Episode 107: Creating Art For Impact With Devin Dabney - Creative, Climber, Storyteller
We're joined this week by musician, creative, writer, storyteller, and climber Devin Dabney! Devin shares about how he found his community in climbing, what he aims to do with his creativity, how he got into route setting, and so much more!
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Iris: Hello, Outside by Design friends. And welcome to another episode of the podcast. Thank you so much for being here and happy Thanksgiving. We are so grateful for you, for letting us be in your ears, for listening to this show, for subscribing, and for being supporters of ours. We really, really, really appreciate it. So thank you so much.
Today on the show, we are joined by an incredible man. You are going to love this episode. We have Devin Dabney on the show. He is one of the most all-around creative people that I think we've ever met. He is a creative, a musician, a writer, a storyteller, a rapper. He is also a climber and a route setter by trade.
So he talks a bit about route setting, how he got into it, how it's a blend of technical knowledge and artistic expression. He talks about how he was exposed to climbing and how the climbing community welcomed him. He talks about how he uses his creativity and art to impact others and to improve their lives. And he talks about making music, writing for music versus writing a personal essay or journaling. This is a jam-packed episode with so much knowledge about creativity. I can't wait for you to hear it. So let's get going.
Lisa: Devin. Thank you so much for being on our podcast.
Devin: Oh yeah, of course. Thank you for asking me.
Lisa: The very first question we ask everyone is to describe where they are and what they're looking at.
Devin: [laughs] I am in my walk-in closet sitting on the floor. Of course you'd ask while I'm like in the weirdest position. And I'm looking at my acoustic guitar, and my lightsaber that I got from Disneyland when I visited there earlier this year.
Lisa: Yes! See, I just learned so much about you.
Devin: You did. Yeah, you did. That was actually a pretty good way to break the ice.
Lisa: And so my next question for you, because you're a multi-faceted man, is, who are you? And you can answer that however you'd like.
Devin: Yeah. Without rambling too much, I think the simplest way to describe me is a creative. I try to find as many possible ways to express creativity and pretty much anything I do is going to also benefit someone. So I like creating things, but I love it even more when the things that I make can help someone, whether it's like make their day better or help them learn something or help them get through a tough time, or anything like that. That's the simplest way I could put anything I do.
Lisa: I really, I love that. I love this idea that your work benefits someone.
Devin: Yeah. It's very important to me.
Lisa: And that's kind of like the difference between like doing something to do it and doing something in kind of a professional way, and like doing something to give it.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think that it's important, especially for me, to just have a purpose or a reason behind anything I'm doing. You know, I do love art and I love art for the sake of art, but I also love it when art or something that you make has an impact upon someone. I think that's what any artist wants, right? Is to have their work impact somebody. So that's how I internalize that, is I want it to just change someone's life, even if it's in a little way.
Lisa: Oh, I love that. I am excited to talk to you. Okay. So you... let's start with music. We've got climbing, music, creativity are all topics around you. How does, yeah, how does music... for you, where's the intersection of the music that you make and the outdoors?
Devin: Well, at first it was pretty literal, you know. I started climbing way - not way later in life, I mean, I was in my early twenties - and I had already been making music for a long time. And at that time I was struggling to come up with material to write about, and all I was doing was climbing. So that became what my music was about. So I would just write songs and lyrics about climbing, or what I was doing at work, which was, I worked at a climbing gym.
And I think now it's starting to be a little less on the nose where I try to use my music skills in ways that impact the climbing world indirectly. You know, like, maybe I find someone else who's a climber that makes music and I just work with them. You know, not all of the music I make with fellow climbers is about climbing anymore. And I think that's what's really cool, is that climbing brought us together, but now we're making something entirely different.
And then, I would say that those are probably the most, the biggest ways that climbing and music connect for me is just, it's a way that I've been able to express, you know, my life and like the things I've done. And then it's my way of connecting with other musicians who are climbers and just trying to do something else.
Lisa: Mmm. So kind of centering it around community.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you could probably see a clear theme in my creative energy where I try to make it so that it's helping bring people together or just connect to other people, you know? So, yeah. But definitely, when I started making music about climbing, it was all about sharing it with my friends who were climbers, because they were the ones that would get it. You know, they would understand that the little references I'd make, or maybe like maybe I talk about a trip that I went on with some friends and I would show it to them cause they’d understand what I was talking about.
