Kate Davis | The Family Interviews
Meet Kate Davis
Ever meet a prodigy? Well now you have vis-a-vis this blog. You’re welcome. Bask in all the following glory and talent. Take it all in.
Having played in many youth orchestras and received a formal training, Kate Davis has been in the game since she was a kid. All grown up and setting the New York scene on fire, she’s now a badass bass-playing songstress, crooning her way into our hearts with spectacular pop ballads.
We called Kate up fresh off the release of her album Trophy to chat all things music, NYC food, and get her stance on canned margaritas. Spoiler alert: she does not approve.
Where did you grow up?
I spent most of my time growing up in a suburb outside of Portland. I moved there when I was 10, so I've spent a lot of time on the East Coast. Then I was in Oregon until college [so] I've had a nice little tour of the coasts.
Did living on both coasts influence your music?
My experiences as a kid in both places were just studying a lot of classical music. I remember being in Goshen, New York with my family and driving to the nearby towns and going to string camps; playing violin and taking private lessons. When I was in Oregon, there are a lot of really amazing youth orchestras and youth bands that I got to be a part of...before I was even in my teens.
How did you get into music?
My parents were both hobbyist musicians. They never made a career out of it, but they were in a [cover] band together when they were young... they'd go around and sing really bad '80s music. My dad was a drummer.
They just loved music [so as soon as] I was able to make noises and function a little bit, my mom was like, "Okay, time for piano lessons!" Since she was musical, she had somehow taken on the role of neighborhood piano teacher when I was really young.
It was clear early on that it was something I enjoyed doing [and] it just came naturally to me. [And] my parents were such big fans of music, they supported it from the beginning, which is just so incredibly lucky because I know that that's not how it always goes.
Who in your family has most influenced your music?
I think the person who influenced me the most was my dad, who unfortunately, passed away about five years ago….As I mentioned before, he was a drummer [but was] honestly never any good. I've heard recordings of him singing covers of “Open Arms,” [and] it just sounds terrible but the heart is there and I think that is what makes it so endearing.
When I was a kid, he was always pushing for lessons and trying to get me opportunities in different groups. [He] was the driving force behind me evolving as a kid and figuring out how I could end up making a career in music.
[He] wasn't as influential in my music taste; I think both my parents have very different music tastes than [me]. [My] dad tried to push me towards a career I think he thought would be a little more long-lasting...and pushed me to become interested in jazz music. I think because it was a music that at the time -- especially in Portland, Oregon -- was cool for younger people to learn to play because it is so rooted in harmony and [is] “serious music.” Like classical music, it's kind of a natural way for kids to learn about music in a technical way.
How did your family support your career?
I had no shortage of opportunity and encouragement, but it was definitely very guided by what my parents thought was the good move for me. [All] through high school and into college, I was an upright bass player. I was singing and getting gigs in clubs, and being styled by [my] parents in a weird way -- like showing up in sweet little cocktail dresses and playing the part of this wholesome girl who had [an] interest in this older music and was singing these American songs -- [in] the tradition of the songbook and jazz as a music. [My parents] looked at that, packaged it up, and thought, "Well, she can make a career doing this." It was very intentional.
The way that it evolved was kind of painful and frustrating for me because as a kid, and in early adulthood, I wasn't really encouraged to explore what I think of as an “artist's society.” I was encouraged to be able to play technically, and I practiced a lot, and I did all of these different things that made me a much better musician, but there was something [that] was lacking for me...I don't feel like I had the opportunity to really look at myself as an artist and say, "Who do I want to be and what do I want to sound like?" Because I was groomed to be a jazz darling.
I think the reason why I ended up where I was at was because my parents worked so hard and put so much time, money, and effort into making sure that I could see a music career through... So I know why they did it, and I'm grateful for them putting so much effort into it, but it meant a lot more to me to discover my own voice, and then to follow that.
How did you begin to find your own voice as an artist?
I was really lucky to be able to go to a [jazz music] school on a scholarship...But it was a hard four years for me because I felt really misunderstood... I felt lost and like I didn't really have anything to say for myself. I just had chops -- like instrumental chops -- and that never really satisfied me.
So during college, I started writing, and I started listening to a lot of different types of music, getting into things that I hadn't been exposed to before...since I was living in this small little bubble that my parents had influenced so much… I slowly started evolving, and writing, and trying to cultivate a voice..
Has Jazz continued to influence you?
