Dynamic Soul

Devon Gilfillian brings a sound all his own on his inspiring debut

Photo: Ashtin Paige

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Devon Gilfillian, photographed at the Moon River Music Festival in Chattanooga.

During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Devon Gilfillian had a little time to kill before he was due in the studio. So his manager arranged a last-minute songwriting session at the home of Jonas Myrin, a Swedish artist best known for his work in the Christian music world.  He soon arrived at Myrin’s white-walled Hollywood mansion, but the session stalled. “We were trying to write something with an upbeat dance tempo, and it wasn’t working,” Gilfillian says. “Jonas is like a therapist, so we ended up just talking about life for four hours.”

The twenty-nine-year-old had ample reason to reflect. In 2018, the van carrying him, his band, and his manager was struck head-on by a drunk driver on a curvy road outside Athens, Georgia. Miraculously, everyone escaped without major injuries. But it left Gilfillian shaken, and Myrin pushed him to confront those feelings. The result is “Stranger,” a dreamy, gospel-tinged number that serves as the benediction to the lush, expansive soul of his debut album, Black Hole Rainbow. “It’s about a person who comes into your life to keep you safe, whether that be an angel or something else,” Gilfillian says of the song. He asked his father, Nelson—who moonlights as a wedding singer in Gilfillian’s native Philadelphia—to sing backup on the track. “He was emotional when I sent him the lyrics,” Gilfillian recalls.  “But there was such joy in creating with my dad because I had never done that.”

Ashtin Paige

All good wedding singers need a thick song catalogue, lest they irk a couple who want to hear “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Brick House.” The senior Gilfillian’s chops have certainly rubbed off on his son. Growing up on a steady diet of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, he started playing guitar at fourteen when his father, as he describes it, “slapped me upside the head with Jimi Hendrix.” After graduating from Pennsylvania’s West Chester University with a degree in psychology, Gilfillian relocated to Nashville in 2013, eventually meeting his band members while playing gigs around town. The  buzz worked its way through the East Nashville clubs to the staid compounds on Music Row, and for the past two years, Gilfillian has been the go-to opener for acts across the musical spectrum, from Brothers Osborne to Mavis Staples to Trombone Shorty.

Those eclectic experiences shine through on Black Hole Rainbow, which blends old-school soul, funk, bluesy guitar, and a few other twists. Using vintage gear, Gilfillian and producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Kacey Musgraves) recorded instrumental versions of each song on the album to analog tape. Everett then had the material pressed onto vinyl and created digital files of the vinyl recordings, which he and Gilfillian could then fiddle around with. If you listen closely, you can hear the vinyl’s crackle and pop. “We were sampling ourselves,” Gilfillian says, laughing. “But it was worth it. I wanted to use every sound imaginable to dig the old soul out of the ground and send it to Mars.”

Ashtin Paige

The space travel yields a wash of psychedelic soul with hazy, layered vocals and hypnotic rhythms. Gilfillian is equally deft at peeling off blues licks in the swirling “Full Disclosure,” crooning sweetly on the slow  jam “Lonely,” and grooving to the mesmerizing percussion of “Get Out and Get It,” inspired by the Afrobeat sounds he heard during a visit to South Africa.

There’s a charming earnestness to Gilfillian. He  speaks of wanting to play in front of every type of music fan and welcoming all comers with open arms and a judgment-free vibe, sounding like something of a millennial hippie. “I’ll take that,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t care if you’re young or old, black or white, brown, yellow, or orange. I’m pushing the sound forward and coming to play for you.”