Jeff Spevak: a conversation with songwriter Mikaela Davis

Jul 18, 2019

Credit Rounder Records

As many folks are aware, the Netherlands is totally cool with your recreational use of marijuana. Denmark? Not so much. And here was Mikaela Davis, driving the rental car on her European tour a couple of weeks ago, with guitarist Cian McCarthy in the passenger seat, when they were waved over at the Danish border by the cops.

“Everyone they were pulling over had long hair and was driving clunky-looking vans,” Davis says. This checkpoint was clearly a case of pot profiling. And when a cop leaned into the car window, quizzing Davis and McCarthy about their history of drug use, and looking for the devil weed, he spotted a dead giveaway. Guitars.

“I was so terrified,” Davis says. “I had definitely smoked a few joints in Amsterdam.”

Nevertheless, she passed the drug test; it had been a week, it works that way. The strange thing is, the cop apparently paid no heed to the giant harp in the car. The harp, perhaps the least-subversive of musical instruments.

Davis, McCarthy and the guitars returned safely to Rochester this week, after the European tour that also included Germany and Ireland. The harps, all borrowed or rented, stayed in Europe. “Harp players can find each other easily, there are Facebook groups,” Davis says. “We know how hard it is to travel with a harp.”

Now, following a brief catch-up on the jet lag, the American leg of Mikaela Davis & Southern Star tour opens on home turf, 8 p.m. Saturday on the outdoor stage at Abilene Bar & Lounge. Music that takes the harp to unexpected places.

“More and more harpists are trying new things,” Davis says.

Yes, just as the cops in Denmark suspected.

It was last summer that Davis released her debut album, “Delivery,” on the prestigious Rounder Records label. It is a collection of psychedelic chamber pop, with the harp not always out front, but always present in some shade. 

The sound is a long way from Davis’ roots as a classically-trained harpist. But even then, the pop songs that she heard while taking piano lessons as a middle-school student were still in her head. A decade ago, they would start to emerge as she and her friend since childhood, Alison Cowles, would set up their little duo at the Rochester Public Market on Saturdays, playing Beatles songs for spare change.

Davis was still pursuing a classical career as she went off to the State University College at Potsdam’s highly respected Crane School of Music. Maybe she would go on to teach at a college, or play in an orchestra. But popular music won this battle. So in 2014, a year after graduating from college, she moved to Brooklyn. That’s what aspiring musicians are supposed to do.

It didn’t work. A year later, she was back in Rochester.

Perhaps it was the tight circle of musicians here that pulled her back. She’s been closely associated with Rochester’s Joywave, the electronic pop-rock band that’s broken big nationally, and played on its 2015 album, “How Do You Feel Now?” She’s talking about collaborating with KOPPS, another energetic Rochester group with a modern edge. And she’s sharing a house with two of her Southern Star bandmates, Cian – that’s pronounced as though it has a “K” rather than a “C,” Davis helpfully explains, because the Gaelic language doesn’t include the letter – and his bassist brother Shane. Drummer Alex Coté, another friend from childhood, has his own address, but even there the circle remains tight; he’s married to Davis’ old Public Market partner, Alison Cowles.

The recently completed European tour was originally just a gig at a German festival, but Davis decided while she was there, why not add a few more countries to the itinerary? Neil Young evidently had the same idea; throughout Davis’ tour, she was a day or two behind Young at virtually every one of her shows.

The road offers unexpected confluences. For the concerts in Germany, Davis was joined by Tobias Siebert and his band, And The Golden Choir. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1991, Siebert wandered over to the former Soviet-controlled side and ransacked a dumpster filled with recording equipment, including old microphones. Several years later, he found that old technology was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So he quit his day job, opened his own studio and launched a career of quirks. In a seemingly perfect accompaniment to Davis’ harp, he plays a collection of medieval instruments: hammered dulcimer, hurdy-gurdy and harmonium. He would also bring a lamp and a turntable onstage, and play vinyl records as backing tracks. “You could hear the record crackling, it was really cool,” Davis says.

These unplanned encounters can have a big impact a young musician’s career. While opening for the New York City experimentalist Marco Benevento at Levon Helms’ famous Woodstock barn venue, she met David Butler, the drummer who tours with the longtime alt-rockers Guster. “He said I’ll put in as good word for you,” Davis says. “Everyone always says, ‘I’ll put in a good word,’ but it never happens.”

But this will happen. After the Abilene gig, Davis opens a series of shows for Guster.

Davis and Cian McCarthy are already working on new demos. She talks about the next album, which she’ll start recording this winter, as being more of a collaboration with her band. Perhaps more of a live feel. “It’ll be a different chemistry than recording something and then recording over it,” she says.

Davis is already ahead of where she for was for “Delivery.”

“When we went into the studio, we didn’t know half the songs,” she says, and fans of food metaphors will enjoy her reasoning: “I want to have the songs more seasoned when we record the next album. We’ve been playing some of the new ones live. It helps marinate the flavors and makes the songs better.”

And perhaps, Davis says, the long-dormant classical harp may re-emerge. “I’ve thought about maybe playing a short piece for an encore. No one would see it coming.”

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.