By Noah Hubbell
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Making the music has had a similar effect on Urata, only he's transported to the area surrounding Wave Lab studios in Tucson, which the members sought out at the suggestion of their friends in Calexico and where all of DeVotchKa's albums were recorded in analog with Craig Schumacher (except for their 2002 debut, Supermelodrama, which was captured by Bob Febrache). "It's kind of hard to articulate," he says, pausing as he searches for a way to explain his inspiration. "Not to put myself in this realm, but there's a great quote by Gauguin — you know Gauguin? He did that series of stuff in Tahiti. I guess he couldn't make it back there as he got older, so he'd always say that to be happy, he'd go to Tahiti in his mind. For me, writing, the stuff that sounds good to me, just sort of takes me to — for lack of a better way to describe it — to there.
"It's a very inspiring place, just the drive down there," he continues. "I grew up in New York, and to drive through these desert plains with these giant red mesas, it looks like you're driving through a John Ford movie or something. That in itself is inspiring. I think it definitely influenced me. I remember getting back here and sitting in my little room and sort of playing the songs and going back there in my mind. It is such a beautiful, romantic backdrop. It's sort of like that whole 'Tahiti in my mind.'"
Romance plays a big part in DeVotchKa's appeal. Beyond the gorgeous melodies, there's a certain romance and heartbreak attached to Urata's lyrics, which tend to be simple yet eloquent, particularly on songs such as "Till the End of Time," which boasts lines like these: "They're just words, they ain't worth nothing/Cloud your head and push buttons/And watch how they disappear/When we're far from here/And everybody knows where this is heading/Forgive me for forgetting/Our hearts irrevocably combined/Star-crossed souls slow dancing/Retreating and advancing/Across the sky until the end of time/Oh, who put those cares inside your head/You can't live your life on your deathbed/And it's been such a lovely day/Let's not let it end this way."
That tune and several others provided the backdrop for the breakout film Little Miss Sunshine, which DeVotchKa helped score. Although its music had been featured in the movie Everything Is Illuminated, the band's work with Sunshine earned it a Grammy nomination and ultimately thrust it into the mainstream. This much-deserved notoriety was subsequently bolstered by well-received appearances at Coachella and Bonnaroo, as well as a performance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. And after years of doing its own bidding, this spring DeVotchKa finally found a home at Anti-, an imprint known for producing compelling music from such venerated artists as Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Billy Bragg; that imprint released the act's latest, A Mad & Faithful Telling.
"It was pretty hard to refuse," Urata says of the label's offer. "We'd been courted by other people, and it never felt right. You could tell they weren't really that enthused with the musical part of it and just wanted to make a buck off of it. It felt totally natural [with Anti-]. If there was ever a roster that we wanted to be on, that was it. They just said, 'Do what you do, and we'll help you on the other side.'
"We never would've gotten there, though, if we hadn't done so much of the earlier legwork ourselves," he stresses, pointing out that until now, DeVotchKa has been beholden to no one, having released its own records and toured on its own dime. "I'm really thankful that it's happening at the rate it's been happening. When you're young and cocky, you're like, 'Hey, look how great we are.' You've got to be careful, because chances are you're not as good as you think you are. And there have been situations on this last album tour, the TV shows and the giant festivals, where you can't hear each other, and you're just sort of using ESP and the Force. If we were a younger, inexperienced DeVotchKa, we would've just melted and folded. So I'm very thankful that we're seasoned and experienced to be on that big stage.
"It's nice to sit back and say this in hindsight," he concludes, "but it certainly wasn't easy, and as you know, it wasn't an overnight success. There were thousands of decisions that we could've made wrong. The ones we made just always seemed sort of natural."