Mikaela Davis and Southern Star
Hey Underwater Sunshine fans, it’s Charlie, here to tell you about an act that has a special significance for me. Mikaela Davis and the Southern Star played the first Underwater Sunshine Fest, and for that reason her act is important to more than a few of us—but her Garden Session just happened to be starting as I walked through the door for the first time. It was already overwhelming to work with all of these incredible musicians, producers, writers, designers. Almost a year ago I walked into a thoroughly intimidating setting as an intern, feeling totally unqualified for the position, and was almost immediately confronted by an enormous harp sitting in the middle of the room. There was Mikaela Davis and the Southern Star sitting behind it, and she was just starting to play soft little runs—in fact, you can see what I saw:
In the essay Katie wrote to introduce Davis for the first festival, she said that calling her a “harpist” was reductive: I hate to disagree with the person who got me this job, but I think that Davis is a harpist, and one who’s revitalizing in a modern way an instrument that’s become synonymous with antiquity. The harp has always had a particularly calming connotation, but too often that connotation comes by way of over-played, over-analyzed music from hundreds of years ago that means little to nothing to the average listener in 2019. Davis has brought that same meditative catharsis along with her harp into the modern ear, not forcing the harp into modernity or modernity into the harp, but allowing the instrument to find the groove it’s lost for the contemporary listener. It’s not old; it’s not pushing so far into the avant-garde that you can’t recognize it for what it is; it’s an instrument, serving the music just as the guitar, bass or percussion do.
That meditative feeling that the harp brings with it into intelligent, evocative songs like the ones on Delivery, the record Davis has put out since that first festival, made it possible for me to calm my soul for that crucial twenty minutes when I first arrived at the Garden Sessions. I was so caught up in the rhythms Davis had filled the room with that I could hardly listen to the lyrics—looking back, listening to her Garden Session again, I’ve realized that had I listened, I would probably have been even more calmed, less adrift, if I had heard the artfully understated narratives of finding direction and solace in uncertainty. On the title track from Delivery, Davis sings:
You said it’s all about delivery
You said it’s all about my style
But the truth is you loved me, loved me, loved me, loved me, loved me all the while…
The backstory to these lines is only implied, but it overwhelms you when it reaches you: a story of trying over and over again to meet an unattainable ideal in order to be accepted, never realizing that you were always good enough. The repetition of “loved me, loved me,” with Davis reveling in the words, brings home to us just how incredible that joy of being loved is, if only we let ourselves feel it. The single from Delivery, “Other Lover,” also showcases this struggle between self-acceptance and the way we move through the world, with the added bonus of a swampy, swinging bluesy sound that meshes perfectly with the harp:
I’m hoping that come November, I can have a whole new experience with Davis’s music—but if I can’t, if it will always be a moment of peace in the middle of anxiety, of self-acceptance in the terror of new surroundings, I think I’ll be happy with that too.