Seismic-Sounds Interview with: Shenandoah Davis
Photo By Jason Friendt
Last year I put her on my list of one of the top 10 bands to watch in 2010, and those sentiments are still intact. She is a marvel, she is a chip off the late vaudeville movement gone by; and in the first part of August her new full length LP “The Company We Keep” drops, and you would be a fool not to pick this piece of musical mastery up at your local record store( inSeattle), Itunes, or at one of her shows coming up at a city near you this summer and fall…because you guessed it, she’s doing an extensive tour of the U.S.
I was able to sit with Shenandoah and a nice bottle of French red wine, and discuss the past, the current and possibility of whats to come for this incredible artist.
So where are you originally from, and are you from a family of musicians or artists? Born on the East coast and we moved to Colorado when I was 13, where I was home-schooled with three younger siblings. My parents weren’t really into music, but I got a toy keyboard for Christmas when I was 2-or-3, and I really liked it, and then when I was about 6, we finally got a piano and they were always supportive of me playing it, so then I started going to high school in Colorado and that’s where I got involved with choir there and that was really fun, cause I had never sang before. Then I went to college there and studied opera performance and started playing piano for the other opera majors, which was a really sweet job.
So no musical influences in your family so to speak? Not really…I mean one of my dad’s sisters grew up playing the French horn.
And what was the gravitational pull to Seattle? How did that come about? Summer before my last year of college I moved to Portland for the summer and I had never been to the PNW before. But I had the best time in Portland and really loved it. Portland is similar to Colorado in attitude and all, and I love it, but I wanted something bigger. I had gone to Seattle a few times while living in Portland and really liked the city.
Once you got to Seattle, were you already in the music scene, gigging and what not? No!…I hadn’t gigged at all or even written a song yet. I was living in a loft in Pioneer Square, and working at Zeitgeist coffee shop about 40 hours a week;and then started writing songs and casually putting them up on a MySpace page, and my friends were like “oh cool you wrote a song…cute”, then Megan Selig wrote in the Stranger when they had the column for bands of the week and she randomly wrote the column about me, and my picture was in there and I had no idea, and all of a sudden people started emailing me and asking me to play shows, and I had never played a show.
So obviously your first shows were just you and a keyboard? It was obviously a nerve-wracking time for at least my first 50 shows.
So it was just a natural progression for you to gradually get a backing band instead remaining solo? I played with a cellist for a whole year now, but before I met her, there was only the occasional show, when there was a guitar player, or a drummer or violin player, but it never really gelled right and I am a super crazy control freak, so just the idea of having another element on stage, I was always worried what they might mess up and it made me really nervous.
So how is the process different, now that your “seasoned”, you must have some sort of comfort? It works well with my cellist Danah for instance is because she’s extremely talented and can quickly come up with cello parts that compliments my music. So working with her has given me more confidence in working with other people.
Well given all the talent out there in Seattle, are you ever tempted to go out on a limb and work with people who may do stuff that sounds very different from what you do? I am interested in experimenting with other sounds, but I can’t imagine like having a space rock band, back me up or anything, but I would love to play keyboards in a space rock band *both laugh*, that would be awesome. Its kind of funny you ask me that because I am producing a record right now with a girl named Zoe Boekbinder, and we will be recording every day for the next week and a half, but her record is going to be full synths and beats and strings, so it’s giving me an opportunity to experiment with more electronics and stuff.
So is this your first producing project? and is it something you always want to do, how did it come about? We have known eachother for a few years and have played shows together here and in California and she really liked my first record that I made three years ago, and was also up here listening in on my new record while recording and was blown away by all my string arrangements and the instrumentation of everything; so I think she just picked me as a trusted friend that she had a relationship with.
Is that a lot of pressure? Ummm…when I agreed to do it, it was a lot of pressure, but now I am not so worried about ruining it. *giggles*, cause she definitely does a different style of music that I do.
Speaking of styles of music…where do you see yourself in this local Seattle scene, I certainly don’t lump you in with the whole local folky-americana thing that’s happening, you really have a style all your own. I personally do hear sounds of like Edith Piaf, have you ever been told that? No, but I love Edith Piaf and I thank you for that.
