Singer-songwriter Mikaela Davis is on Facebook, YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Twitter, Instagram … and the harp. But if the stringed instrument — which dates back to 3,500 b.c.e. — seems more at home at a Renaissance Fair or a Celtic Woman concert than on social media platforms, Davis might be just the musician to change that impression. Her experience spans classical training and pop songs, and though her turn to songwriting is fairly recent, Davis’s self-titled full-length and follow-up EP have been met with enthusiasm from both fans and critics. After a show cancelled last year following the big blood episode that shut down The Lexington Avenue Brewery’s back room, she finally makes it to Asheville. Davis performs at The Altamont Theatre on Wednesday, Sept. 30.
Mountain Xpress: You were mentored by Grace Wong, principal harpist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Did you grow up attending RPO concerts? Would you consider performing with a symphony orchestra?
Mikaela Davis: That’s right. I couldn’t have gotten this far without her! I did attend RPO concerts and was a part of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra all through high school. That’s probably the best orchestra I’ve ever been a part of. My experience there helped me grow and be interested in performing in a chamber setting, which led me to wanting a band. I do miss performing in an orchestra but my true passion is to perform music I’ve written. I don’t think I will pursue being in an orchestra (and the competition is out of this world).
Do you feel like you’re bridging the worlds between classical and pop music?
I guess I could be — I use all the different techniques I’ve learned in my harp lessons over the years, and sometimes throw a little ravel in solo sections when I play solo. I think classical and pop music share a similar language but with different instrumentation. The root of pop music is classical, after all! From classical to jazz to skiffle to rock, it all comes from similar roots. Although pop songs are usually around three minutes long and classical pieces are around 20 minutes and will develop above and beyond, they both have a melody and an emotion that brings the listener in.
Other than the teachers you studied with, do you think that Western and Upstate New York have influenced you as an artist?
I think music I grew up listening to influenced me the most, but Rochester has been a big part of me. The music scene is great, the people are great. I grew up living on the edge of a beautiful park, which helped keep me in tune with nature.
I saw a photo on your Instagram feed of Old Soul Studios in Catskill. Are you recording there?
I am great friends with the owner of the studio, Kenny Siegal. He actually found me through a competition we both did for a compilation album of The Kinks. After that, I recorded a Harry Nilsson tune for a second tribute album he will be putting out soon. Kenny brings me in to play on albums he’s working on, and I absolutely love the energy and atmosphere the studio brings. I haven’t recorded any of my own music there (yet). I’m currently recording a full length album in Nashville with Konrad Snyder and Jeremy Lutito.
Besides having more people on stage, how does your full-band show differ from your solo show?
It’s a completely different show. When I play solo I take full advantage of the harp and my effect pedals to create a wall of sound. I play different songs, it’s low key. The band performance can be full on pop-rock, more energy and I play my upbeat tunes that wouldn’t lend themselves to a solo performance as much.
Since you play the harp sitting down, do you have to make a more concerted effort to connect with an audience or express energy in your live performance?
I get lost in my own world during a performance, often not even knowing what happened when I come off stage. I definitely hide behind the harp and stare at the strings, glancing into the audience as much as I can.
While your music is different from that of other pop harpists like Joanna Newsom and Pat Grossi (Active Child), do you think harp is becoming more recognized as a crossover instrument?
Sure! I think if a songwriter happens to play harp, they will use the instrument to their full advantage. You can’t start a band and decide “I think I’ll pick up the harp in this band because that’s cool,” you have to have studied the instrument to really know your way around. If I decided to play guitar in my band because that’s what is usually done, it would be awful. I’ll stick to what I know.
Anything special you’d like readers to know about your Asheville show?
I’m so happy to finally make it to Asheville! Last time I had a show booked there it was cancelled because the venue closed after pigs blood was splattered all over the place at a metal show. Best story I’ve ever been able to tell my friends. I love you guys already.