In My Dreams I’m There is Devin Shaffer’s debut LP. The process of the album dives into this fragile dreamscape; one that’s isolated from everything else, like a spider suspended in its web, sheltered in a corner and existing in an ecosystem of its mind. Her angelic, calming voice paired with dominant field recordings, sparse lyrics, fingerpicking and an occasional discordant chord is also, I suppose, like a journey of driving through woods at sunrise.
Each song rides one moment and survives on a glimpse of being seen. There’s a mist hovering over the trees in early morning-bathed silence, and Shaffer acknowledges the smallness of it all before leaving those woods and arriving in town to grab breakfast.
Shaffer started writing songs for the album two years ago, then recorded and produced by Michael Mac during the pandemic. A lot of her work is influenced by ambient artists like Julianna Barwick, Grouper and Mary Lattimore. When she was a teenager, she listened to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon over and over again.
“It was one of the first times I’ve ever experienced an album as one whole piece,” she said.
Through circulating fantasies and finding ways to connect her experiences, she explores themes of escapism and a tainted hollowness of feeling bound in the city. She vacillates between the nostalgic and romantic and finds herself slipping into each imagination shaped by her music.
“I’m a really cognitive person,” she added. “The album is about where my mind goes when I’m not able to be in the present moment.”
Before the pandemic hit, Shaffer secured a tour with Midwife, who she described as an artist she shared a world with. Their connection was affirmingly unreal and almost spiritual. And Shaffer’s experiences within the album deliver what seems like a past life to so many of us, rattled by a year of seclusion, it can often feel unfamiliar and almost magical to re-exist in those spaces again.
“It’s been so long since pre-covid life that whatever I say about [the album] now is inherently colored by the experiences that I’ve had in the past year,” she said. “It’s so layered.”
“I like to create a feeling of air moving from one song to another, that there’s one atmosphere that you’re leaving and entering another atmosphere, or room, or dreamscape,” she said. “I love being alone and taking long walks. I live in my mind a lot. And I love talking and hanging out. But what we say with our words can only capture a sliver of the complexities of what’s happening in our minds.”
To see a sliver of what goes on in Shaffer’s mind, she uses the subtlety of field recordings and found instruments to let us in. These are made up of waves crashing by the shore, bird chirps, gently pecked wind chimes, hugging hidden conversations and knocking on hollow rocks. The snapshots are like a new category of love between a partner versus a friend versus a parent; that familiarity and care are no less, but the love is always unique in its own way.
These recordings serve as another instrument, rounding each song and feeding them full whereas a duo of voice and guitar can sometimes seem thin, according to Shaffer. For her ambient and drone songs, she cements the track first with field recordings, catches a pitch and builds from that. Like traveling through a dial on radio before landing on clarity, these inconsistencies produced outside of the studio are intelligent and thoughtful.
Shaffer’s typical set-up is her guitar, voice and a microphone going through delay, synth and loop pedals. With that basic set, she pairs them with found instruments such as bells, chimes, something twinkly and pre-recorded field recordings to sample. She also has vintage field recording vinyl she manipulates on stage.
The evenness of music lives on because we often assume there are rules to follow and things to avoid. I’m not saying rules of music aren’t important, but science-ing art for reassurance purposefully compromises the process. So, Shaffer and I talked about cliches for a bit, specifically how water welders itself as a popular and certainly, the most malleable trope. But I didn’t think it was. She’s from Chicago. A lot of the waves in songs like “Drive Into Woods” and “HOW??” were tracked nearby in Lake Michigan. Swimming is one of her greatest joys. And she isn’t much of a thrill seeker but loves being in the cold lake water. These sounds are sentiments, marked and rearranged by her only.
There’s this conversation I love from the album. It’s the ending line of “Carina Searches for Hollow Rock, North Carina” and it goes like this: “And that’s where you decided to put your feet. It means you’re flying. You’re like space underneath you.” Even though that’s not Shaffer talking, she practices the ability to seize one joy and see it through. Whether that’s finishing an album or learning how to ride a bike as an adult, she grabs onto the harder parts because believing in a process is far from cliché if you’re confident enough to own it.
In My Dreams I’m There is out June 18 on American Dreams Records, stream the album below.