But yeah, it's all about sharing something with the community and having people gather around it, you know.
Lisa: And kind of how… you're from Indiana.
Lisa: So how did a kid from Indiana and up deeply rooted in the climbing community in Portland?
Devin: Yeah. Well this may be a shocker, but there's no rock climbing really in Indiana. [laughs] So I got exposed to it when I was in college because at Ball State - that's the school I went to is Ball State - my sophomore year they built a new fitness center and it had a climbing wall in it. And that was my first exposure to it. And from there, you know, I started climbing in the red river Gorge, which is a few hours away. All of the good climbing is hours away from Indiana, but I mean, you just get used to traveling because everything is far away. So, I mean, I spent pretty much every weekend in college that I could, I was climbing somewhere. And when I moved to Oregon, that was just, I mean, that moved with me. I pretty much decided early on that I was going to be climbing for the rest of my life. And so that just never went away.
Lisa: Why climbing? Like, do you have a story where you knew that's what you were going to base your life around?
Devin: Yeah, I mean - I think a lot of climbers will tell you that they climbed the first time and they just knew right away. It was definitely not that for me. I actually did not really like climbing at all when I started. As a matter of fact, the only reason I did do it was because one of my friends in college wanted to get belay certified and, and he needed a partner. So he just asked me. But the reason that I stuck with climbing was because I really liked the people that climbed at the wall. You know, I really enjoyed being around them and I liked how positive they were and how encouraging they were.
But, you know, I did not really... I was not good at climbing, so I didn't like that about it. And I was pretty scared of heights and wasn't even the most outdoorsy person, you know? So I shouldn't... by all measurements, I should not have become a rock climber. But the community there was so strong that it just kept me there long enough to understand the value of climbing. And then I will tell you that the first trip I went outside, that was when I knew, but I wouldn't have gotten to that point of going outside if the community weren’t so positive and so alluring to me. So that's why anything I do in climbing is so focused around community, because the community was truly the main reason that I even stuck with it.
Lisa: What, what about the climbing community?
Devin: Well, this is gonna sound really weird because I don't think that most Black people have this experience, but I just felt really accepted there. I mean, that community especially, I just, I felt like no one judged me for who I was, or they didn't expect me to be a certain way. And I didn't feel like they treated me weirdly. You know, I felt like they just really liked me and they were willing to teach me how to climb and they just welcomed me in, you know. And I, growing up that was not something that I had really experienced. I didn't really have... I mean, I had friends, but I never really felt like I belonged anywhere. And climbing, that climbing community was the first time I felt like I belonged. So that was super, super alluring to teenage Devin, you know, to find acceptance. And so, yeah, that is what kept me there. And, yeah, it was just really valuable. I just never had experienced that before.
And I thought, you know, man, it must be like every climber must be like this. And that's not the case, but there are quite a few climbers that are very friendly and, I don't know, it just was a nice, unique sort of experience.
Lisa: Yeah. And that's such a powerful thing too… like I think, I believe that being a person is really hard in general. And to find a community where like, you finally feel like you fit in or like something just clicks and you can just show up as yourself I think is an incredibly powerful experience. And I'm so glad that you found that in climbing.
Devin: I am too. I, I don't really... I mean, I'm sure I could have found it in something else. Like maybe I could have found some sort of art community that would have accepted me the same, but I mean, it just, it just happened to be climbing and I'm thankful that it was climbing because that has pretty much determined the arc of my life for the last 10 years. I mean, it's what brought me to Oregon and it's what has influenced my art and just the way I connect with people. So I'm glad that it was climbing that did that for me.
Lisa: Yeah. So let's talk about how your life for the last 10 years has revolved around climbing.
Devin: Yeah. Well, I mean, after that trip outside, I was determined to make sure that climbing was always a part of my life in some way. [laughs] And the easiest way was to make it my job, you know? And before that trip I had started, very recently before that, working at the climbing gym at Ball State. And I went to school for architecture and that's what my degree is in, but I always kept a job in climbing, even if it was part-time.
