While the harp is an instrument often relegated to classical music, Mikaela Davis shows us that it should not be so quickly dismissed. She writes songs that pay homage to her classical training, while embracing modern influences like Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith (both of whom she she has covered brilliantly). Her music displays a deep understanding of arranging and composing, skills that she has applied to the the art of songwriting in the modern sense.
She has a voice that doesn’t insist on itself, that doesn’t brag about its abilities, and has a sweetness that tempers the often melancholic or dark tone of her lyrics. Since her earlier releases, she has moved toward a pop-centric sound that feels like more of an expansion than a departure. It’s a move that has opened up new possibilities for her. These songs lend themselves, interestingly enough, to EDM-esque remixes, and pop orchestrations, giving rise to new avenues of exploration, and holding us in rapt anticipation of what will come next.
Mikaela Davis is supported by Alex Cote on drums, Shane McCarthy on bass, and Cian McCarthy on keyboard and guitar.
NYMM: Tell me a little bit about your current project.
MD: We’re working with two producers in Nashville. Konrad Snyder, and Jeremy Lutito are co-producing it. This is the first record that we are recording outside of Rochester. Everything before this has been self-produced.
AC: We worked with more people on this one than any of the others before.
MD:Yes, we had more co-writes, and there are a few that I thought were a little out of my element when I wrote them, but I’ve really come to love them. Some of the songs have been around for at least a year, but some are more recent than that. There are a few tunes on here that are especially poppy for me as a writer. There are also songs that are more normal for me, and there are a lot of dark songs, as well.
NYMM: Did you do much writing in the studio?
MD: For the songs we have been playing together for a long time, it was easier to just go in and record them. We recorded a lot of the elements live, like drums, bass, or guitar. We used that as a foundation, and laid stuff over top of it in the studio. We’ve never been able to do that before. We’ve always wanted to record parts live like that.
AC: The songs themselves were done, and, so then, it was a matter of the band working with the producers to look at what we liked, what we needed to do in certain parts, and what needed to be performed so we would have all of the parts when we went to mix it. It was a lot of trial and error.
NYMM: Tell me about one of the songs from the album.
MD: One of my favorites is “My Light is Always On.” It has a Middle-Eastern feel to it. Over the past few years I have been introduced to Ravi Shankar, and have been really interested in that style. That song is about being gone a lot. It’s about reminding people back home that my heart is still there even though I’m gone all the time.
NYMM: Are most of your songs autobiographical like that?
MD: Most of my songs are personal, but I actually want to start moving away from that. I want to write songs that have a story, and are about something that more people can relate to. I’ve been listening to a lot more Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and their lyrics are incredible. I’ve never been one to focus on the lyrics. I’ve always been more interested in melody, texture, and sound. But recently I’ve been listening to lyrics a lot more and have been feeling really self-conscious about my own.
NYMM: Has your sound changed much since your first album?
MD: A lot of the songs on my first album were written in high school. High school is an interesting time. You’re going through a lot of emotional changes. “Ballad of a Winter’s Past” is about my dad moving to California when I was really young. That was a huge life-changing event for me. The song is about being upset about it, but realizing that that’s the way it is and trying to make do with situations like that in your life. I write about family a lot. Sometimes the listener may think it’s about a boyfriend, or something, but it’s usually about my family.
NYMM: I love the harp ensemble arrangement of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” you did. How did that come about?
MD: I went to Crane School of Music, and every semester, I would arrange a pop song for the harp ensemble. My teacher supported what I was doing with my band, which was awesome. I think if I had gone to a conservatory, it would have been harder for me to pursue being a songwriter. I arranged that song for four harps, but we ended up having eight parts, each one doubling up. I also published the arrangement, and took it to a harp convention in New Orleans and sold it there. It was a lot of fun.
NYMM: How is arranging for harp ensemble different from writing your own songs?
MD: Arranging for a harp ensemble is different because I know my way around a harp. I know almost nothing about drums, and only a little about keyboard. Most times, I write a song and bring it to the guys, and everyone arranges their own part. I’ll say if I don’t like something, but I trust their opinions. We all have very similar musical tastes and they understand what I’m trying to do, so I rely on them to take my songs to the next level.
Photos by Jon Karr / www.thatverynextthing.com
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