Interview: Shenandoah Davis

Shenandoah Davis is a singer and pianist from Seattle who creates beautiful compositions with classical sentiment.  Her work is often compared to the likes of Owen Pallett and Joanna Newsom.  This week, Mine All Mine’s Corey Murphy had the opportunity to speak with her in anticipation of her upcoming stop in Madison.  Catch Shenandoah Davis this Thursday, April 12th at the Dragonfly Lounge with Ian Cooke, Ida Jo, and Myles Coyne & the Rusty Nickel BandRead on below for the full interview.

MAM (Corey Murphy): Tell me a little about yourself.  How did you begin playing music?  Did you start out playing piano?

Shenandoah Davis: I began playing piano when I was about four years old, and then got involved with choir and theater while I was in high school and decided to study opera performance in college.  About halfway through my program, I realized that being an opera singer was not really my cup of tea, but at my parent’s request I finished college, got my degree, joined a band and started working at a coffee shop like every other 21-year-old in middle America. Then I moved to Seattle, got a job at a fancier coffee shop and started writing songs. That was about three years ago.

MAM: Is your self-titled project your primary focus?  I noticed that you’ve worked with the Seattle Rock Orchestra and Portland Cello Project.  What sorts of experiences and opportunities did these experiences present?

SD: My collaborations with both of those groups has been mostly based on my classical background and penchant for orchestral arranging. I first worked with the Seattle Rock Orchestra while helping another band I was in for a few years (Grand Hallway) with arrangements for our album release show.  During that rehearsal process, I became friends with Scott Teske, their director, and he asked me to play keyboard and percussion parts and sing all of Regina’s parts for the Seattle Rock Orchestra’s take on Arcade Fire’s fantastic record ‘Funeral’.  Since then, they have backed me up in Seattle, and I hope to continue working with them.

The Portland Cello Project is one of my favorite classical-pop groups in the Northwest.  I think that the idea behind what they do – combining cello concertos with instrumental 6-cello renditions of hip-hop songs – is extremely clever and also a fantastic way to get younger folks excited about classical music and the many different ways that it’s possible to bridge out from a classical education into something very much your own.  It makes me feel a little antiquated to say anything about ‘kids these days,’ but classical music is definitely at an all-time low on the ‘cool’ spectrum. What kids fail to realize – and what adults tend to regret and tell me about after shows all of the time – is that the basic knowledge of how music works and how chords work that you pick up by learning how to play an instrument when you’re young is information that you can carry over into any field you choose to pursue.

MAM: What recorded material do you have available, and where can it be found?

SD: I recorded a full-length record in 2008 called ‘We; Camera’ that is still available for sale on iTunes, but in its physical form it has been retired onto audiocassette tape with accompanying digital download.  I also have a 7″ available at shows featuring cover songs of two of my favorite under-recognized artists, Shelby Sifers (from Portland, OR) and Paleo (from Iowa City, IA).  I’m recording a third record at the end of this summer that I’m writing for right now and already getting pretty excited about.

MAM: How have things turned out for those releases?  Have you seen any response to them?

SD: ‘The Company We Keep’ took more than a year to make, front to back, and was mostly recorded and written in between tours (I’ve been on the road for most of the last two years).  Considering it was the first record I had been proud enough of to try to sell, I’m really happy with the way it has been received. It got some really stellar reviews, inspired a congratulatory e-mail from a stranger that spiraled into a pretty amazing romance, and was one of the Top 3 self-released records on CMJ charts out of the whole country in August when it was released. It’s allowed me to not only travel the US since it’s release, but it also opened doors for me in New Zealand and Portugal, where I was for the first couple months of this year.

MAM: Are you touring with a full group or as a solo project?

SD: I’ve toured with a band in the past, but as Ian Cooke is joining me for this tour, I decided to keep our show a little more intimate.  We play and sing with each other from time to time, but for the shows on this tour – as well as the new material that I am writing right now – there is much more of a focus on lyricism and storytelling that I haven’t really experimented with before. For me, part of preparing to create that type of music is to practice playing the kinds of shows where literally every person in the room is completely drawn in by what you are doing.  And to me, if you can find that kind of energy in an audience, it doesn’t make a difference if the audience is nine people in a living room somewhere in the Midwest or two hundred hushed people at a club in Seattle.

I’ve had some of the most miserable show experiences of my life in packed houses filled with drunk people trying to have conversations over my little piano songs, and it really does make you want to go to law school or move into the jungle or just distance yourself as much as you possibly can from whatever music you’re creating when you have to play it in an environment such as that.

MAM: How has the tour gone so far?  Any interesting tour stories?  Have you come across any interesting groups along the way?

SD: This tour has only been going on for about a week, but the week before I went to Denver to meet up with Ian, I was in Portugal.  In February, I was touring around New Zealand with three of my best friends for six weeks.  In January, I was doing an artist residency program through The Beauty Shop in Fairfield, Iowa, and in the fall I did a 14-week tour of the whole United States with a cellist and drummer. So yes, there are some interesting stories, but after traveling for eight months, they all kind of blend together.  I’m sure that some incident on Thursday night will prod my memory and send me on a little reminiscing binge from onstage.

There were a number of musical groups that really blew me away in New Zealand.  Fuyuko’s Fables, and City Oh Sigh from Wellington; Tono and the Finance Company, and Nadia Reid from Auckland; and many others scattered throughout both islands.  I’m trying to take a break from touring after this jaunt with Ian, but it is tempting to just start carting the New Zealand music scene over here one band at a time.

MAM: Thanks for your time, Shenandoah!  We wish you the best of luck this Thursday and beyond.

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