By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
"It's been quite a journey, quite an interesting business," Davis says in a voice of lullaby coolness. "I think I just needed a new environment. Mostly, I wanted to get away."
Greenwich Village, where she grew up, was the old environment. Her late father, jazz pianist Walter Davis Jr., was black. Her mom is white. In the polished halls of a New York City prep school, Davis stuck out for most of her adolescence, with hair the color of iced tea in the sun -- iridescent amber curls that make your eyes thirsty. "I've got punk rock in my roots big time," she says of her youth. "I dressed in black for much of my years and caught the tail end of a really great scene when I was growing up. I got to see Siouxsie and the Banshees play, and I was really into Bad Brains."
After high school, Davis went to college in upstate New York, took math classes she didn't like, and then came home to pursue her music, which led to a deal with Elektra. In 1997, the label bought the rights to record Ani DiFranco's "32 Flavors" and told Davis to sing it on her debut, Blame It on Me. A pop hit ensued.
But in the six years that have since passed, the young woman ended up biding her time in a tower, in a Manhattan apartment, waiting for another radio success so that her handlers would let her out to tour. In 2001, she released Fortune Cookies, at home within the same confines as Norah Jones' debut: lovely, soulful, pop with jazz inclinations. It's the kind of disc you keep in your living room the way you keep wind chimes on your porch, but it produced no white-knight singles and, therefore, no label-sponsored tour.
So, tired of waiting and disenchanted with Elektra, Davis joined with Columbia Records for a song called "Carry On," which aired in an American Express commercial during halftime at the Super Bowl. After that, however, "[Columbia] did nothing with [the song]," Davis says. "I'm glad to know that [the big labels] are all the same so I can move forward and not pay attention to any of them."
If she sounds a bit burned, it's because she feels it. "I've seen what it's like to have a hit song and to have money all around and all sorts of people telling you you're great and patting you on the head. And I know what it's like when you don't have a hit song. I've gone from one extreme to the other." And from one coast to the other, things are less extreme these days. "I'm trying to simplify things. It's a lot quieter. I've only been here a couple of weeks, but I think I might be a mellower person for it. When somebody takes their time driving, I just think, 'OK, I'll take my time too.'"
Certainly, the story of musicians defenestrated is not new. But Davis can brush off the detritus from the fall. She'll head into a studio somewhere, sometime soon, to start work on a new album. Until then, she's put together a small tour for Fortune Cookies.
"It's rewarding when you get people to play with you [based] on the fact that they like your music and not because they think you'll have a big hit," remarks Davis, who's also been playing bass for the punk/jazz outfit Lucid Nation, something, she says, her old A&R rep would never let her do. "And I have a new love interest, so that's exciting," she adds. "It totally blind-sided me. I didn't even know that I needed it until it was right there."
In general, her tone lacks the urgency of someone trying to reclaim something shiny and ephemeral and retains the fresh anxiety of a woman still becoming herself. "Growing up in New York was great. There was certainly a diversity there of people and mindsets, and it was incredible for a kid to see, but there were things missing," Davis admits. "Things like quiet and nature. I'm still kind of funny; the ocean is beautiful, but if anything moves under my feet, I'm so out of there," she laughs. "The last time I was in the city, I noticed that everything was gray, from the streets to the buildings to some of the people. I know plenty of people who were born in the city and raised in the city and they'll die in the city, and that's OK. They can stay in the city, and I'll call them."