over the years. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. I can’t wait to see where the next leg of the journey takes you!
Thanks, Jason. I really appreciate the acknowledgment of that. Thanks so much for the interview. Take care.
For all the latest news and dates from Devin Townsend, visit his official website at www.hevydevy.com. Follow his continuing adventures via social media on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “Empath” is available now as a 2-CD set (including an entire disc of bonus material), a gatefold 180-gram 2xLP vinyl edition, as well as digitally — Order here!