Kate Davis – The BIRN Interview

It’s been a long wait for Kate Davis to finally showcase her debut album to the world. Growing up a jazz musician, Davis’s musical journey took an unexpected turn–she went from a young teen playing bass in the Grammy Jazz Ensemble to becoming an indie rock singer-songwriter as she entered adulthood. After immersing herself in the New York City music scene for years, performing at almost every iconic New York venue you can think of from The Bowery Electric to Carnegie Hall, she is now touring worldwide to promote Trophy— her latest creation.

BIRN: You must’ve written tons of songs leading up to this release, how did you figure out which songs would fit under the theme of “Trophy”? Did you ever feel disappointed about eliminating certain songs?

KD: I definitely eliminated a bunch of songs – my contenders list for Trophy was quite long. I was looking through every song I had ever written just to make sure I had the perfect track listing for my first album. Some of the songs were written very recently and had a different kind of maturity so they were pretty obvious choices. Some of the older songs needed a little reworking, a change of perspective, or a smarter approach to the arrangement. Production helped to bring all of the songs to the same universe. I am really happy with how the songs on Trophy reflect my journey as a songwriter, but also a person.

BIRN: Your song “Open Heart” is such a unique play on the concept of open heart surgery. What’s the story behind it?

KD: I wrote Open Heart a long time ago – I had only been writing for couple of years at that point and was still working on the basics. My dad told me that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I wrote from my clever side… He was a smart guy and liked smart songs. Around the same time I had a dream about an ex boyfriend involving a game of operation. It was a very surreal and vivid dream. Perfect song fodder. I pieced together a story and tried to be more thoughtful about its construction so that it wasn’t just another song about a relationship.

BIRN: The visuals for Trophy make a pretty bold statement – the album cover is a snapshot of you dressed up in sparkly attire on stage with a frozen facial expression, and your music video for “rbbts” in contrast includes scenes of you drowning in a bathtub and dancing in darkness. Can you talk about what inspired these images?

KD: Life! I think we experience a huge range of emotions as humans and even if our lives aren’t necessarily lived out through emotional bathtub scenes, that doesn’t mean we don’t relate to the experience of feeling the burdens of sadness or grief. The visuals are another way to interpret these pretty basic human experiences that I sing about throughout the record. I hope that the visuals for this album help set the backdrop for the songs and perhaps offer even greater perspective.

BIRN: What do you hope to achieve as an artist between this album release and your next project?

KD: I am of the opinion that good songs are the most important thing an artist can produce and posses. I have been feverishly writing for my next album, but hope that the songs and spirit on Trophy will help take my music and me around the world. I want enough people to care about my work that I just keep getting to make it. Creating a record and refining my aesthetic as an artist has been the most fulfilling part of my life so far.

BIRN: You co-wrote “Seventeen” with Sharon Van Etten on her latest album, which explores the progression of time over generations. What are your personal reflections on witnessing a new generation being born into the same world you live in?

KD: When we were writing the song together, it seemed like I was representing the younger generation that Sharon was sending this empathetic message to. Working with Sharon to relay a message to her younger self was powerful – I took a lot took away from the experience and it encouraged me to be even kinder to my current self. Seeing the younger generation, it’s obvious that they are living in a different world than the one I came up in. In some ways they seem to be more wise and more aware, but still struggle with more modern issues. I feel a deep respect for the younger generation because they have the power and the desire to make change. Not that the older generations don’t – it’s just as much our responsibility – but the younger ppl I know are strong, unique, informed, sensitive (all traits we should all aspire to). Even in the age of living online, they are not afraid to be real.

BIRN: What would you consider to be a “productive” co-writing session?

KD: Anything that yields work that you feel proud of.

BIRN: You’ve performed all over New York City but you’re originally from Portland, Oregon. What would you say are the differences between both cities’ live music scenes?

KD: I love Portland and I am very grateful for the classical and jazz scenes that I got to grow up in. Both deeply affected that musician that I would ultimately become. Since I was much younger, my time in Portland was much more about institutions, education, private lessons, and high school band experiences. It was very specific. I had so many mentors who were so kind and generous and parents who were committed to seeing me through the best possible education in music. Out here in NYC I’ve experienced more of a community of peers. Though I am still a very diligent student of music, I learn and experience things now in a much different way. If anything, the scene out here is more conducive to my current aspirations and learning goals as an artist. It’s amazing to have access to a diverse music community and to a city that is overflowing with artists of all kinds.

BIRN: As a music school alumni, do you have any special words for current Berklee students who are unsure of where their path in music will take them?

KD: Sometimes I wish that I could go back and tell my freshman year self that its ok to take the path less traveled. Music education extends far beyond the classroom walls. Never doubt that you know what you like. Knowing pretty early on that I wanted to break away from what was expected of me, I definitely was working towards becoming a unique artist. It was just hard to go in 100%. I settled into two separate lives where I would “work” for money and write for fun. Life circumstances make everything more complicated, but if you know what you want, be bold. Trust your instincts and work as hard as you can to get to the place that you dream about. Most importantly though, don’t regret anything. Every part of the journey helps guide you to where you gotta go – even if parts are pretty brutal.

Tune into birnCORE to hear indie rock artist Kate’s live performance at Cafe 939 with Jesse Ruben coming up on Saturday, November 16!

The show starts at 8 PM and you can stream it here.

The BIRN has a pair of tickets for you to win to see this show. To win the tickets, send an email and your contact phone number to tickets@thebirn.com by Thursday, November 14 at 11:59 p.m. Make sure to have Kate and Jesse in the subject line. The winner will be chosen at random. Good luck!