Kate Davis Is Done Looking Back
The Maryland-based singer/songwriter talks about ditching jazz, finding love through label support and her new album Fish Bowl.Photos by Maciek Jasik and Maddie Deutch Music Features Kate Davis
Across the city of Austin during SXSW week, bands and acts from every corner of the globe huddled into hot rooms and paraded across neon-lit stages to play 30 minute sets to badge holders and folks who ditched work to day-drink. For a moment, though, the whole focus of the city seemed to gravitate toward Paste’s showcase, as Kate Davis took the stage at the 2 PM slot on Wednesday afternoon. Her set was stripped down, leaving just her, an electric guitar and some pedals on a shoebox-sized stage. It didn’t mimic the large ecosystem of her new record Fish Bowl. Instead, it felt more akin to a soloist taking their bow at a critique, as a bar spotlight and phone cameras pointed at her while she breezed through her setlist.
Davis’ artistry is unique, and her road to Fish Bowl has been nothing short of unorthodox. While many current indie artists spent their youth unspooling the riches of their local DIY scenes in cities across America, Davis grew up a jazz prodigy in the Portland Youth Philharmonic in Oregon, with a focus on singing and playing upright bass. Some time in her teens, she made a move to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music that was, initially, crucial to her survival as a classically trained artist. That was where she discovered the Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, and it quickly helped push her to leave jazz music altogether. Yet, Davis used her classical background to develop an appreciation for structure and theory, which, in the long run, greatly helped her make sense of the mystical and extraordinary parts of the music she was actively studying.
She played in a conservatory and, for the first big chunk of her life, developed a following that still pops up to this day. At Paste’s showcase, at least one person commented on her time spent in jazz, a genre that she hasn’t actively worked out of in over 10 years. “I’ve gotten a lot of people that say, ‘You had it good. You figured it out. Why did you burn it all down? You had the career that everyone wanted you to have, but, somehow, it didn’t work out for you,’ and it’s like, yeah, it didn’t work out for me. It was not a fulfilling experience,” Davis notes. “At a certain point, it was really hard for me, what I wanted in my heart versus what others had in mind for me.”
As Davis and I talk over the phone, she makes it clear that a label as heavy as “prodigy” can also be detrimental to a young person. “The honest truth is, it’s such a mindfuck. Because, you grow up with your worth revolving around the fact that you can do something that other kids your age can’t,” she says. “You get away with a lot more in some ways, because you’re different. There’s also a lot of downfalls of that, where you’re isolated.”
The weird thing is, you can’t be a prodigy forever. At some point, you hit the age barrier and must then leapfrog into your, as Davis puts it, “capital-C career.” In turn, her upbringing was so much different than that of her peers. “My whole high school experience was just me working in bars and saving money and performing and flying around the country, doing stuff that high schoolers don’t do,” she adds. “I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t learn a lot of those funky little lessons that you get out of your system when you’re young, because there was this gravity and intensity and severity to the way that I had to live as a teenage girl. I was a little adult.”
In turn, Davis herself acknowledges that she has lived a life out of order. She’s only just now working through, and enjoying, the freedoms that come with being untethered to a school or a rigorous road routine. Obviously, she still tours and is playing music to crowds across the world. But, it’s at her own pace; she goes where she wants; the work is wholly hers, not translations of sheet music. “The first part of my career was me being this young woman getting up and singing old songs with an upright bass, which was also quite unusual,” Davis says. “And that got me a lot of attention, and a lot of really bizarre, sometimes-wonderful and sometimes-not, opportunities.”
She didn’t want to be the next Michael Bublé or Norah Jones. That was something that just didn’t resonate with her heart. Davis has been making music outside of the jazz sphere for a good while now, but it’s been a slow burn, which is why Fish Bowl feels like a true antithesis of the burnout she faced 10 years ago.