Jazz [and classical music] has had a huge impact. Having had that technical background, understanding that history, that kind of harmony, and just drawing all of the things that I love from the spirit of both of those genres...There's a lot to be said about the spirit of jazz music that is completely not even accounted for in today's institutionalized jazz. It totally affected where I've ended up now, but it was a turbulent ride on the way.
Do you think Trophy is an accurate representation of your current intention and voice as an artist?
Right now, absolutely. I think that this is a culmination of years of work of just combing through all of the different things sonically that were pleasing to me, refining the voice that I always had within me, but wasn't always able to express. Whether it's in the writing or in the way that it was recorded, just instrumentation, the arrangements… But I do think it's inevitable that I'll continue to keep evolving, and changing, and growing as an artist.
How do you work collaboratively while maintaining your identity and vision as an artist?
I got really lucky with this whole process because I ended up meeting someone who was able to produce it and jump onboard at exactly the right time. It's this guy named Tim Bright. He is a great guitar player and a wonderful producer. [He] became something of a mentor to me in helping me understand what else was out there, the histories of different music...just helping me understand music from a totally different perspective than the one I had been so used to being in, living in, within the jazz institution...There’s [just] a huge difference between the way that music has developed in the school or the institutional setting versus being an artist and trying to make work.
So getting to work with him, to learn music, and be exposed to things through him as a totally different perspective was crucial for me being able to come to all of these things with Trophy… He was just trying to serve the music, like the greater good, the overall point of making the music in the first place....It was such a wonderful, wonderful collaborative relationship.
How do you maintain your momentum and remain fulfilled during the creative process?
I found a new momentum and flow within the visual element of the music, with music videos...Refining the aesthetics for how it needs to look. I've been working on a couple of [music videos] and that feels very creative. [It’s my] first time conceptualizing ideas for visuals to accompany music, my own music, so that's been extremely creative.
[Music videos] connect with people even more than music in some ways [but] just in different ways...I think it's a little more immediate. So to have both of [my music and videos] working in conjunction [has] been so cool because it makes me feel seen in a way I never was before.
For such a long time, I felt like I played a part or [had] been somebody who wasn't really me, like being a kid or being a young jazz musician... it's just so liberating to be like, "This is my thing. This is my attitude. This my style. This is my aesthetic and this is how I'm going to represent myself to the world in a visual way"
[And] I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for these moments to really feel the satisfaction of finishing something and being like, "Yep, that is exactly what I wanted."
What is your next project?
[Tim Bright and I] decided we needed something else to work on since we had such a good time working on Trophy. We recorded a cover of all of Daniel Johnston's Retired Boxer, which is the album which has “True Love Will Find You in the End.” [We] just kind of reimagined it but tried to capture what we got from listening to the songs, and Daniel Johnston's essence.
Obviously, we didn't nail it, but we tried to just..redo it and see what happened and hopefully, we'll be able to release it in some capacity and get more people pumped up about Daniel Johnston just because I think he's one of the most important songwriters who's contributed to the American tradition.
Where do you hope to go next with your music?
I just want to keep writing and [see] where [it] takes me because I think the thing about writing is that ...You can't make mistakes, really. Something might not sound so good, but it's not necessarily like there's a right way and a wrong way. You just have to explore it and you just have to keep doing it. …They’re like little babies; you just keep popping them out, and some of them you like more than others...
I guess [the] real answer to your question [is that] I found my lane and I think I'm just going to keep working to refine it... And there will be things that take me in other directions, but I think at the core of it, I just want to keep writing songs that have some kind of emotional presence and tell stories. I love all sorts of stories, not even my own. I think I'm sick of my own stories. [I want to keep] trying to tell all sorts of other narratives, and get into other people's heads, and just keep making stuff.
What’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
I have like three for three different tiers.My favorite restaurant right now that's kind of like the “go super infrequently, but do it up when you go,” is this place in Fort Greene [Brooklyn] called Roman's. It's extraordinary. It's extraordinary food.
I [also] really love Westville. It's the kind of place you go [and] are just so satisfied in a very wholesome and American way.
And then my final favorite restaurant is a place called Peacefood Café. [It's] a vegan restaurant and I find it to be my deepest comfort as far as food.
What’s your quintessential NYC food?
New York pizza, right? That's the no-brainer. I used to go, when I was in college, to a place called Coronet. It's uptown and the slices of pizza are twice the size of your head. I'm not sure that it's the best pizza in the world or in New York City, but there was something about it that was just really memorable. Maybe I'm just linking it to my debaucherous college years, but I'll never forget you, Coronet Pizza.
How do you feel about canned margaritas?
I'm going to say no. I think I'm going to change my answer to absolutely never. Not in a million years.