Davina And The Vagabonds: Bringing The Sound of New Orleans to Minneapolis, And The World 

Catching up with the band’s fearless namesake Davina Sowers in this exclusive chat

Davina digging in the crates / Photo by Christi Williams

Davina And The Vagabonds live on the road. Every year, they play hundreds of dates, all over the States, Canada and Western Europe. The foundation of their sound is the early music of New Orleans, with hints of girl group R&B, jazz and small swing combos in the mix. 

“New Orleans is in my blood,” says Davina Sowers, the band’s namesake, piano player, lead singer, songwriter and bandleader. “My mom loved folk and singer/songwriters, so I’m a sucker for strong female voices, but my father was born in 1902. He had an Edison Cylinder Player and collected early recordings. I loved listening to them and I still collect 78s. I have Gramophones. Being raised with that music in my heart attached me to it. I’ve been listening to it my whole life, playing it in bands for 20 years and making a living playing it for 15 years. I started out at house parties and small clubs. ‘You like my music, OK, pay me peanuts!’” Sowers laughs. 

“I didn’t intend to be a performer. I accidently became a singer in a blues band. I got invited on stage one night, did a couple of songs in a Janis Joplin style, and brought the house down. After I did that a couple of times, someone asked me if I had a band. They said they could get me a gig. I said, ‘Yes,’ a little bit of a lie, and put one together. I’ve been doing it ever since, growing creatively and musically, and finding musicians that can keep up with me.” 

The band’s new album, Sugar Drops, dropped in July and showcases the band’s remarkable range. “Bone Collection” is an sassy love song that Sowers delivers with a winking confidence, while the band lays down a syncopated second line strut. Sowers sings “No Matter Where We Are,” with her vocal processed to sound like it’s coming out of an old Victrola, with the band spinning out a country waltz, accented by a reggae rhythm. “Magic Kisses” shows off the subtle horn work of The Vagabonds, on a swinging tune that recalls the sound of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. 

Sugar Drops by Davina and the Vagabonds

“I like having a diverse palette and the arrangements are all worked out in advance by me and my trumpet playing husband, Zack Lozier. I don’t tell musicians, ‘I want you to play what you would if you were drunk at a bar mitzvah.’ I never co-write. 

“This is the first time we’ve been in a real recording studio. My first three albums were made in basements, very lo fi. Our last album, Sunshine, was recorded at studios in the homes of friends, so it was nice to be in a professional space this time. I could focus on all aspects of the record. Our producer, Garry West, made me feel at home. We recorded most of the tracks live, in one room, the drummer on my right, the bass player on my left and Zack right in front of me. Garry brought in Doug Lancio, Patty Griffin’s guitar player, to add some subtle touches. We don’t use a guitarist when we play live, just a rhythm section and two horns. I was obstinate about my ‘No Guitar’ rule, but Gary insisted Doug would play tasty and wouldn’t overshadow the arrangements. He didn’t. I wanted tuba and clarinet too, so we compromised. When I heard the results, I was glad he talked me into it.

“We’re known for our live shows, so we wanted to capture that energy, without the roughness you sometimes get on stage, or the sterile sound you can get on some recordings. He did a great job of keeping the energy, and the swing the rhythm section gets when you’re playing live.” 

Davina and the band have been on the road, supporting the album since its release. Sowers said that’s where she’s most comfortable. “Live, we have a very Fats Waller meets Fats Domino kind of feel. We do mostly original songs, but I get drained baring my soul on every number, so it’s fun doing covers, usually obscure tunes, things I can connect with. We do a lot of standards from old New Orleans, sung by The Vagabonds – (trombone player) Steve (Rogness) and my husband, Zack. We do stuff like ‘Saint James Infirmary,’ ‘Louisiana Fairytale’ and ‘Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.’ I’m a piano player too, so I like the chance to concentrate on the keyboards, instead of pouring my heart out.” 

 

AUDIO: Sugar Drops (full album)

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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