Alana Davis: Can You Hear Me Now?

Mike Brannon By

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There has to be a point where you have to have a little integrity about what you're doing.
Alana Davis is an enigma. Instantly timeless, powerful, necessary, somehow at once earthy and ethereal, tribal and post-modern; Aretha meets Norah Jones. But art is subjective, elusive, sometimes an acquired taste, and needs to be expressed, communicated and felt; sent and received. And for sure, you'll feel it on first listen.

As talented and original as she is, it's easy to Imagine the fast talking, transplanted Brooklynite serving any number of causes, besides her own musical calling, from those of the Earth to human rights. Those who don't know her or are aware of only her cover of the Ani DiFranco anthem, "32 Flavors"—eloquently expressing on an enriched heritage—are truly MIA. Along with an eclectic, maturing pop sensibility, she owes her formidable jazz pedigree to both her father Walter Davis Jr. who worked with Miles Davis (no relation), Charlie parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Donald Byrd and jazz chanteuse mother. What it all comes down to—the osmosis, growth, pain and release—is that Alana is an original in the making with much to say and soul to burn. She laughs easily, listens Intently, thinks quickly—often expressing via anecdotes—has a great sense of humor about life and clearly loves life. Growing up, Davis spent her time writing poetry, taking up guitar, songwriting and contending with racial and civil rights issues in school and beyond, which have only served to mold her aesthetics and enduring positive, survivor's nature into a voyage of self-discovery and a drive for connection and acceptance for all.

Her first album, Blame It on Me dared to deliver more hit material than contemporary pop albums are supposed to and became Time magazine's #3 CD of the year for '97. She then went on to join of the HORDE tour and later performed her version of CSN's "Carry On" for the 120 million watching the 2003 Superbowl (www.alanadavis.com for clips). Since then, she's had label issues that delayed "Fortune Cookies" and caused Davis to rethink distribution, label dependence and to create Tigress (Tigress/Telarc) records to distribute the just released Surrender Dorothy. Among the events on the album are a languid, moving rendition of Blue Oyster Cult's hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper" which sets the tone for another very personal journey. It's one of those tunes that not only bears repetition, but demands it. And she has this talent with both her own material and the selected covers she does: defines and redefines them and truly makes them hers. It's easy to imagine her doing this with almost any vehicle once you've heard "Reaper" and "Marley's "Nice Time" back to back. The well-enunciated artist is well supported by a dream team of NY's top sessionists comprised of guitarist Adam Rogers (with Norah Jones, Mike Brecker, Chris Potter), bassist Jack Daley (with Lenny Kravitz, Joss Stone, Everlast) and drummer Nir Z (with John Mayer, Genesis, Billy Squier).

Surrender Dorothy debuted at #7 on I-tunes, which has made Alana an exclusive track artist and she's also joined their celebrity playlist. A pre-tour, showcase gig supporting the new release took place February 24th at NYC's Canal Room as the tour comes together. If after hearing this incredibly sensual, smoky, sultry, soulful force and you don't want to take both her and the music home, you may want to check your pulse. You'll soon be hearing a lot more of this artist, and it's about time. Hey Alana, welcome back.

All About Jazz: So you're out in SoCal.?

Alana Davis: Yeah. Oh, It's beautiful. I'm In Venice today and I'm looking at the beach.

AAJ: Cool. I was out there In the Summer; it's beautiful. So are you on tour right now?

AD: No, not yet. I've got to put together a band and then, yeah. Then I'm hittin' the road and never comin' back.

AAJ: Never coming back (laughs). So, you're not using your recording band.

AD: No, I don't think so. Here and there where I can, but they stay pretty much busy all the time. So getting them to record is one thing but getting them to tour is kind of hard. I've got to think of everything on a different level. When I'm on tour I'm not a diva but I like to learn things, you know (laughs)? And these guys... and the music and the outline are coming from me. I kind of just want them to do their thing when I work with those guys. But hopefully, though, maybe a showcase here or there.

AAJ: Do you expect that when you'll get a new band that they'll just hit it right from the start or do you find it takes time to get it together?

AD: Oh yeah, you definitely get tighter and tighter the longer you go. I kind of wish I'd already put it together and now here I am trying to be a record company, too. So as much as I'd love to out all my energy into being a musician I've got to kind of switch back and forth, you know? But yeah, once we're on the road we'll get tighter and tighter as that's our Input, that's our focus. Once you know the arrangements you can forget the arrangements (laughs). So I think it'll be cool.

AAJ: Exactly. So do you have anyone yet?

