Ahead of Albany residency, harpist, songwriter, and improviser Mikaela Davis performs for WAMC
Next week, harpist and singer songwriter Mikaela Davis begins an upstate New York residency including three Albany concerts.
To hear the fully produced piece, including Mikaela Davis's music and live performances referred to in the text below, hit the play button above.
Davis is releasing a new record on legendary Olympia, Washington indie label Kill Rock Stars on August 4th. Titled “And Southern Star,” it was recorded at Old Soul Studios in Catskill. Its leadoff single “Far From You” dropped this spring. Ahead of the 31-year-old’s busy concert schedule in the WAMC listening area in May, Davis stopped by the station’s Berkshire Bureau in Pittsfield harp in hand for a live session and interview.
“So, ‘Far From You’ is a song written by Cian [McCarthy] and Shane [McCarthy], the guitar player and bass player in my band," Davis told WAMC. "And Shane wrote the chords to that song I think 10 years ago, and then Cian took it on and wrote the lyrics and melody from there, and then brought it to the band. I think maybe I had heard Cian playing that song at one point and asked if we could play it in my band. And so, we started playing it, and then the instrumental at the end, I just wrote the hook at the end there. And I think anyone can relate to that song. I mean, I connect to that song and the lyrics are so simple but, just like, yearning for somebody in your life that maybe you've lost or you're far away from, and especially over the pandemic, it had a new meaning for me. Just being far away from everything that I loved. I think that song is maybe not written about anything specific, but just that feeling.”
Here’s Mikaela Davis performing “Far From You” live in the WAMC News Berkshire Bureau.
“I started playing the harp when I was eight, and focused on classical music," said Davis. "And in middle school, I started writing songs on the piano. And then in high school, I decided that I should start writing songs on harp instead, because that's more unusual than just another girl writing songs on piano. I've always been a better harpist anyway, so I thought, I can play this instrument better, so I might as well go for that. And me and Alex [Coté], my drummer, had been close friends since grade school. We grew up around the corner from each other. So, I would show him what I'm working on, and eventually, he started playing drums with me. And then we added guitar, and then we added bass, and then we added pedal steel. And so, I never really decided that I wanted to have a band behind me, it just happened. And I'm glad it did.”
Davis has become known for her abilities as an improviser, which spawned from her experiences playing with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead starting in 2018.
“A friend of mine who is friends with one of Bob Weir’s managers sent him a video of my band playing a Neil Young cover because he knew that Bob was having different people sit in with him on his Wolf Brothers tour, and that was that," she said. "So, his manager showed the band the video and said, oh, do you want this harpist to sit in with you? And they said sure. So, I got an email, and I did not expect it at all. And that's actually what threw me into improvising. I had not improvised in front of a crowd, I think, ever until I played with Bob Lesh- [laughs] until I played with Bob Weir at the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse.”
In 2020, Davis appeared alongside Weir, bassist Don Was, and drummer Jay Lane in an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert that’s been viewed almost a million times on YouTube. The appearance followed a performance at Lockn' Festival in Virginia, and featured the harpist on long, exploratory versions of Grateful Dead classics “Bird Song” and “Ripple.”
“Tiny Desk was not planned," Davis told WAMC. "I was not supposed to play on his Tiny Desk. But we were rehearsing for the Lockn' Festival show in some trailer backstage, and it was all acoustic. It was just me, Bob, Don, and Jay, and we were just running through the tunes. And Don turns to Bob and is like, hey, we should have her on Tiny Desk. Hey, what are you doing tomorrow? I said, uh, nothing. So, they asked if I wanted to come to DC and join their Tiny Desk, and I said, um yes. So, that's how that happened. It's pretty cool.”
Here's Davis playing on “Bird Song” with Bob Weir and Wolf Bros for their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.
Davis has also appeared in Phil Lesh and Friends, a rotating cast of elite improvisers the former Dead bassist assembles for his appearances across the country.
“When I was playing with, did a show with Phil Lesh last summer, I was on the bus with Stanley Jordan, guitar player, on the way to the show," she said. "And we were talking about music of the Grateful Dead and talking about how to play it and what to expect and how to improvise. And something he told me as well, you know, as Phil once said to me, playing music of the Grateful Dead is like Dixieland. Everyone's doing their own thing, and so just do your own thing. And that was kind of an a-ha moment for me, like, okay, I don't have to think about it too hard, I suppose. Just do what feels right. And I mean, that's what improvising is. You're just playing whatever you want, so there's nothing wrong. And the first couple of times I played with Bob Weir, something Dan Was told me is, because I had said to him, I am very new to improvising, I don't really know what I'm doing. And he said to me, well, you're always a half step away from the right note. [laughs] So that that was also a moment I will always remember.”
In May, she’ll pair her interpretations of the Dead songbook alongside original work with three shows at the Parish Public House in Albany on the 3rd, 10th, and 19th.
“Every week, we will play a different set of Grateful Dead tunes, and we'll switch up the originals too," said Davis. "So, it'll be just us, no openers, two sets. The first set will be our music and the second set will be a different collection of Dead tunes.”
One of those originals is “Promise.”
“’Promise’ is a song that I wrote with Alex my drummer, and I actually thought of the melody when I was at a Phil Lesh concert a long time ago," Davis said. "And so, I went in the bathroom and just recorded a voice memo of the melody, and then wrote it on piano, actually. So, I started writing it and got together with Alex and he helped me finish the song. But I wrote it for a friend who was going through some relationship troubles at the time, but we tried to make the lyrics kind of clever with the way ‘a promise no one wanted to keep’ keeps coming back at the end of every verse.”
Here’s Mikaela Davis performing “Promise” live in the WAMC News Berkshire Bureau.
Davis, a Rochester native, recently relocated to the Hudson Valley. She says it’s the kind of peaceful oasis she’s been looking for after a decade of touring and another busy year ahead of her.
“I just want to play music, and I just want to be able to live comfortably playing music and bringing that to other people in the world if we can make folks happy," she told WAMC. "And yeah, that's all. That's all I want. I love playing a live show and connecting with people on the other end. And it's just fun to go all over the world and see the different reactions, whether it's like stuffy and everyone's just standing there staring at you, or whether people are dancing. It's always different, and it's just really fun. I'm so thankful to be doing this.”