So speaking of possible musical inspirational figures, where do yours come from? Certainly performing in the operatic style, and singing as an opera singer has been a great influence, but once you learn to sing like a opera singer, and you have that bigger sound and warble in your voice and vibrato, it’s really hard to get rid of it, unless your going to be singing in the musical “Rent” or something. So what I saying is that the only way to not sing like an opera singer, is sing like you’re in a musical.
You must pride yourself on the fact that you don’t sound like anyone else, and not even just that, your musical arrangements and so on, are very unique, but are there any modern artists that you can draw inspiration off of? I really do love like Edith Piaf and like the ladies of the 1940’s, and all of those like cheesy but beautiful like World War II, “come home soldiers” kind of songs are my inspiration for a lot of the sounds that are on my new record. You know very melodramatic, romantic and over the top with some lushness and a little bit cheesy.
Did you go into making a record with other people’s input nagging at your psyche? No, I just go in and make the record I want to make. I feel like my music is a bit different, so I don’t go into the process hoping to come out with something like The Head and The Heart achieved, that’s just never going to happen.
Why would you say that? the genre or I am not even sure what to call it, of classical or art-pop isn’t a hot commodity. People like Joanna Newsom or Zoe Keating or someone who is doing truly different doesn’t really appeal to what the general public likes, they are in their own category.
But they have made it:Yes, but they haven’t made it by the standards of mainstream success.
Have you ever thought about working in film, short film or just scoring? Yes it’s something I have thought about. I would love to write a musical. Things like that really interest me. And as far as not thinking that I will never have mainstream success. I’m certainly not trying to sell myself short. I am glad that people enjoy me and I do respect what I am doing.
When did you start respecting what you’re doing? I suppose it was about a year and a half ago. After the first year and a half I had first written songs that I really wasn’t embarrassed about.
Do you remember the first song you wrote that you were proud of? I think the song “We Camera” was the first song that I really thought was good. I remember I had just finished recording it at my house and I had put it on my Ipod, and I was just going to take a walk around and listen to it, and I ran into Jack Wilson, and he was sitting outside of Victrola and we didn’t know each other well at the time, but we were talking and I mentioned that I had just finished a song, so I gave him one of my ear buds and we sat there and listened to it; and he was like “this is great.”
So you’re going on tour for 8 months? Now that’s a tour. Well its broken up. The first part of the tour starts on August 14th, and it’s for 3 and a half months, and that’s a full U.S. tour, with exception of like 4 cities. Then we come back and I go to Japan for 3 weeks by myself, but I am going to meet Tomo there (who just moved back), then off to New Zealand and I am going to be visiting my family for a short time on the east coast, so it’s going to be a busy 8 months of touring.
You going to be using the road to write new material, or have you started that process already? yeah I have one song done already, but we are spending most of our time rehearsing getting ready for the tour.
And what cities do you like playing most? I mean there are some weird small towns along the way that are great, but the bigger ones right now are like San Francisco, Chicago as well as Colorado which is where a lot of my friends are, so that’s great. I also love New York, I seem to do well there.
What two songs are the dearest to you? Dearest? wow that’s so different than favorite…. I like that so much. Well I would have to say the last two songs that I finished writing, which are also the most sparse … but the “The Loudest” and “Anywhere”. I had struggled with both of them for a really long time. But the whole record is pretty emotional for me.
I would think picking the order of the songs on the album is pretty important. Do you go by emotional flow or a story? This record was really about emotional flow, but since I have done classical, sometimes I like certain keys next to each other. But every song is individual, and its like hanging an art show. You want to hang the right ones next to each other.
What can we expect for your album release show on Friday at The Fremont Abbey? Well fantastic for one…huge band, and Mike and Matt Gervais from Curtains For You will be singing a couple of songs with me, and playing clarinet and guitar as well, I will have my cello player and a violinist as well as my backing band and a few friends from out-of-town will be coming and playing. Led To Sea is amazing and of course Paleo who is one of my favorite artists from Chicago and I feel so lucky to play with him. I encourage people to come and check it out, its going to be a lot of fun.
What’s the future of Shenandoah Davis? I love producing, I would love the opportunity to work on a film or collaborate on a couple of projects, but I also really like what I am doing….I love touring. If I could tour all the time, I would.
Here are 2 special impromptu performances that Shenandoah Davis provided us with below, so please enjoy. Her album release show is on Friday July 29th,2011 at Fremont Abbey at 7pm.