Photo: Audrey Cho

Devin Davis at the Hideout

In 1999, Devin Davis moved to Chicago from Jacksonville, Florida, lured by the same local venues and homegrown labels that attract many aspiring musicians. But once he arrived, he realized his adopted city wasn’t much into pop, his genre of choice. “I didn’t know anybody to play with,” he says. “The musicians I met were more akin to instrumental jazz.”

For the next three years, Davis confined himself to his Bucktown coach house, playing any instrument he could get his hands on and perfecting the sounds on a début album that would become a grassroots hit. This month, Davis will play the album, aptly titled Lonely People of the World, Unite!, at the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.

The annual fest, now in its 20th year, offers one of the best chances for up-and-coming musicians to get heard, get signed, and get their careers going. Do the math: over five nights, from March 15th through the 19th, more than 8,000 journalists, industry types, and musicians check out 1,300 acts in 60 venues. (See sidebar for a sampling of other local acts playing the fest.)

One of those hopeful acts will be Davis. With the buzz still building around Lonely People, which he quietly put out in 2003, the singer-songwriter is a prime example of the new brand of artist using the Internet as a launch pad.

“I have learned a lot about the power of blogs,” says the 30-year-old, who by himself recorded the album, designed the artwork, organized the manufacturing (with the help of his parents), and mailed out copies to the press. After that, it was wait and see.

Fortunately, Entertainment Weekly and Harp, plus influential Web sites Salon and Pitchfork, among others, championed Davis’s release. Then, last year, Ben Gibbard, singer for the best-selling band Death Cab for Cutie, read a blog review, bought the album, and praised it in three separate magazine features. Davis was invited to open for the band in Milwaukee last summer; these days, he fills local clubs like the Hideout and the Empty Bottle with fans encouraged by his relentless pop hooks and endearing, often fantastical, lyrics.

“I wanted it to be fun,” he says. “Some music turns into a science project. I just wanted it to be a good time. I view that as legitimate as anything.”

After Austin, it’s back to the coach house, where a follow-up album is brewing. “I would love to have somebody put it out and spend money promoting it,” says Davis. “But that’s dessert. I have to worry about the meal first.”

Download/Listen to “Iron Woman” by Devin Davis
(2.6 MB .mp3 file)

Some other local luminaries playing Austin in March


Steve Dawson
The lead singer/songwriter for the popular roots pop quintet Dolly Varden will showcase Sweet Is the Anchor, his soul-drenched solo album from summer 2005, and also hand out early versions of the forthcoming Dolly Varden record, due later this year.

Download/Listen to “Love is a Blessing” by Steve Dawson
(4.6 MB .mp3 file)

Low Skies
This Chicago foursome plays SXSW for the first time, supporting their new album, All the Love I Could Find. The band’s countrified heartbreak and spooky Americana are well tailored for long drives through the Midwestern plains.

Download/Listen to “Levelling” by Low Skies
(6.2 MB .mp3 file)

The M’s
New York City has the Strokes; Chicago counters with The M’s (above). Well schooled in the British Invasion of the 1960s, the garage rockers are braced to take on the new year with an SXSW showcase and a new album, Future Women, their February 21st début on Champaign’s Polyvinyl label.

Download/Listen to “Plan of the Man” by The M’s
(2.6 MB .mp3 file)

Magnolia Electric Co.
This country rock quartet is the latest project by indie rocker Jason Molina, who previously stirred up excitement as a solo act under the name Songs: Ohia. Best compared to the lonesome stomp of Neil Young and Whiskeytown.

Download/Listen to “The Dark Don’t Hide It” by Magnolia Electric Co.
(4.9 MB .mp3 file)

Photo: Bret Bassi

Cameron McGill

Cameron McGill
Songs from McGill’s new self-released album Street Ballads & Murderesques make feeling bad feel very good, evoking the brittle dream worlds of Elliott Smith and Richard Buckner. Catch him with his band in regular gigs at Schubas or the Hideout.

Download/Listen to “Depression Glass” by Cameron McGill
(4.9 MB .mp3 file)