Rochester, NY’s Mikaela Davis transitions from classical to pop on her beguiling Rounder debut
In the city of Rochester, NY, where singer/songwriter and harpist Mikaela Davis comes from, there’s this amazing, amazing music emporium called House of Guitars over on Titus Avenue. Their main thing is instruments, which they sell on the store’s main floor. But when you walk down the stairs into the record shop area, you are bombarded with a literal explosion of CDs, vinyl, tapes and everything else in between. It’s a beautiful mess. Cheap vinyl thickly fills dilapidated shelves, while, at least when I was there over 20 years ago, they didn’t even bother to remove the CDs and tapes they were selling from the longboxes they were shipped in.
The music the classically trained Ms. Davis makes on her excellent pop debut Delivery sounds born out of the beautiful mess of that downstairs retail area of House of Guitars, a place where Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack can sit right next to Dorothy Ashby’s Afro Harping in the same sales bin and make total sense beside one another. To see Mikaela wearing a Frehley’s Comet T-shirt in the video for Delivery’s first single “Other Lover” will surely put a smile on the face of anyone who has ever seen the mountain of rock tees that exist at House of Guitars as well.
As far as harpists go, she joins a very elite group who have crossed over into the pop realm, namely Björk, Joanna Newsom, Loreena McKennitt and, of course, the queen of jazz harp, the late Alice Coltrane. But with Delivery, she does it with a style that’s all her own, flexing a sense of melody that anyone caught up in the Snail Mail/Mitski/Soccer Mommy hype whirlwind should pay attention to; Mikalea does it better.
The Rock and Roll Globe reached out to Ms. Davis via email to ask her about the new album and other fun topics.
Delivery is in stores now.
What was it about pop or indie pop that compelled you to go in this direction?
I don’t place myself in any genre really. One day I was listening to Shostakovich’s 6th symphony and decided to write a country song! My influences and musical taste is changing all the time, so my direction is always changing. Whenever I’ve tried to chase after a specific genre the song ends up feeling forced. However, I listen to a lot of Neil Young, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nilsson, Carole King, Melody Prochet, John Lennon, Cass McCombs, Grateful Dead, all of which find their way into what I do…but my biggest inspiration is John Daker.
When did you start playing the harp and what drew you to the instrument?
I remember the exact moment I was drawn to the harp. It was the end of second grade and my class was taken to the music room. Teachers presented different string instruments; among those instruments was the harp. I immediately knew I wanted to be a harpist. I even knew where I wanted to place my future harp in the living room. I studied classical music through grade school and have a degree in Harp Performance, but I decided I enjoyed being a songwriter more than anything.
Have you ever experimented with effects on your harp?
Mostly the synth talk setting on my digitech multi effects processor because really it’s all you need.
How do you think a harp would sound through a fuzz box?
I love the wallpaper on the cover of your album. How did you come up with the idea for the artwork?
Jacalyn and I picked Radio Social, a hip new bowling alley/ restaurant in Rochester because it has many cool backgrounds and wallpaper. This photo was chosen mainly because of how much the colors pop. I didn’t have an idea, I just wanted to find a good photograph and let my creative team work their magic! The wallpaper on my album cover was designed by Grow House Grow.
What other harpists do you admire who have transitioned into pop, folk and rock?
I draw lots of inspiration from Alice Coltrane and I also love Dorothy Ashby. Joanna Newsom is another harpist and songwriter who is amazing. There are many harpists out there trying something different, which is sometimes what we have to do to stay relevant outside of an orchestral setting!
I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, and their approach to the harp!
Alice and Dorothy play harp like it is living and breathing! Dorothy really paved the way for jazz harpists, I don’t think that term existed before her. She was at a disadvantage already being an African-American woman playing jazz on a harp, but she overcame many obstacles and proved herself to the scene. Alice’s songs are so cool, she uses many extended techniques. I especially love her record Journey in Satchidananda with Pharoah Sanders.
As someone who comes from a classical background, what is it that excites you most about the innovations being made in that field through the incorporation of electronic music, etc?
It excites me that people are realizing you’re allowed to play whatever the fuck you want with your instrument! I think it’s awesome! You just have to be careful about your instrument becoming kitschy which can be easy to do…
Who inspires you on the keys? Also, have you ever tried your hand at guitar?
Growing up I listened to a lot of Ben Folds. I dream to learn more about jazz. Alice Coltrane is also a great pianist. Then of course there’s Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau… I have played guitar a little bit. I know how to play basic chords but never practice enough to build up callouses. I am pretty good at fingerpicking, better than I am at strumming, ha!
Being you are on Rounder, do you have a favorite artist on the label?
I’m loving my friends’ new record See You Around by I’m With Her out on Rounder. Sara [Watkins], Sarah [Jarosz], Aoife [O’Donovan] are a force to be reckoned with, all incredible singers and multi-instrumentalists. The first time I saw them live my mind was blown away.