Rochester native and local favorite Mikaela Davis has been one busy musician: living in Brooklyn, touring nationwide, even playing with Watkins Family Hour and laying down harp tracks for two songs on Sara Watkins's next solo album.
On Saturday, October 10, the singer-songwriter returns home for a show at Anthology with Joywave, plus Grace Mitchell and KOPPS. City recently caught up with Davis by phone to talk about life as a Brooklyn musician, differentiating herself from indie folk harpist Joanna Newsom, and Davis's forthcoming 2016 album. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: How would you compare the music scene in Rochester to Brooklyn? Do you feel like Rochester prepared you for life as a New York City musician?
Mikaela Davis: It's more of a community in Rochester, and I think all of the musical groups are pretty supportive of each other, and everyone kind of knows everybody. And I'm sure there's the same thing in New York, but it's like pools of little communities, lots of different musicians that support each other and hang out. But New York is just so big that it's hard to kind of create a following for yourself when you're still an independent artist.
On one hand, I was happy I was there so I could meet new people and try to become part of different things, but on the other hand, it's kind of nice being in Rochester where you build it up a little easier and I was kind of already known in Rochester. Then going to Brooklyn and being [a] small fish in a big sea -- [it was] kind of a culture shock.
Do you feel like you've "made it" at this point, or is it a constant work-in-progress?
It's definitely a constant work-in-progress. I think at the beginning of somebody's career, it's kind of an exponential curve, so there's just this long period of time of nothing, and then you're building up your fan base and then building up your team. I got a booking agency and a manager two years ago, which has changed the game a whole lot. That's why I've been able to tour across the country.
As a recording artist, how do you feel your sound is evolving as you move toward the release of this third album?
The band is definitely evolving. Now I have a bass player, so a full band, and we've been working a lot more on arrangements.
When you say that there will be more deliberate arrangements on the next album, does that mean that there will be more of a back-and-forth conversation about what actually gets played?
On the recording, we're bringing a lot more different sounds into the mix, and we're trying to figure out how to play that live now. It's just more produced than I've ever had. Usually we just have a part going into the studio and kind of play it, and that's the part. And it's just harp, guitar, drums, and bass; or harp, keys, drums, and bass. But now the next album, there are lots of ear candy sounds going on.
I feel like on the 2013 EP, "Fortune Teller," you were leaning more on electronic sounds. You can definitely hear the harp, but it's much more of an embedded texture rather than a solo instrument. So it'll be more of that on the new album?
Yep. There's only one song on the album that's just harp and vocals.
Was that the natural result of how the songs were growing, or was that part of a conscious decision to move away from harp as the central focus in the music?
I guess it just came from having a band, and just thinking about it more as a band, rather than "the harpist should be in front the entire time."
I've got to think that it's also a way to distance yourself from the facile comparisons between the music of Joanna Newsom and your own.
Yeah, possibly. I think the songs we write are really different, and a lot of her stuff is all about lyrics. She's an amazing writer. I love her work, but I think our writing in general is just really different.
One of the ways to differentiate between you and Newsom is that her dreamy surrealism comes more from her lyrics than it does from the music, whereas your music is dreamier in terms of the actual sounds being used.
Yeah, definitely. And I've never thought about my lyrics so much. I don't think I write very good lyrics, but I'm all about melodies and textures and sounds.
I realize that it's kind of unnatural to ask a musician to assume the role of the critic in analyzing his or her own music.
A lot of times once I've released an album, I'm already sick of it. Anything I've released so far, I can't even listen to that anymore, because it's so old to me. I'm excited about what's coming next.
Are there certain musicians whose music you listen to when you need encouragement or inspiration as an artist?
Whenever I'm sick of everything, I usually tend to go back and listen to Elliott Smith. Right now I've been listening to a bunch of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and then kind of digging into that scene. [I've been] listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
What excites you most about performing live?
I really feed off my audience. If people are having a good time, I can feel the energy and I have a good time. I guess I get inside in my own head, and I'm in my own world. Sometimes I don't even remember what happened when I walk offstage.