2019 was a big year for Davis after releasing three jazz albums before turning 20. She co-wrote Sharon Van Etten’s all-time heater “Seventeen” and released her own proper debut, Trophy. Catalyzed by a brilliant opening number, “Daisy,” Trophy was a great collection of 12 patient, ambitious singer/songwriter tunes. Most indie musicians don’t take four years to put out a sophomore record. What kept Davis’ output quiet was the fact that she took the time to catch-up with her true self and refused to take any of the shortcuts provided to her by being classically trained as a musician. “The time that it took to make things happen was really just because I had to figure out what I was doing,” she says, chuckling. “All of my years being a jazz bow didn’t allow for a lot of time for self-discovery or the writing process. I was always dipping my toe into something else or writing songs while I was at school, doing things as an act of rebellion.”
Fish Bowl is Davis’ first release through ANTI- Records. Getting on that label was huge for her, as their resources and support put her in a great creative zone that she wasn’t able to tap into on Trophy. They fed her with unconditional support, and urged her to take whatever avenues she required to make the next record sing. “To just get gassed up by everybody who’s stoked about [Fish Bowl] was this really amazing push that I really needed to take the rest of it seriously and feel good about myself and see it through,” Davis says. “I’ve always struggled with that stuff, because, especially, when I broke away from jazz, I always had a lot of people who disapprove of what I do, because I took a different path. I’ve got a lot of people who complain, like, ‘Oh, you were so exceptional. You were so wonderful. And now you’re just doing the same old shit that everybody else does.’ It’s like, ‘Well, that’s your opinion.’ There are a lot of people who are hung up on the old days, and that’s their problem. I just need to let it go right on by.”
And that’s exactly what Davis has done. Fish Bowl is her best work yet; a unique movement inspired by Greek epics and A Hero’s Journey. In a lot of ways, the album twists and turns like a big, romantic concerto with Davis firmly in the eye of the storm. While other artists saw their music releases halted or postponed at the beginning of COVID in 2020, Davis used that time to start piecing together the glass of Fish Bowl. “I was lucky enough to put my head down and get pretty serious about writing,” she says. “And, in that downtime, I wrote so much and was so consistent with it that I really started to feel like I had found a specific voice and a truth that became the backbone for the whole record. It really did start from this very personal, very intimate and very alone approach to figuring out what I wanted to say and who the character was.”
The songs on Fish Bowl are wondrous and confessional, and Davis chronicles a life full of people standing at a distance from one another. Perhaps that’s why the songs are astronomical and poetic. On “Confessions,” she talks of a black hole tearing into the part of her heart that had forgotten about fragility and tenderness; on “Call Home,” she ponders if the last gasps of freedom should be spun into an apocalyptic romance or social commentary. There’s a bit of embellishment at play, which Davis zeroes in on nicely by taking up the persona of an otherworldly character.
That character is FiBo—short for Fish Bowl—a vehicle in which Davis feels most comfortable telling her confessional stories, serving as a mirrored experience of what she had been living through but in a world that had nothing to do with her own reality. “The biggest inspiration [for FiBo] was, honestly, dissociation and having a really hard time really living in reality,” she says. “I was in a place where it was more comfortable for me to escape and fantasize about a way to tell a story, because a lot of the story, the reality of the story, for me, was really painful. I had to sort through a lot of the emotional worlds in a more abstract way.”
Davis calls Fish Bowl her “Alice in Wonderland journey” where she was able to put her own worries and emotions through a more epic lens, which she hopes lets those stories become more relatable to listeners. “[Fish Bowl] is something you can look at as either a triumph or a tragedy, because, how it ends, I deliberately left it open,” she adds. “The song, it’s called ‘Reckoning’ and it has the same emotional direction that the ending of melancholia does, where it just feels like everything is gone. Everything has come to its demise, or there’s some weird freedom in it.”
Trophy was, in Davis’ own words, “a bunch of songs written over a 10-year period.” She didn’t know all of the ins-and-outs of making a record yet, and even her own musicianship has greatly evolved in the four years since. “There are a lot of songs on Trophy that I listen to and I’m like, ‘She didn’t know what she was doing yet.’ It wasn’t as consistent [as Fish Bowl]. I was a little scattered and I needed a lot of help, sonically,” Davis says. “I was led a great deal by this producer, Tim Bright, who made some executive decisions about how things should be, because I just didn’t know. And that was an incredible learning experience.”
