Interview by Shannon Lawlor
Mikaela Davis is a 24-year old composer, harpist and vocalist from Rochester, New York. Her music could be best described as classically inspired indie-folk, with definite nods to world music, and the inclusion of using Middle Eastern and Oriental inspired scales. Initially conceived as a solo act, Davis is now joined by her band on stage, consisting of Alex Coté and Shane McCarthy.
To date Mikaela Davis has released numerous self-published singles and EPs, such as Fortune Teller in 2014, Pure Divine Love (The Mission Sessions) in 2017, as well as her debut full length LP self-titled Mikaela Davis which was released in 2012. In September 2017, Mikaela Davis embarked on a European tour with indie-folk legends Bon Iver, and in 2018, Davis is set to perform at The Great Escape festival in Brighton, UK, alongside artists such as Hunter & The Bear, Joy Crookes, King Nun, Mansionair, Stereo Honey and The Orielles, just to name a few.
We spoke with Mikaela Davis on growing up musically and the bright future ahead:
Could you give us a breakdown of how Mikaela Davis as a solo endeavor initially started out, and how playing alongside a backing band may differ from solo performances?
I started writing songs when I was 12 on piano. Switched to performing on harp in high school after encouragement from multiple friends, and at this point I was more serious about playing the harp anyway.
After winning a small “battle of the bands” contest at my college in Potsdam, NY I decided to try and pursue songwriting more seriously. I performed solo at local bars in Rochester on school breaks. Before long, my good friend Alex (one who encouraged me to write on harp) started playing live with me.
The group slowly went from just harp, to harp and bells, harp and stripped down drum set, until we added a third member on guitar. At one point my band was a four piece, but I have recently been touring as drums, bass and harp..
I mostly play the same songs whether it’s solo or with my band. Though when I have my band it feels much more upbeat and nothing is better than hearing sweet harmonies behind my vocal line!
Receiving a considerable amount of traction through performances across your hometown of Rochester, New York and beyond – an especially memorable online-performance from 2016 can be viewed on Youtube courtesy of Audiotree Live. Can you tell us how this came about and how it may have affected current reception to your music?
Performing at Audiotree was so fun!! Man, that feels like forever ago. I don’t think we play any of those songs anymore and I believe I have grown a lot as a songwriter since then. That might have been the first time we performed & recorded a live performance that was aired online. It was a big learning experience for us to watch the video and figure out what we liked/ didn’t like about our live performance.
You are no doubt, quite an exceptional harpist and vocalist – have you received additional training through either? And how do you feel it might differ from being self-taught?
Thank you! Playing the harp is very much about your technique. I’ve been playing since I was 8, and have an undergraduate degree in Harp Performance. So, yes, I am classically trained!
I’ve never taken private vocal lessons, but I was very involved in jazz choir back in high school. I double majored in harp performance and vocal music education for one semester in college but dropped music ed.
Maybe my voice wouldn’t have the quirks it does if I had been training all these years, who knows. I do want to learn how to take better care with warm ups, etc. I feel that taking harp lessons was a must for me. I learned correct technique to keep my hands healthy, how to read music, music theory, how to play with an ensemble and listen to others, learning songs I love by ear comes way easier, etc…
You’ve just embarked on your first ever European tour along with ambient-indie legends Bon Iver, how did you find the response to your performances went? And did you find there were any differences in performing in Europe than in the US?
Actually, this is my second European tour! I joined The Staves back in June on their U.K. & Ireland tour, which was amazing.
The shows with Bon Iver were incredible, too! I’ll admit I was quite nervous to get up on stage alone in front of thousands of people. I was scared, I wanted my band, I wasn’t sure if many people would want to pay attention to a solo act. Luckily, Justin’s fans are such great listeners and I immediately felt relieved after the first show.
Audiences in Europe are different from audiences in the US. I love touring in my country. I also love touring in Europe – I am repeatedly shocked at how caring and perhaps more careful of listeners are across the pond.
I would imagine it’s quite difficult to simultaneously play an instrument like the harp as well as sing – do you feel it comes naturally, or has it taken some time to adjust to?
I grew up with a musical family, I’ve been watching my uncle play and sing since before I could talk. It all came naturally to me. Harp & piano is all I know… playing guitar and singing is a very difficult concept to me!
If you could list five personal musical influences, who would they be?
Neil Young, Cass McCombs, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Gillian Welch, so many more…
So far, what are some of your most memorable career highlights?
Playing on stage with people I love and look up to – one time I sang a verse with Fiona Apple on Brokedown Palace during a Watkins Family Hour show. Playing with Sara and Sean Watkins and Benmont Tench on piano… that was pretty dang cool. Traveling to new cities & countries for the first time. Making a record with musicians I could only hope to be as good as!
You are set to perform at Great Escape Festival in Brighton, UK, in May 2018. Personally, what are you most looking forward to?
So excited to play with my band, and discover new favorite bands. I’ve been touring solo most of the time these past couple years, I need some rock n roll. Also excited to go to my favorite little shop, Flock!
When you’re not performing, recording or writing music – what are you usually doing in your spare time?
Watching cat videos!
Your lyrical content is definitely more on the personal side, do you follow any kind of formula as a lyricist, or do you tend to stay away from the obvious?
I do not. I started writing for personal reasons, and I guess that stuck with me.
If you could perform alongside any artist or inspirational figure, who would you choose, and why?
Neil Young. Because…. do I even have to explain myself?? 🙂
But honestly, I am happy playing alongside my band. They inspire me!
Your music is known to contain a number of instruments such as sitar, harp, synthesizers and bells as well as various stringed and percussive sounds, do you feel this is essential to your current musical outlook or are you just as comfortable in a stripped down setting?
Not really. My current setup is harp, bass and drums. The instrumentation changes all the time. I enjoy performing solo, too.
What does the future hold for Mikaela Davis?
Special announcements will come with the new year!
For more information follow Mikaela Davis on Facebook