Devin Bustin is a young songwriter playing out of Southern Ohio. Combining confessional and poetic lyrics with moving folk-influenced music, Bustin and his musical project Asher Lev have caught our ears and captured our hearts. Devin was kind enough to share some of his thoughts about music, life, and other pressing issues:
How did you get your start in music?
The first person to turn me on to music was Bram–not Brahms, although that would make me a different musician. Bram. As in Sharon, Lois, and Bram. I watched that show all the time and my parents even drove us two hours to Kingston to see them live. Skinna maringkee dinkee dink, skinna maringkee doo. I love you.
I took piano lessons for like five years, but those only count like gym class counts for dropouts. I didn’t get into it. Until junior high.
My parents rented out a room to a studio musician and a guy who became like a big brother to me. My dad had an upright piano that he and his five brothers and sisters shared growing up. There were initials carved all over it and I don’t know how it got upstairs to the guest room. Anyway, the guy who lived with us beat that thing up. He gave that piano a voice it didn’t have before–stomped the pedals for percussion. He taught me to play, taught me more than technique.
Who are some of your musical, literary, and “other” heroes?
I want to be honest and avoid the cool answers.
Richard Shindell – Vuelta, Somewhere Near Patterson (My favorite songwriter, one of my favorite voices.)
The Frames – For the Birds, Set List
Sufjan Stevens – Michigan
Rufus Wainwright – Poses, Want One
Peter Mulvey – Kitchen Radio, The Trouble With Poets
Wilco – A Ghost is Born
Iron and Wine – Our Endless, Numbered Days
Griffin House – my friend from Miami. Killer record: Lost & Found
Writers and Books:
Andre Dubus – Stories: “The Pretty Girl,” “Graduation,” “The Winter Father”
Frederick Buechner – Alphabet of Grace, The Hungering Dark
Don Miller – Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows Whatt
John Fischer – What On Earth Are We Doing?, On a Hill Too Far Away
Hemmingway – The Sun Also Rises
The Garden State
How do you go about writing songs?
I go through seasons. Melodies come first and the first lyrics arrive with them. I etch a song out as soon as it comes to me–take a walk or a drive or sit down with a tape recorder. A song will take over a day or a week. I obsess. Tolstoy–(ooo, Tolstoy!)–says that true art infects. Songs, unlike any other art form, can take over my system. I’m not immune to them yet. I hope I don’t lose that.
Your lyrics are vibrant and unique. How do your studies as an Graduate Student in English help to you write lyrics?
Only sometimes. There’s such a big difference between being a writer and being an English major. Some classes tear apart texts. They ask, what are the feminist implications here? the statements about race? about class? What other authors is the writer referencing? I can’t write under that pressure. Writers create; critics break things apart. Both are important, but I need to be able to get the critic in me to shut up in the presence of a naked song.
What made you to decide to use the moniker “Asher Lev”?
Asher Lev’s a painter in Brooklyn who means a lot to me. I first heard of him in Bible college in Florida, where I was taking an American lit class. Lev’s dilemma was mine as well. How to create art, which Picasso–(ooo, Picasso!)–calls a lie that tells the truth–and survive a religious community? Asher wants to keep mystery in his art. Me too.
Describe the recording process for “Why the Hand Has Five Fingers – No More, No Less”.
I’d been living in Athens, Ohio for the first part of last fall, really rotting my life away. Coming home for Christmas–that was all I thought I was doing. But I started hanging out with Andrea and some of her friends from the world-class conservatory here in Cincinnati. We went to some great shows; we played some great music together. Aun introduced me to Aaron and I couldn’t believe that a cello player wanted to be in a band with me. I moved home. Over the next few months, I set up my studio and recorded around a dozen songs. Why the Hand Has Five Fingers–No More, No Less documented that season, although I didn’t have it in mind from the start. The songs seemed to fit.
A theme of “Why the Hand Has Five Fingers – No More, No Less” seems to be a longing for home, or at least a longing for a place of origin or the past…how does your interaction with a certain environment (whether Cincinnati or Ontario or Quebec) influence your art?
Homesickness has followed me around for most of my life, followed me to two countries, to fourteen different schools. Cities become a part of me, but in a larger way, people become a part of me. I don’t miss Athens a bit because I hardly knew anyone there. The Toronto suburbs were probably the ugliest place I ever lived–crowded subdivisions, treeless lots, superstores. Still, I miss Toronto like nowhere else. I read for relationships, I write for relationships, and I think I might live for them too.
There is obviously an element of faith in some of your songs. Describe for us the interplay between your faith and art (as you see it).
Faith and mystery are very much the same to me. Both invite the courage to ask a question, to articulate something that you know you could never spell.
Sometimes, faith and mystery become enemies. Religious people start shaking because God and life and truth don’t take their time filling in the blanks. Faith communities should never use their power to push the longing out of believing. I believe in Christ because Christ has started to quench my thirst. But life still isn’t all I feel inside it should be and I’m going to keep asking and reaching until it is. I’m not trying to be negative or positive. I want reality, thisness.
What do you think of the music world these days?
The music world’s getting bigger. I never would have known about Sufjan or Iron and Wine or The Arcade Fire without the Internet. I might not have known about The Shins or John Vanderslice. I love the way Logic and the likes have helped people build their own studios, make their own music without the nods of record labels.
I’m with the people who don’t know if Christian music exists. I hate walking into a store and seeing a Christian music section. Do you blame the stores? They should have a section for Buddhists, a section for hedonists. But you have to blame the Christians who are music execs, too. It’s cowardly. Christianity’s strong enough to float in the mainstream. People need to stop retarding believers’ growth. A mature person should be able to distinguish garbage from goodness. I want that to be the mark of Christianity, not whether the record label execs dig Jesus.
What is in the musical future for Devin Bustin and “Asher Lev”?
I’m working on a beaty project with Ani from Goodnight Star. He’s pretty amazing. Beaty: I mean programming, but great lyrics like Ben Gibbard’s project, no people dressed in black, reading poems and snapping their fingers. We’re still looking for a name.
I’m also working on a project called We Take Winter Heart that should come out in February. It’s an Asher Lev album that Aaron, Andrea, and some other musicians will help create. The songs bleed a little more than Why the Hand. I’m nervous about recording them.
Any other comments?
CD downloads – $3.95 at asher-lev.com
Hard copies are five bucks.
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