And when I graduated and I got a quote unquote real job, I was still working part-time at the local climbing gym as a route setter. And eventually route setting became my full-time job. And so that's what I've done for the last 10 years. That's, that's the only thing that I've done consistently. But I also, along the way, started to teach people. And I did some coaching and personal training and I really just tried to touch every aspect of the climbing gym. Like whatever I could do that would have a direct impact on people. So like, I didn't want to be like a facility manager or something like that. I wanted to be. In the front line, like, talking to people, helping people, teaching them. And pretty much like the last decade of my like professional career has been some mixture of route setting, teaching, and personal training. You know, sometimes I would mostly be a teacher, sometimes I'd be mostly a route setter, and it would just like fluctuate with the times.
Lisa: Mmm. So like, how do you bring - because this podcast is about creativity, I figure I might as well ask it - how does creativity come into route setting?
Devin: Oh, it is... yeah. I think for me personally, that is the most alluring part of route setting. You know, it's this cool mixture between a technical skillset and an artistic expression.
You know, like, you do need to have some hard skills and you do need to know how to do certain things that are just like, you know, you could maybe look them up in a book. But then after that, the rest of it is just up to how the setter expresses themselves. And, of course, what the gym needs, you know. That's the thing that I really love about route setting is that it is that like perfect combination of something that's creative and is for other people, you know. I mean, I think I said earlier that those are the two most important things to who I am. So that's why route setting was so perfect for me because it is a form of creativity, but it's a completely selfless - or at least I think it should be completely selfless - form of creativity. Where you're making something and once you've made it, you just give it to the climbers and then they do what they want with it. They have fun with it or they climb it. And, yeah, I mean, it can be really rewarding in that way.
LIsa: That's very cool. What's a specific example of, like, using that creative mindset when you're putting together like a specific route?
Devin: Well, there's a lot of ways to approach setting a route, you know. I mean, there's obviously some restrictions, you know, if the gym needs a certain difficulty range or style, you know, you address those issues first. But a lot of times when I'm trying to set something and I don't know what to do, I think of other people.
So I'll think of a specific member in the gym, you know, I'll think of what they're about, their ability level, like what they like to do, what they don't like to do, what sort of route they would be attracted to, and that influences what I do and don't do. So sometimes I'll, like, think of, you know, a member and I'll think of the things that they don't like, and I'll intentionally set something that they wouldn't like, you know?
And it's not about being spiteful, it's just, you know, as a route setter, you try to teach people how to do things. And it's not always about giving people necessarily what they want or their first inclination of what they would climb. You try to give them things that they wouldn't want to do, but give it to them in a way that they would at least be attracted to, or maybe it's like just easy enough that they'll suffer through it, you know? And I just think that's a really fun way to, to approach the creative process. And sometimes I'll be direct about it. Like, I'll go up to someone in the gym and I'll ask them, you know, “What would you want to see on the wall? Like what would you like to climb right now?” And depending on what they say, I'll either do exactly what they say or I'll do the opposite of it, or I'll like, maybe do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But, yeah, I think when in doubt you can always just ask the people here you're serving, you know.
Lisa: There's this, like, playfulness in these, in your… yeah, there's a playfulness in your approach. And I imagine that translates into the experience that you're providing.
Devin: A hundred percent. I mean, it might kind of sound a little hippy-ish, but I really do believe that the energy you put into something when you're making it, it shows. You know, like, if you're having a good time and you're being playful, it will come out in the way that you set. Whereas if you're frustrated or if you're... even if you're just, like, focused, you know, like if you slam a couple cups of coffee and then you're just like cranking out routes, it'll come out in how the setting feels and how it climbs. So I try really hard most of the time to approach it with as playful of a mindset as possible, just ‘cause that... number one, that just keeps it fun. And then two, you want people to enjoy it. So I want to... I try really hard to keep my mindset positive when I'm setting.
