Groove is in the Harp

MUSICdavisCovers of Sufjan Stevens and Elliot Smith have exposed the world to Mikaela Davis’ unique harp style

When an 8-year-old Mikaela Davis and her schoolmates in Rochester, New York, were invited to choose from an array of musical instruments, Davis was initially tempted to pick up a viola or cello. But the instant they brought out a harp, she knew it was the instrument for her.

“They showed harp last,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to play that instrument.’”

Her grandmother had recently passed away, which helped her figure out where to play it.

“In my mom’s living room, there’s a skylight,” Davis explains. “I remember going home and telling my mom, ‘I want to play harp, and I want to put it here so Oma can hear me and watch me through the skylight.”

Now a graduate of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, New York, Davis is an award-winning harpist and vocalist breaking the mold of what the instrument can or should do. After years of studying classical harp with Grace Wong, principal harpist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Davis started writing her own harp music, which is best described as haunting, lovely indie-pop. Rooted deeply in her classical training, Davis’ music is nuanced and intricate in a way that most pop music isn’t.

She acknowledges that her training plays a huge role in her writing style and lists classical composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy as key musical influences. But she says that most of her own songs come from “just doodling” on the harp—playing around with different melodies and rhythms.

It was during one of these doodling sessions that Davis created a video that launched her into the public eye. She was recording her debut album with producer Brian Moore at Redbooth Recording Studio in Rochester, New York, when, during a break, she started playing the Sufjan Stevens’ song “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Moore loved what he heard and suggested they make a video for YouTube. They set up the camera and recorded Davis playing. A few days later, Davis uploaded it then went to bed. The next morning she got a text from Moore saying the video got 15,000 views overnight.

“I wasn’t expecting anything,” Davis says. “I wasn’t even expecting to put it up on YouTube. I was just playing that song while we were waiting for something.”

At this point, the video has more than 150,000 views. Another cover, of Elliot Smith’s “Twilight,” has more than 100,000 views. A big fan of both of these artists, Davis admits that she was obsessed with them at the time she learned their songs. It was when she was introduced to indie harpist extraordinaire Joanna Newsom, however, that the idea of making a career playing the music she loved became real.

“I thought, if she can do it, I can do it,” says Davis, who gets compared to Newsom all the time. “I love her music and her lyrics are beautiful poetry,” she says, but we have a very, very different sound.”

When Davis plays with a band, it’s a trio comprising Cian McCarthy on keyboards, sitar and guitar, and Alex Coté on drums and bells. For her performance at the Crepe Place, Davis will play solo, with just her, her harp, and several effects pedals.

While Davis’ self-titled debut album was an organic indie-folk offering, her latest, an EP titled Fortune Teller, takes off into psychedelic, experimental territory. She credits the shift to a Juno keyboard that McCarthy brought to rehearsals. With it, the band was able to make lots of “cool and funky space noises,” which inspired Davis to delve further into a psych-rock sound. The band experimented more and Davis started running her harp through a variety of guitar pedals, which launched her music into another realm.

“I got really into doing psychedelic things,” she says. “After that, it just kind of went all over the place.”

Mikaela Davis will perform at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 29 at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.

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