Mikaela Davis isn’t what you expect her to be— no matter your expectations. The first time someone told me about her and said that she played a harp, I’ll be honest, I was not sure how that was going to fit in with a Festival— though, as someone who desperately appreciates different sounds and instruments when seeing bands back to back— hoped she would fit in with ours. To say I had nothing to worry about is an understatement. Davis doesn’t “fit in” with anyone. She is her own force to be reckoned with.
Now I’ve done to you what was done to me. I hope you’ll forgive me when you first hear her explode out of your speakers. Her forthcoming record, Delivery (July 13, Rounder Records), showcases a musical understanding that comes not only from a classical understanding of her own instrument, but of a comprehensive knowledge of the way popular music of all genres is built, put together, and enjoyed. The title track of her forthcoming record seems to deal explicitly with exactly how she put all of those elements into one, well, delivery— and she has discussed that much of the songwriting on the record is meta-songwriting— but her lyrics manage to be metaphorical enough that they would cross boundaries for anyone struggling.
I’m not in control
I’m not cut out for this
So I took it back to New York
And cried to my Mom, oh
I thought I’d know me by now…
It’s hard to believe someone as young as Davis is (she’s 26) can put together such artful lyrics, all while being able to play multiple instruments. In the video for “Deliverance,” it becomes immediately clear why “harpist” is a reductive way to talk about her and her band: the percussive elements give her music automatic groove, and seem to find ways to nod to both the ‘70s and ‘80s without trying to. Every member of the band seems to have a full appreciation of the long lineage of rock, country, and pop— in fact, at one point, there is an (excellent) bass solo, which shows both that the band knows when to pull back and when to focus. (Also, in the video, Davis’ bassist wears a Big Star shirt, so it is already clear that he is Good People.) You can easily find her track “Other Lover,” which is already out, as well, and the second it comes on, the percussion is a major player. If you didn’t know that much of the record is about her struggling to find her own place in the world of songwriting on other people’s terms, you’d easily be able to compare this to a song by one of any talented young women musicians. But because she’s been so open about trying to find her artistic direction, her lyrics are given extra heft:
I fight with red flags turned to white
Room is burning, take me home tonight
Now here we go uninterrupted
Until you leave me in the morning
I don’t want to be the other love
I’ve got this feeling that is taking over me
Telling me to run away, run away
Again, it’s a beautiful song no matter what— but what Davis is doing on Deliverance is showing us her heart in layers that she was coming to know as she wrote about them. This is a record that was deliberately made to be a snapshot: of a time, of a record, and of a songwriter. But it is also a record that reminds listeners not to judge anything by whether or not it immediately sounds like what they might like. In fact, I did a little digging on YouTube, and there are some performances of her covering Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens, both solo on harp. Even more challenging for her, though she didn’t realize that someone would eventually be judging those videos— she chose “Twilight,” a top five Elliott Smith song for me, and “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which is, hands down, my favorite Sufjan Stevens song. She absolutely slays both covers, and despite having listened to and played and sung “Casimir Pulaski Day,” easily, thousands of times— I actually cried at the end. How she manages to pull that off, I don’t know— I know every word! She still created surprised awe in me. But the relationship she has with her harp is not the same relationship you’re going to come in expecting. So please, please watch the videos. Buy her record. And come see the show, because I’ve seen video— she’s even better live. I’ll actually let her close this essay out with her own lyrics, again from “Delivery”:
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…
And she couldn’t be more right. You’ll love her too.