AD: No, I really don't. Honestly, I think this time I want to do it a little differently. This may not be the way that It ends up going down but I'm thinking I might just go to a music school and pick up a couple of young, pliable recruits. Maybe someone really open-minded, very talented jazz cats who would love to just see where we end up. I think that'd be fun, because you know the record's the record and then you really want It to be fun, you want to play, you want to have a conversation. And that's what I'm thinking, that's what my dad always did (pianist Walter Davis Jr.) and a lot of people that I respect did; not their peers but people you could mold and watch them do their thing later on.

AAJ: You were talking about your dad. What was that like growing up with a famous jazz pianist for a father? Did you see him much?

AD: Yeah, I did. We didn't really live together he was too busy planting his seeds here and there and traveling. He was always gone. But it was jazz; "famous jazz" is oxymoronic unless you're Dizzy or Wynton or one of those cats. But for the times that he became a front man—there were only a handful of those times—for that, unfortunately, he never became famous. He wrote all this music that's really cool, original stuff that's not the typical be-bop to play with his band or whatever. He did stuff that he could play with his band but he did his own stuff. He played here and there and, you know, you've got to have a place to work it out. He did some stuff that I thought was really special In the early 80's—similar to what I'm hoping I get to do—with Tom Barney (bass), Kenny Washington (drums). That was it: trio. And it was The Walter Davis Trio, I think it was called 'Nighthawk' and it was the phattest. They were playing their asses off. It was great, it sort of fits under the heading of be-bop, but kind of not really. It's definitely jazz but with its own thing. I wished he'd become famous, that would've been great, but I think he was really doing his own thing. But he was a professional sideman for which I don't think he ever got many accolades. I think he'd be very honored to know that he'd popped up in the encyclopedia now.

AAJ: Well, he certainly deserves it.

AD: He was one of the last of those, that crew, before it all passed away. It was kind of almost the end of an era, so I'm glad at least they did an album. Thanks for saying that. I wish that more people knew of him. I still do shows and people go, "you're Miles" daughter, right? (laughs). And I go, "no, it's Walter Davis". But, hey, it's cool (laughs).

AAJ: So what's happened since Blame It on Me came out. It must've turned your whole life around to say the least. And then the amount of time it took between the first and second records, too.

AD: (laughs). Well, that was not what I wanted to do. We arm wrestled a lot. I would turn in songs and I just went from song to song to song and It was almost like I just never gave them (the label) the one that that they wanted. And it got really tiring. I guess they always came back with the phrase: "It's great, but it's not commercial". So I said, "you said 'its great' so I think I did my job". They hired me to write good songs and hired musician's to take a journey and I thought that artist development was part of it (laughs) but, silly me, right? It was insane, but I had never sought out a deal, I was just green when I got in there. It just became a learning process, big time. That's kind of what I look at that whole period as. I'm glad that I have music out there but I kind of feel like my life Is now, beginning again (laughs), because finally I understand part of it. I feel like I'm truly part of it. So yeah, it's frustrating that it took so long but maybe that's what it was supposed to be. I can't really go and change any of that, right?

AAJ: No, absolutely not, except just learn from it.

AD: Exactly, and I think I did. I think I was the beneficiary of a lot of really great promotion that they did for me, as a pop musician. The joke is that pop is not really what I listen to but I keep waiting for the day for pop to be really great music again. I just like stuff that's good.

AAJ: I mean there certainly is good pop music, great pop music.

AD: Yeah! There used to be. I think there was a time when pop music used to be like the thing. It wasn't pop first then became great. Its like, how did It become a style? It's bizarre. I don't know how it happened.

AAJ: Exactly, I know. There was a time when jazz was pop music.

AD: Right. I know. It's funny, when anything becomes pop or becomes that dialect it loses what was so great about it in the first place and why it got popular.

AAJ: I think some people have the theory that it kind of phased of with be-bop when people stopped dancing as much as they did (to swing). When the groove became less apparent and other things took precedence like the soloing and stretching out and the tempos went through the roof and musicianship took precedence and it became more for musicians and listeners.

AD: Mm. Right, yeah. I think it was more ego-less art.

AAJ: Yeah, maybe so, the whole attitude about it. When you write your own music what is the process that you go through like? Is it difficult, cathartic, easy, neccesary or what?

AD: Yeah, It's all of those. Sometimes I feel I just have to get it out and not have anyone judge it. Like it's a conversation, so I have to find a way to get it out. It's a personal thing. Sometimes I have to put my Introspective lyrics in there. And there are a lot of ways to interpret it. An open chord is a chord and a melody is anything that you want It to be: a certain riff to nail down a friggin' lyric and that's the way it goes and ahhh! And at that point I just want to move on to the next thing. My favorite song is always the one I'm writing? You know?