Between Trophy and Fish Bowl, Davis made a record called Strange Boy, which was a collection of 18 Daniel Johnston covers, ranging from “I’ll Do Anything but Break Dance for Ya, Darling” to “True Love Will Find You in the End,” which allowed her to do experiments with her voice. “It was a really cool way to use someone else’s songs as inspiration, or a canvas that you can find yourself within, which, I think, is an incredible way to learn as a writer,” she says. “You live somebody else’s song and then it super informs the way that you go about writing your own. There were different levels of commitment to craft, trying to figure out what was the most truthful and what I wanted the most.”
That covers record helped polish the structure of Fish Bowl. It’s odd to know that someone else’s catalog became the catalyst for Davis’ own growing confidence in her own creativity. But, then again, nothing about her trajectory this far has been a traditional route. “It was a much clearer path for me to say, ‘Okay, this is who I want it to sound like. This is the influence. This is who I like.’ I had a clear idea of how I was going to show up on the record, because more of myself was in it. It was just so much more personal,” Davis adds.
Davis calls her approach to songwriting backwards, and she even notes that the cohesive story of Fish Bowl, and FiBo, came much later in the production process for her. While building out her songs, she was first concerned with absorbing other peoples’ work as much as she could, with the hopes of using those inspirations as puzzle pieces in her own work. And on top of that, Davis had the opportunity to craft her own universe on the record. Each song tells a new story within a new world, and, without that process, Fish Bowl would not be as celestial or awing. On the album cover, Davis, peeking out of a purple and orange galaxy while donning colorful eyeshadow, presides over a fish bowl filled with an angel sprouting green wings. More than anything, it’s a direct example of how much fun Davis is having with the Fish Bowl press cycle.
“There was so much to try and draw from, musically, and there were all of these different bands that I had been super into. I was trying to find ways to bring everything together and still feel like I was myself within it. And then, of course, visually, that was the most exciting part for me. I’ve never really had this kind of role in the aesthetic component of my work before. I was really moved by a lot of different visual things and I remember, at the very beginning of the process, I felt really supported [by ANTI-]. I just went for some stuff and built all of these PowerPoints out with slides that were visual worlds in each song. I look at it and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it came from a vision.’ And I’ve never had an experience like that outside of music,” Davis says.
Davis has changed immensely since Trophy. For the first time, she feels like she has a better sense of what she wants, sonically, and had more control of what the final arc of the record was going to look like. On Fish Bowl, Davis plays every instrument except the drums and her technical prowess and trained ear shines through as she puts the puzzle together. “It was like a Tetris game, just putting everything where it needed to be. It was a lot of fun for me to experiment in that way. I have a lot of limitations as a guitar player, and even as a keyboard player. I know what I want to do, but it’s very specific to what I know. So, a lot of things came out sounding like me, because I’m a deranged guitar player. I have friends who play guitar and I’d show them my parts and they’d be like, ‘You’re out of your mind. Nobody would do this. This is so weird.’ But, I really loved having more of myself on this, and it made me feel like I could take more personal risks.”
A lot of great accolades happened to Davis early in her career. She was a Presidential Scholar of the Arts almost 15 years ago, has given a TED Talk about music and was even recognized by MTV as one of the “15 Fresh Females to Rule Pop” in 2014. That same year, she recorded an upright bass cover of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” with Postmodern Jukebox, and that video now has over 19-million views on YouTube. But none of that compares to Fish Bowl, which is the most-authentically Kate Davis thing she’s done yet. It’s cosmic, surreal and full of so much heart and ambition. There’s a lyric that sticks out on “Long Long Long,” where she sings, “Oh please / Give me privacy / But don’t leave me alone / I wanna be grown / Grown up in a home with somebody to find a home in.”
It’s weird to call Fish Bowl a coming-of-age record, given that Davis is 32 now. Yet, there’s something absolutely perfect about it, too. She’s living her life in reverse, experiencing now what many artists get to much earlier in their careers. But the secret is: Davis has a leg up on everyone else. She takes the energy of a shiny, new artistic vision and pairs it with the wisdom of someone who’s seen every up-and-down that this industry has to give. As a result, wherever Davis goes and wherever the music takes her, the riches of home, an audience and success will never be too far out of reach.
Watch Kate Davis perform at the Paste Studio throughout the years, in 2016, 2019 and 2022.