We Are Upstate NY With Critically-Acclaimed Harpist Mikaela Davis
Usually, the purview of classical orchestras, Renaissance paintings of portly baby angels or Marx Brothers comedies, the harp is now finally gaining some well-deserved spotlight in the world of popular music. That’s all thanks to one of the Hudson Valley’s most distinctive and talented young musicians, Mikaela Davis.
This critically-acclaimed Catskill-based artist has utilized her classical music training to craft a unique brew of genre-bending sounds, one that weaves together ‘60s sunshine pop, psychedelia, bluegrass, country rock, orchestral pop and everything in between.
Davis first gained notoriety over a decade ago when she began uploading videos of her covers of songs by Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith to YouTube. In 2012, while still studying classical harp at the Crane School of Music, she self-released her eponymous debut album. With it, Davis was soon sharing the stage and/or doing sessions with likes of Christian McBride, The Decemberists, Lake Street Drive and the Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, even doing a much-watch NPR Tiny Desk Concert with the latter. In 2017, she was signed to Rounder Records and issued the John Congleton-produced album, Delivery.
What drew you to play the harp? It’s a pretty esoteric and unwieldy instrument for a pop musician. Have you been influenced by other harpists working outside of the classical tradition, like Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby? And are there other instrumentalists, say, guitarists, who play into how you approach the harp?
I can’t really explain what drew me to it, I just remember thinking it was the coolest-looking instrument and felt an unexplainable pull. Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby are both major influences, Alice for her ability to use the harp texturally and create a vibe; Dorothy for her incredible skill as an improviser and mastery of jazz harmony, which is particularly difficult on a diatonic instrument like the harp. One of my favorite harpists who approach the instrument in a non-traditional way is Andreas Vollenweider, a Swiss harpist who won the first-ever New Age Grammy and released about a thousand albums, all of which are great! As for other instrumentalists, I’m a huge Elliott Smith fan, and his finger-style guitar playing translates beautifully to the harp. One of my favorite albums from recent years is In & Of by John Lee Shannon, another great finger-style guitarist whose playing and songwriting I love and have been very inspired by.
You first gained national attention with your unique covers of songs by Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens and, of course, the Grateful Dead. What has it been like collaborating with the Dead’s Bob Weir and Phil Lesh and being embraced by the Dead-Head community?
My Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens YouTube covers are what landed me my first booking agent while I was in college. That’s when I decided to pursue being in a band instead of going to grad school. I love the music of the Grateful Dead, so it’s an honor to play with the people who helped create it in the first place. The Deadhead community is great. They love music for all the right reasons and it’s wonderful to have them in the mix. Playing with Bob and Phil is something I never expected. But that’s just one of the many things I love about having a life in music, you never know where it will take you.
(Mikaela comes on at 12 mins)
Your music really spans a lot of genres – classical, psychedelia, bluegrass, ‘70s jazz fusion and even a bit of sunshine pop. What were some of the most important artists who have shaped you in the past and who do you look to on the contemporary scene for inspiration?
I think when you consider the diversity of our backgrounds as musicians, it’s only natural that the music we make is equally as diverse. I obviously come from the classical world, Cian and Alex are multi-instrumentalists who both studied jazz at SUNY Purchase, Kurt studied Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music and in addition to being the best bassist, Shane is a great mandolin player, guitar picker, drummer and record nerd who has a really deep knowledge of music that spans all genres. Some of the contemporary artists I find really inspiring are Cass McCombs, Dungen, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Sam Evian, Dan Horne, Sessa, Mac DeMarco, Kurt Vile, the list goes on!
Your most recent album, And Southern Star, is more of a collective effort than your past work, something created with some musicians you have known since your teenage years. How is the new record different from past projects? And how has your long history with collaborators like drummer Alex infused the music?
It’s not as different as you might think. I’ve been playing music with Alex, Cian and Shane for ten years. I think the main difference is that this album was written, performed, recorded and produced by myself and my bandmates. My previous album was released on Rounder and produced by John Congleton, so there were many more outside influences. It wasn’t a bad thing, but And Southern Star is a much more homegrown and self-realized effort that happened very organically. The songs and the entire process of making the album grew out of the circumstances of our lives when made it. It’s very much a snapshot of a special moment in time.
What‘s your songwriting process?
It usually starts with a melody that appears in my head from the great beyond, often when I’m driving. I’ll try to record it into my phone as a voice memo before I forget it. Later I’ll come back to it at the harp or piano and add some chords. If I get stuck, that’s when I’ll bring the song to Alex and we’ll finish it together. On the flip side, Alex will bring me song ideas of his in various states of completion and we’ll flesh them out. Cian and I don’t often co-write together, but he is a prolific songwriter and on And Southern Star there are a couple of his songs that have been around for a while that I’ve always loved and I asked if we could record them as a band for the album. That being said, we co-wrote “Don’t Stop Now” together and it’s one of my favorites. For that one, I wrote the music and Cian wrote the lyrics.
You have shared the stage with some heavyweight players like bassist Christian McBride and Lake Street Dive. You’ve also done a lot of session work with some high-powered artists like The Decemberists. How has touring and recording with the likes of these players informed your music and career choices?
All of the people you mentioned are great examples of fantastic human beings who happen to play music for a living. I learned a lot from all of them about how to sustain a healthy and balanced life as a touring musician. Christian is a great example of someone who treats other musicians with an equal amount of respect and enthusiasm despite being such an accomplished player and I really admire that. Having the opportunity to play with and spend time around anyone who has achieved and maintained success as a professional musician is always a wonderful opportunity to learn by example and I’m grateful to be able to continue to do so!
You are a real fixture on the Hudson Valley music scene, playing residencies and festivals alike. What are your favorite venues to play and also to see live music here?
What three albums have most inspired you and why? Also, who are some local musicians that you think deserve to be better known?
Very hard to choose but if we go way back to the beginning, I’d say these three albums shaped me the most as a songwriter and a musician from an early age. Also, fun fact, Alex is responsible for hipping me to all of this music in our high school years:
1. Vanessa Carlton – Be Not Nobody — This album is essentially why I started writing songs. I sat down at the piano when I was eleven and learned “A Thousand Miles” by ear. Learning that song inspired me to write my own song called “Fly Away,” which I still remember how to play!
2. Sufjan Stevens – Greetings From Michigan — I loved this album’s use of odd time signatures and orchestration. I also thought it was cool that Sufjan was an oboe and English horn player and it made me feel better about being an orch dork.
3. Elliott Smith – XO — The songwriting on this album is incredibly moving and when I first heard it, it inspired me to dig deeper in my own writing. The production on this and every Elliott Smith record continues to be a source of inspiration as well.
Local bands you should know: Blue Ranger, The Ongoing, D. Light!
What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
I’m currently working on a collaboration with Circles Around The Sun that we’re all very excited about. Can’t say much more about it now but stay tuned 🙂
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful in your career and just in enjoying life?
JOUST, my local coffee shop!
What is missing in the area that you wish we had?
A good grocery store! *Eh em* Wegmans, please.
What would be your dream assignment/gig, as a musician, actor or artist?
I already have it: playing with my band!
Who or what inspires you personally?
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
I’m left handed and I never pierced my ears.
What is your favorite non-musical or literary activity?
Video games, Dr. Mario parties with my band.
Pre-order her new album And Southern Star release date August 4th, 2023
Find a show in your town at Bands In Town
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Contributing writer Sal Cataldi is a musician and writer living in the Hudson Valley.