Lisa: I love that. I also am really enjoying your representation of being of kind of like... as a creative that's building something for someone else to not give them what they want necessarily and encourage them to grow.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that... one of, one of the best route setters ever, who's also one of my heroes, Tonde Katiyo, he said one time in an interview that he thought that there was too much candy in the route setting world. It's too much like people just giving the climbers what they want. And just like candy, you know, like you can't just eat candy every day. You know, you're going to get sick. You're not going to grow. You're not going to... so it's, for me, it's not just about making people happy. But I don't mean that in a bad way. Like, I mean that in order for someone to have a good climbing experience, if there's let's say 50 routes in a gym, there needs to be like, let's say 10 of them are candy, like 10 of them or something that they would really enjoy. And then you gotta have your brussel sprouts, you know, like the stuff that like, you know that you need to get on, but you don't really want to. And then like the other… so that's like 10 and 10 and then the other 30 can kind of just be whatever, that's like your staple, like the stuff that you climb and it's just okay. You know, I think for someone to really enjoy a gym, there needs to be routes where they look at him like, “Oh, I hate that route.” And then another one's like, “Oh, I love this route. ‘Cause otherwise, you can't do that for everybody. You know, like if you tried to set a gym that was just for me and you've set stuff that only I like, then someone else is going to come in and they're going to hate everything, you know? So it just makes it so that it's a more holistic experience.
Lisa: Wow. Yeah. You know what I am reminded of as I'm listening to you, is kind of this balance that we've been looking at as a creative agency, when we work with clients, to be like, yes, here's your candy videos. These are videos that have been proven. Your audience likes them. They will work. You know, and then like, okay, how can we push this brand? How can we have harder conversations? And this one is just gonna suck, but watch what happens when we nail it.
Lisa: You know, and I view that as just this huge creative process that's so universal. And I love listening to you talk about it in terms of climbing, too.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and the same goes for me as a route setter, you know, like there's things that I love to set and there's things that I hate to set, but if I want to be... if I want to call myself good at it, or like, if I take pride in my work, I have to set things that I don't enjoy climbing or setting, you know. Sometimes I'll set something that I intentionally know that I'll hate climbing, you know, just because I don't like that style, but someone else is going to come up to that and think that's the best route in the world. And so, yeah, I think it goes both ways, you know, it's not just me punishing climbers. It's also, I try to practice what I preach. [laughs]
Lisa: How does this same mindset translate into you as a storyteller and you as a writer?
Devin: I think it goes into trying to make myself write about things that I'm not comfortable writing about. I think especially these last couple of years, I've been working really hard on being more vulnerable in my creative writing, which is, which is tough. And it's kind of ironic because music has never been a problem for me. For some reason, when I'm making music and I'm writing song lyrics, it's very easy for me to say what's on my mind and be open. But when I'm writing an essay or something like that, for some reason, it's just not natural.
And I think the last couple of pieces that I've gotten to write for like the Climbing Zine have been much closer to expressing, like, personal things. So, yeah, I think that's what it is. And some of that comes from just journaling, you know, like trying to make myself sit down and journal about how I feel. That's probably like writing brussels sprouts for me, cause I don't really like to sit down and write about things that are hard to write about from a personal perspective. And, you know, sometimes it's hard to read that stuff too, you know. But it's necessary. Like when you, when you do that, like you, you learn something about yourself.
I don't know how much you journal, but I know for myself when I... sometimes when I'm in, like, writing mode, I'll write something that I wouldn't have thought of. It wouldn't have come out if I hadn't written it down. If I was just thinking about it, it wouldn't have happened. So there's definitely a lot of value in it, even though it can be difficult sometimes to be open and truly just write what's on your mind.
Lisa: I love journaling. Journaling is my jam.
Devin: Okay, good. [laughs]
Lisa: I’m all about it. Right. Like I do it every day. I'm pretty voracious about it. Like, I definitely feel it during the day if I didn't like get enough time to journal and just kind of like brain dump for the day. However, question for you because that's a little antithetical too. Like, I don't share my journal.
Devin: Yeah, no, I don’t either.
Lisa: I don't, I don't publish that shit. And so like, it's not benefiting anyone but me. I'm not sharing it. I'm not making work for other people. And so like, how do you use journaling as a practice to get you back into... or I dunno, how does it support you or kind of go along with your… the way that you do give art?
