Shenandoah Davis’ homecoming

Shenandoah Davis
Photo by Jennifer Lynne Sweeney

A distinct sense of movement and fluidity flows through Shenandoah Davis’ music. A one-time Boulderite now based in Seattle, Davis has developed a distinct tone that pays no heed to all those traditional constructs — genre, structure, even musical meter itself, bend to Davis’ will.

At her best, Davis’ music is highly evocative. It’s the sort of music suited for a soundtrack: an indie film’s flawed but likable main characters hop off a train in some remote idyllic town as Davis’ keys and cello resound.

Davis brings a trimmed-down version of her soulful, optimistic ragtime to Caffe Sole Sept. 11. In an interview with Boulder Weekly, she reveals where she draws her creative piano lines from and why she’s scared to be seen in Boulder.

Boulder Weekly: How long have you played with the musicians you’re with?

Shenandoah Davis: The cellist and I have been playing together for a little bit over a year. She was extremely instrumental in helping me finish the record we released about a month ago.
On the record there are a lot of other instruments, violins, percussion. … It’s impossible to replicate live unless I was going to take 12 people on tour with me. We added the drummer at the beginning of the tour to create a little bit more energy.

BW: What’s your history in this area?

SD: I grew up in Boulder. I went to Fairview [High School] and went to college in Greeley. But I’ve been living in Seattle for the last four years. I hadn’t really been writing music before I got out there.

BW: What’s your experience sharing stages with Colorado artists like Paper Bird?

SD: It’s been great. I went to high school with Esme and Jenny of Paper Bird. I’ve played quite a few shows with them in Colorado and the Northwest. We’ve been playing shows together for a few years, and it’s nice to see how quickly they’ve developed and grown.

BW: Have you played at Caffe Sole before?

SD: I have not played there before. Usually when I come back I play at the Laughing Goat because I used to be an employee there. Last time I played there in June, I played at the Boulder Theater. The show on the 11th is going to be pretty different from that show.

BW: What has to change between a larger venue like the Boulder Theater and a café setting?

SD: Quite a lot of things. One of the really cool things about the tour we’re on right now is that we’re playing in all kinds of different venues from churches to historical places to regular bars. We played at Folsom State Prison [in California] last week. Our trip just changes on a day to day basis and those adjustments are happening all the time.

BW: What do you want the feeling to be at your shows?

SD: I would like it if it felt kind of like a house show. Like a bunch of people just gathered around somebody’s living room with some coffee and some beer just to listen to some music. I really like shows that are more down-to-earth. You can connect with the audience a little better. It’s just really hard at a place like that to feel connected with the audience because the stage is so big and the audience is really far away and it’s dark. You can’t see anybody’s faces. I am looking forward to having a warmer, smaller show in Boulder.

BW: Are house shows common in Seattle?

SD: There’s a huge house show and DIY community in Seattle, and I can think of at least a dozen houses that — more than once a week — will host house concerts. We try every week to play house concerts so we don’t spend every single night hanging out in a bar for five hours.

BW: Is it difficult to scale songs up or down depending on the number of instruments available?

SD: It’s not that hard. I write all of the songs with just piano and voice. And until I started playing with my cellist I had never really conceptualized other instruments being an integral part of the song. I feel like it’s pretty versatile at this point. I could play by myself or with a 40-piece orchestra like in Seattle.

The nice thing about doing the orchestra show was that we’ve played so many shows in Seattle that it was just a one-time special experience. It was definitely not a regular show. The audience understood that and understood that the next time they came to see us it wouldn’t be with a 40-piece orchestra.

BW: Do you mind when writers compare you to other artists?

SD: The tricky thing about being a musician is that you don’t usually like being compared to anyone, because you’re creating whatever you’re doing and it’s the product of your imagination. But I really respect all of the artists that I’ve been compared to, so in some sense it’s flattering.

BW: I interviewed Hanson earlier today —

SD: Wow. Can I just touch your phone?

BW: You might have answered my question. What were the mid-’90s one-hit-wonder groups you were a fan of?

SD: I would say they were the only mid-’90s musical sensation that I was a fan of. I think their CD was the first CD I ever got and their second CD was the second CD I ever got.

BW: Do you expect to see familiar faces at the show in Boulder?

SD: Yeah. I think every time I’ve come back and either visited Boulder or played in Boulder, I can’t turn a corner without recognizing someone. It’s usually a good feeling. But I was there in April and I saw my most feared high school teacher in the Trident and I just left right away. I still got chills down my back when I saw her.

BW: Why?

SD: I’m not even sure. I think just regular 14-year-old fear. No rhyme or reason to it. I’m sure she’s a lovely conversationalist. We could have caught up on a lot of things.

BW: What do you think about while you play?

SD: It kind of varies from night to night. I try to think about the lyrics that I’m singing or the emotional process I was having while I was composing the song.
Depending on what kind of a show it is I’m trying to gauge the audience’s reaction, especially at the beginning of the set, to judge what kind of a set it should be. I’m deciding if I can get away with slower, more emotional songs or if we should pick up the pace a little bit.

BW: What’s your background in opera?

SD: I have a degree in opera performance from the University of Northern Colorado. The part of opera performance that plays a part in the songwriting is the piano accompaniment to a lot of opera music. I was playing piano for a lot of the other opera students, which, it turned out, I liked better than singing opera music myself.

BW: How does that come out in your music now?

SD: I really love the piano music from the Romantic period, which is a lot of vocal music that people learn in school. The piano is not something you would ever hear in a Coldplay song, with fast-moving rhythmic parts, and interesting chords, and the ebb and flow of the tempo not having a set meter to it. That’s something I really use in my songwriting.