Singer-songwriter-harpist Mikaela Davis is releasing her debut full-length album Delivery next month (out July 13 on Rounder Records), so we were incredibly excited to get an early interview with the genre-blurring multi-hyphenate. During our discussion, Davis gives us a peek into her classical musical upbringing, her thoughts on the integration of the harp into pop music, her insights from working with artists like Bon Iver and Sara Watkins, and much more!
NoiseTrade: Let’s start off with a bit of your musical backstory. What first drew you to want to play the harp?
Mikaela Davis: In second grade my school had a really awesome music program and they offered harp, along with other stringed instruments and brass and woodwinds. I liked the harp the most and I went home that day and told my mom that’s what I wanted to play. Luckily, my parents were supportive and got me started on a small lever harp. I eventually moved up to a pedal harp in eighth grade. I studied classical music all through grade school and started writing my own stuff in middle school.
I actually started writing on piano first because I was learning piano at the same time as I was learning the harp. I think the reason I started writing on my own was because I was trying to figure out songs that I liked from the radio. Sometimes I would get it right and sometimes I wouldn’t quite get it, but I realized that stuff still sounded cool to me and I’d start writing my own song around it. In middle school I would do this a lot during my free period because we had this room that had a keyboard and headphones. I would sit there and play during my whole free period and at the end of the year I got to play a concert for the whole school of all of the songs I had written. I did that in seventh grade and then I did another one in eighth grade.
My friends are the ones that convinced me to switch to writing on harp because they just thought it was way cooler. For me, writing on piano was much easier because everything is laid out right there in front of you and on harp there’s like seven foot pedals and you have to use them to change keys and stuff. I feel like I ended up being more creative on the harp though. I eventually went on to college and got a degree in harp performance. So I studied classical music all the way up until I was 22.
NT: When did you start blending your classical background with pop music? What drove that decision?
Davis: I guess I started writing pop-ish songs when I was in middle school and still playing piano. I’ve been writing like that since I was about 12 or so. With harp, I started writing for a band towards the end of high school and beginning of college. One of my best friends is actually my drummer and I would show him the songs I was written to get his thoughts since he was a songwriter as well. He encouraged me and wanted to play along so we started off with just me on harp and him on glockenspiel. We slowly started adding some drums – a bass drum, snare, and a little hi-hat – and eventually added some guitar and bass. It all happened organically because I never really pictured it like that at first, having a full band. I didn’t know if that would work with a harp.
Eventually, my band mates taught me how to use a pedal board with my harp and I also just got an amp this past year. I remember when I first started using guitar pedals that my band mates had to do it for me and show me where everything plugged in. I just had no idea, being a classical musician thrown into the rock world. It’s what I wanted but I had to have a little crash course to get there.
NT: Your upcoming album Delivery finds you playing around with a lot of different styles and influences in your songwriting. Do you initially write all of your songs on the harp or do you sometimes write on other instruments as well?
Davis: It depends. I went through a big writing block a few years ago because I was writing only on harp. I had stopped playing piano altogether towards the end of high school. When I had the writing block, I decided to try and write on piano again to see if that would do anything for me. That’s how I ended up writing the song “Delivery.” That song was my comeback to using piano again. So now I write on both really and sometimes I switch between the two. Like the song “In My Groove” was written on piano but I decided to transfer it to harp for the album. “All I Do Is Disappear” was written on piano and stayed that way on the album. “Get Gone” was written on piano but I switched that one to harp as well. Most everything else was written on harp though.
NT: What are some of the albums and artists that informed your songwriting on the Delivery?
Davis: Definitely. During the writing of the album and right before we recorded it I was obsessively listening to John Lennon’s first solo record, Plastic Ono Band. That influenced some of my more stripped back songs like “Delivery” and “All I Do Is Disappear” that are just like piano, bass, and drums. The past few years I’ve also been on a really big Grateful Dead kick but I’m not sure if that shows through on the album. I also love Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I think Neil influenced my songwriting by allowing me to realize that I didn’t need to always have a million chords. He can write the best song in the world with just three chords. He showed me it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.
NT: You’ve recorded with The Decemberists and Sara Watkins and toured with artists like Bon Iver and Punch Brothers. What are some of things you’ve picked up along the way from working with musically adventurous seasoned artists like that?
Davis: I’ve learned a lot from watching people’s stage banter. Seeing how they talk to their audiences has been really good for me because I’ve always sucked at stage banter. I didn’t know what to say and I was always talking too quite or talking about things no one cares about because I was nervous. I think I’m finally beginning to know how to put on a show as both a musician and an entertainer. Sara Watkins is awesome at it. She’s really funny and super endearing. Plus, the way she sings and pronunciates lets you to really hear the lyrics. I learned a lot from her.
I also toured with The Staves – they’re three sisters from London and they’re amazing – and I learned a lot from them, both in banter and in singing. I think I picked up some of their mannerisms in my voice. Touring with Lake Street Drive was great as well because I love the way Rachel Price moves on stage. Even though I can’t do much behind the harp I’m incorporating some of that stuff when I play keyboard on stage.
NT: Finally, on the European tour you did with Bon Iver, you played a song with Justin during his set every night. If you could craft a couple dream collaborations yourself, who would you want to perform with and what song would you want to play?
Davis: Obviously, Neil Young, even though I know that’s pretty far-fetched. My band plays “Down by the River” sometimes, so that would be cool to do with him. I also think Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real are incredible. There’s this really awesome artist from France named Melody Prochet and her band is Melody’s Echo Chamber. I would love to collaborate with her sometime on pretty much anything.