Mikaela Davis had a plan. Having studied the harp since third grade, she was set to finish off her music degree, go to grad school, seek a job in an orchestra, and perhaps eventually get a doctorate to teach at the college level.
But something funny happened on the way to a career in classical music. Davis started a band. And people liked it.
“I think harp can do anything,” she says, speaking on the phone from Rochester, N.Y., shortly before selling her Subaru Outback and hitting the road in a new tour van. It’s only her third tour, and it’s the first one lasting as long as four weeks. But things are developing quickly these days for the 22-year old, who visits the Red Room at Café 939 with her trio on Wednesday.
The precocious musician played with the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for years, and gave two piano recitals of her original work in middle school; while classmates had been working on science projects in an independent study program, she wrote songs. In high school, she busked with a friend on Saturday mornings at a farmers’ market in Rochester, forming an unlikely harp/ukulele duo.
But it was only after starting her college harp studies (at
SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music), and entering a battle of the bands almost accidentally, that Davis realized she might have a future playing her own pop-rock songs on harp.
“I was kind of nervous, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it,” she says, “but I did it anyway and I won the battle of the bands. So I said: I wonder if I should play out more?”
It turns out Davis has a great touch for writing tuneful pop songs that showcase not only her highly proficient harp technique, but also attractive vocals that sound both vulnerable and assured. Her lyrics reflect an original voice as well. It makes for a slyly arresting musical package that fully integrates the sound of her chosen instrument, without ever sounding like a gimmick.
Rochester-based producer Brian Moore first saw Davis play at the Bug Jar, a rock venue there.
“It was one of those moments where you’re like, this is a star in the marking, he says. “She had the personality, and she’s obviously talented at harp and songwriting. I think the unique thing about Mikaela is she could stand alone with her songwriting and her vocals, but combined with what she can do technically on the harp, hearing that was just a shock to me.”
As she expanded her sound, working her way toward her current trio including childhood friend Alex Coté on drums and percussion plus Cian McCarthy on an ever-expanding list of instruments (including guitar, assorted keyboards, and sitar), Davis’s burgeoning band interests competed with the rigorous schedule of an aspiring classical musician. She practiced her technique at school, and went home on weekends to play original songs with her band.
Her musical worlds became harder to balance as she achieved more success in each. The summer after her sophomore year in 2012, Davis recorded and released her debut LP. It’s stocked with 13 original songs suited to anyone’s indie-rock playlist. But earlier that year she won her school’s concerto competition, making it a top priority to rehearse a challenging piece for a high-profile performance as a junior.
Davis gave herself a tight deadline to make it in the pop/rock world — if nothing major happened by the start of her senior year of college, she resolved to start auditioning for grad schools on the path toward a life playing in orchestras.
The summer before that milestone, she was signed by a prominent talent agency and sent out on tour with her band. The decision got a lot easier.
“Playing in an orchestra is cool, but of course you’re sitting at the back and you play every 200 measures,” she says with a frank chuckle. “I think I decided that I don’t want to sit in the background my whole life. I want to be up front. In a band. With music that I’m writing. I wanted to show people what the harp can do.”
An EP followed this January, displaying more of her facility with melody; new single “Out There Alone” (available online, but eyed for a wider release in October) is as good a candidate as any for a breakout hit. Heard as one piece, the emotionally evocative work Davis has released so far could be the soundtrack to somebody’s quirky imaginary indie film.
She finished up her degree in harp performance this spring, but is putting it to practical use with her current tour. After that comes the inevitable move to Brooklyn and, she hopes, another LP to be released next year.
Davis continues to expand what she can do on harp sonically, lately adding guitar pedals and experiments with electronic looping. As far as pure technique goes, she recognizes that she’s now unlikely to reach the breakthroughs she was headed toward on the classical path.
Still, she hopes to put her years of study and practice to work.
“Of course, playing my songs is much easier than performing a concerto,” she says. “But sometimes I write things where I have to actually practice them before I’m ready to perform it, which is a good thing — to write things that are harder. Ultimately, I’m trying to put the techniques I’ve learned into what I’m writing, so I’m not just forgetting about that. I think that’s possible.”