Devin: Well, it helps me extricate some themes or thoughts or feelings that are really real. And I don't necessarily have to write literally what I wrote in my journal into a creative essay, but I guess, let me try to think about it. If I'm writing and some sort of like traumatic event or some sort of negative thought comes out and I can see that, “Oh, people would identify with this feeling because it's super authentic,” I'll try to translate that into a creative story, like a made up story. And whether or not people realize it, I think that you really can feel when someone is telling you something that's real. Even if it's not literally what happened, they can feel it.
You know, I think that's how music works, especially how rap music works. You know, where you... not everything... I think people think that rap music is autobiographical, but most of the time it's just made up stories. But people can feel the authenticity behind it, even if it's not literally what happened. I don't know if that makes sense, but yeah.
Lisa: It does, but you are, I believe, the first musician that we've had on the podcast.
Devin: Oh, well, [laughs] maybe get a second opinion on that, but that's how Devin looks at it anyway.
Lisa: And I love hearing about what goes into making music from the lyrical and emotional and energetic standpoint. So, yeah, I'm very, very happy to talk to you about that and learn from you.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just, I think with music, it's a little different because I think I try really hard to just express whatever I'm feeling in that moment. You know, whether it's positive, negative, neutral, happy, sad, whatever. I still think that it's more important to express honestly how you're feeling as opposed to trying to… like, I can't approach music from a like, “Oh, I'm gonna make a hit single today.” Or like, I'm going to make this kind of song.” It just has to be whatever I feel or, or whatever I'm listening to. That's another thing. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I don't just listen to one type and you know, sometimes I'll be really, really into a specific sound and I'll try to make music that sounds like that, you know. And it of course won't sound exactly like it, but you know, you try to learn something from it and you try to pinpoint what exactly you like about that style. And you just like try to make it yourself.
Lisa: Mmm. YOU try to make it yourself. [laughs] Like, how do you do it? Like, what's your process for music-making? I don't know where to start. I'm so curious what you do.
Devin: Well, there's a lot of ways you could approach it. You know, one of the ways I really like to do it is like, okay, so let's say I'm really into a specific kind of sound. Like, let's say I'm listening to a lot of electronic music, a lot of synth music. I really like to curate playlists, you know, of songs that capture a certain feeling or they use a certain kind of instrument that I really like, and I'll just make a whole playlist of it. And I'll just listen to that playlist, number one, just because I'm into that kind of music for the time being, but I'll listen to it. And while I'm listening to it, if I really like something, I just try to make notes about it, you know, like... if I like this drum or I like the way the singer is singing or I like this rhythm that they make. I don't always go off of a feely, subjective sort of approach. I try to be really logical when I do stuff like that, of like, I'm going to try to find that specific sound or I'm going to replicate that rhythm.
And sometimes you can get something just from that, you know, like you, you might start with those pieces and then decide, okay, well, what if, instead of using the drum that I liked in there, I'll use a different drum. Or I'll change the rhythm just a little bit. And from there - like, so it's not necessarily, like, I think a lot of people that don't make music think that it just comes out of nowhere. And, I mean, again, you might want to ask another musician, but for me, it's definitely not an out of nowhere thing. It's usually anything that I make is usually inspired by something else. Or it's like, not mimicking, but trying to copy the essence of something else. And then I end up changing it to fit what I actually want it to do. Very rarely do I just sit down and just start strumming my guitar and then something comes out, you know? I wish I could do it that way, but that's just not how it works for me.
Lisa: I see... so, you and I have never met, which is, sometimes I've met a lot of the people on the podcast and sometimes not. And so I might be totally wrong, but the thing that I, the pattern I see with you is that you're an observer and then you become really curious and then you're a doer and then you're a teacher.
Devin: You've, for someone that doesn't know me, you've mapped out my behavior patterns pretty well.
Lisa: I think that's you, huh?
Devin: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Yeah, because I definitely like to sit back and watch things and try to observe. And I love learning. So anything that I do, even with route setting or any sort of creative process, I'm always trying to learn something new. So if I feel like I'm doing the same thing over and over again, I get really bored really quickly.
But yeah, and I learn by doing, you know, I learn by making mistakes and then once I learn all that stuff I like to pass it on. So yeah, you did a pretty good job of summing me up.
Lisa: I think so. I like your leadership as well. We haven't really talked about that, but I think, I think you are a leader in the world, a creator and a leader.