AAJ: Yeah, for sure. You're the most involved with that one.

AD: Yeah, (laughs) but the point where its done? It's a process, for me. I don't have a formula for it, I guess.

AAJ: So this all sort of ties into a philosophy of music and life. It's all one thing.

AD: I think so. And I like to think it's a part of life. All my songs relate to anything I do (laughs). There, there, look. People talk about color. Everything's a color. If you want to pick it up, everything could be a song.

AAJ: Yeah, just about. If you have that attitude everything seems limitless.

AD: Yeah, that's what I hope it is. It's a balance. The artist in me wants to make a record that's as whack as it can; more strange, more tempo changes. But then the producer part says, "Ok, you know what? You're not making this record for Martian's", you're making It for you and hopefully other human beings will be able to appreciate it, so you don't want to alienate yourself. Don't alienate yourself because you like wacky stuff.

AAJ: Like too many cooks, you have to shuffle them out of the kitchen.

AD: Yeah, exactly. And I have to do that myself. Multiple voices and hands. But if you have enough time and room with anything you can find your multiple hands and voices (laughs). Its like what you were talking about...that ego thing... wow, look at what I can do, wow look, I can play that too.

AAJ: I know and we've gotta get past that. Everybody's guilty of that at some point.

AD: And I think I have to exert a little of that. I get so tired of being lumped and compared with people that I feel don't have anything to say. I'm a little bit of a feminist but not really, you know, but I don't have a bitterness about how boys are treated like this and girls like that, but I do see things a little like that. It's not all about sex. I do actually have more to offer.

AAJ: Sure. We still have the roles and everything somewhat.

AD:Yeah. I do have to define a little more of that so I'm not put in with those people. But that's it. At the point where humility is gone the ego's blown it.

AAJ: But the way you express yourself through your writing is so poetic and honest at the same time. It's very powerful.

AD: Oh man, that's so sweet of you to say. I work hard at it. I'm actually one of those weirdo's that thinks there's responsibility, you know what I mean?

AAJ: That's taking a lot on your shoulders for a musician.

AD: It is. When you're In front of all these people it's an important job. I know how many labels have blown me off so I know. I mean let others define it, but it is that. I've never found anything like it.

AAJ: So is this why you came up with (the new label): Tigress' Records, to have more creative control?

AD: Yeah, call me crazy but I had a thought that if I got away with doing this record I would love to become a label for other artists. I think that'd be fantastic. I think it's such a shame that most young artists, what they want is to get signed and the moment they sign they're natural journey kind of detours.

AAJ: Right, It really does change things in ways that they may not even project.

AD: Oh, yeah. I don't think they know. I've seen incredibly beautiful, raw talent come through the doors of Elektra and the doors of Atlantic, at Virgin—and they're around, they find them, man—but I don't know why they don't allow them to have this journey. I don't know why you go and find somebody and then go and try to turn them into John Mayer.

AAJ: I guess it's just about what's going to turn top dollar (for them).

AD: Right, and commerciality's the key. I get that. I can appreciate that and I'm not mad at anybody. I'm thinking of me first and you're thinking of you first and there has to be a point where you have to have a little integrity about what you're doing. It kind of affects me when someone has beauty and ideas and they don't even know how to define it and to blow it by trying to put it into a particular box.

AAJ: I think a lot of these labels try to apply the same formulas to a lot of artists and it just doesn't work.

AD: Right, but if an artist is an artist hopefully it's about somehow finding that voice. I think it's probably impossible to have an original thought but we can probably interpret it on an original level. So I'm hoping I get the chance to do that. I'm hoping that whatever attention I get might cause artists to go: "Hey, Alana, take care of me" (laughs). I would be a little bit of a tiger, a little bit mama, a little bit protector. I think Its important. If that could be me, that would make it.

AAJ: Yeah, and I'm sure that you would want that if you didn't have It.

AD: Exactly.

AAJ: Can you talk about the new album and the process of recording it?

AD: Sure. It became something I didn't expect it to be. It took longer and was harder, I guess, but only because I had all the freedom to do it the way I wanted so that leaves a lot of room (laughs). You really want to do it the right way, like: here is my objective. So I went in with a simple concept: the vocals, a few cats, no cans, no click, and I got something that, to me, feels pretty natural. And live I don't know If I can really get away with that, honestly, the syncopation - what people really love to hear - the groove, It doesn't really exist in that framework. There's a click and I'm listening and following and Its not really there (laughs).

AAJ: Yeah, you're not really even breathing correctly. It's ridiculous.

AD: Right (laughs). I think so, too. And I realize that's how things are done but every now and then you have to do things differently.

AAJ: I mean its cool if the time flexes a little bit; its gotta breathe.

AD: That's my favorite. Like...it starts at 88 (bpm) and ends at 98...and that's why it feels so amazing...you're going to church. Like everybody got excited, man, and it sped up. It's natural.

AAJ: Yeah, for real. There you go. You must let it be.

AD: Yeah, It's alive; it's not supposed to be inert and perfect.

AAJ: No, that's the take.

AD: That's the take, exactly! So there was a lot of that going on (laughs).

AAJ: A lot of the best takes are the first and second ones.

AD: I know. We'll, we've got some.

AAJ: There's something about not knowing what's coming up.

AD: Yeah, exactly, the abandon. Give it to me.

AAJ: You're just more focused and alert.

AD: And you're listening, your ears are open and you're not really worrying about the parts yet, you're just going. And so much and so often, you're right, your natural inclination is right.

AAJ: With each successive take there's more pressure.

AD: (laughs) Now you're thinking. Totally, totally. That was my concept going in.

AAJ: I think you're right, it's very organic.

AD: Yeah, why not? Organic always taste's better (laughs). Yeah, man, that's it. I mean the cats that I work with, they play their asses off. It's a no brainer. Its red or blue. Its never, "what do you want? I can do this, I can do that, I can do it like this I can do it like that...", hey, you know? (laughs).

AAJ: Did you know exactly what you wanted for each tune or did they kind of fill in some of that.

AD: They filled in some of that. I heard everything but they retranslated everything. There's what I thought I knew I wanted and then maybe they hear something better. And its great. Like when they're coming up with stuff, they're into it and I don't want to get In the way of that process, but the beauty Is we did It over a week or a few days and then everyone went home and I got to do what I wanted. I still could do anything that I heard or wanted to change and it was all live and I was able to be a little bit of a stickler. And that was a great process for me: technology and roots. Why not? Yeah, we can do that. I can sit in my bedroom at 3 o'clock in the morning and come up with a guitar part. This is a gift. And you can call the engineer and he can wake up and do them in the morning!

AAJ: I know...isn't that cool? That's living, right?

AD: Unreal. Blew my mind. And I appreciate Protools mostly as an editing tool but It probably has made things too perfect and taken a lot of feeling out, but If you don't depend on It as the end all be all, It's a wonderful tool.

AAJ: Speaking of your guitar playing... you've been playing quite awhile. Do you ever use alternative tunings?

AD: All the time.

AAJ: Are they of your own making or ones that others like Joni use?

AD: Both. I've stolen some great ones from her. On this record I don't really use many. One cool one—that Fred taught me—do you know him? It's a really simple tuning... but I'd really love to tell you, a guitarist, it's so beautiful. You just tune the high E down to D and play what you would normally play—the very same chord shapes—and you come up with some beautiful colors. I used it for a song called "Jaded" (from Surrender Dorothy). It's gorgeous. I can't wait to do more with it and its so simple, just one string.

AAJ: That's cool, because you can get some seconds and fourths in there.

AD: Right, that's exactly what it brings out. And I'm a guitarist that taught herself and my technique is probably so wrong, but it's all about what I hear. I don't know what I'm playing but if it sounds right, I'll play it again.

AAJ: It's all about hearing it.

AD: Yeah. If I have a gift its probably being able to hear something, some colors. I've got this beautiful note and its like: what on Earth are you playing? And I'm like, "yeah!".

AAJ: You want to make a note of it and make sure you can do it again.

AD: Well, I can but don't ask me to describe it. I can play it in front of you and do it but I can't tell you what the hell I'm playing! (laughs). But if it feels right, its right, right? I don't know, my life's little rule.

AAJ: Yeah, that's right. Well, we'll have to play sometime. Are you coming to SXSW or anything?

AD: You know, I don't know yet. I really want to. Even if we're not in it I'd like to come.

AAJ: Great, I think it'd be fun.

AD: I think it would, and I've never done It. It's on the list. Tell me when it is again?

AAJ: Last year it was about March 17th. Second, third week in March (Note: SXSW 2005's music segment is March 16-20th).

AD: Ok. Alright. I'll put that on the list. Are you gonna be there?

AAJ: Oh yeah, always. It'd be great to see you.

AD: Well, let's chat.

AAJ: Sure, thanks, Alana.

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