Devin: Well, that's, that's humbling to hear. I certainly, I would not call myself a leader, but I think that I try to be. You know, I think the people that I admire, especially, I see as leaders. I guess I try to... I don't, I don't want to be a leader in the sense of like telling people what they should do or like being the... I don't know, being the person everyone looks at for direction or like explicit direction, but I want to be somebody who like, people can look at and see like, “Oh, he's being his true self,” you know, like, “if he can be authentic and he can struggle through things and still be okay, then I can too.” I like to lead by example, I guess is what I'm saying.
Lisa: Yeah. I mean, it just seems like this pattern of observation, curiosity, doing, and teaching, like, it just seems like you are so consistent and it makes me think you're a person who's really living in alignment and just like an awesome dude.
Devin: Well, that's cool. That's, thank you. Yeah. I mean like that is, what you just said, living in alignment, that is definitely been a focus of mine, especially these past couple of years, you know. And especially this year, you know, with everything changing so drastically, it's given me a lot of opportunity to reevaluate, to think about the things I'm doing and are they all really in line with what I want, am I really getting after what I want? Am I being who I want to be? And, yeah, I definitely think in the past six months, I've gotten much, much closer to that. So it's good to hear it echoed back in someone that I just met.
Lisa: Cool. Cool. I'm glad we got to have this experience. Hey, so we're kind of wrapping up the time. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you want to share with our audience of outdoor creatives?
Devin: No, I mean, you… let's see. So we talked about setting and talked about music. You so succinctly summarized everything that I do. I mean, I guess the only thing that I would add, like maybe as a comment is just that if anyone who is listening to this ever wants to reach out to me to work on anything, I am very much a collaborator. I like to work with other people and I like to motivate other people to pursue whatever creative thing they're doing. So yeah, always feel free to reach out to me on social media or however you can get ahold of me. ‘Cause I love meeting other creatives and I love working with other people.
Lisa: We are going to put links to everything in our show notes. But verbally, where can people find you?
Devin: Instagram is probably the easiest way to find me. My handle is @deuceiship hop, but I suppose you'll probably link it. You can find... if you're interested in my music, you can find me on Spotify or Bandcamp or SoundCloud, on all of those, I go by my full name. I don't have… my, my rapper name is my actual name. There's no alter ego there. What you see is what you get.
Lisa: Cool. And you're on Spotify.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah. I don't have a whole lot on there yet, but that was one of my goals for this year was to put more music on Spotify and I've been fulfilling that end of the bargain. I told myself at least one new song a month. And so far I've held up to that bargain since March. And so I'm going to try to keep it up.
Lisa: I do have one more question for you.
Lisa: On your Instagram profile, in your bio, you also call yourself a Jedi Knight. And I'd love to hear what that means to you and how you're living it.
Devin: It means two things. The first one is the obvious surface-level reference to Star Wars because I'm a huge, huge Star Wars nerd. So I couldn't help but make that reference. But the other, the other more meaningful part of it is that everything I do is about community. And so anything, any professional endeavor that I make, it would not feel complete if there weren't some component that allowed me to help make what I do more inclusive and more welcoming to everybody. I mean, of course I focus, I tend to focus on the Black community because that's a community that I'm a part of, but I really value making things inclusive to everyone. You know, especially climbing, you know, I believe everyone can benefit from climbing. I believe everyone can do it. And, you know, it's really important to me to express that in my work. So that's probably the simplest way to put it. It's just that anything I do, whether it's music or art or climbing, it needs to have some component of making it a more welcoming space for anyone who wants to do it.
Lisa: Love it. Cool, Devin. Well, thank you so much for your time and your words and your insight and your honesty. And, yeah, I look forward to keeping in touch.
Devin: Yeah, absolutely. I look forward to listening to this podcast in full and hopefully this episode is good and people like it.
Iris: Thank you for joining us on the show. Devin. We're so excited to have been able to get to know you and see where you go from here.
To all our listeners. Make sure you subscribe and leave us a review if you haven't already, that helps us reach more people. You can find us on instagram @wheeliecreative and online at wheeliecreative.com/podcast.
Thank you so much. Happy Thanksgiving, and we'll see you next week. Bye.