The Worst Kind of Curse; a Conversation with Emily Davis

by Mari Gomez

The album release party for The Worst Kind of Curse will be held at Bowie Feathers on Saturday September 26th at 9.p.m. A digital download of the album will be available on Sept 25th
Emily Davis will also be hosting this years El Paso Song Writing Competition (EPSWC) on October 2nd at 7 p.m at the El Paso Playhouse.


There is a song on Emily Davis’ new album that traces what seems to be an exhaustive, yet fulfilling process. The song, titled “Bed, Bottle, Goal,” suggests these three things spell out a cycle of a self destructive, recurring, yet necessary struggle. Perhaps this  refers to the creative process, or maybe just the day in and day out of adult life. 

It’s just a matter of time
Before I’m tired and old
So bottle be my fire and
Bed be my coal

It’s entirely possible that I listened to this while already thinking about process and projected what I felt was an interesting depiction of the uphill, incessant, laborious, yet fruitful and almost spiritual process of “working.” Perhaps then, it is the bottle (pick your poison) which provides fuel to “reignite this slightly burnt out soul” and the bed, the stuff of dreams, is the coal; together they burn into the fleeting smoke that is our lives. The accompanying music on the track is a full arrangement of jazzy vocals, guitar, drums, and a distinct bass line. 


It is this kind of nuance that really stands out in Emily Davis’ new album The Worst Kind of Curse. The new album is a collection of sounds, varying from the jazzy styles of “Bed, Bottle, Goal,” to fast strumming pop tunes, mellow folk songs to melodies that suggest a Celtic, perhaps even hymn-like tonality in “The Knot.” The songs seem almost disjointed in that way, quickly changing in tone and delivery, but they are tied thematically and in attitude. I sat down with Davis one afternoon to discuss the album and the process that has brought her to this point in her life. A reflective and articulate person, direct while often avoiding eye contact during our conversation, Davis has already made a name for herself with her two previous albums and has now emerged with her third.  


 Last time I saw Davis perform was in 2011, where she sang an early version of a song that would eventually form part of her second album Dark Matter. It was the song’s texture that struck me: odd, almost surreal images cloaked in a lighthearted rhythm. This song titled “Diablo” imagines the story of parents who discover their daughter is, quite literally, the devil and follows their obvious disappointment. Davis explains it came from a single word (Diablo) that led her to imagine a ridiculous scenario of  “crazy religious zealots” who actually believe their daughter is the incarnation of the devil and therefore  proceed to kill her. The song contains plenty of dark matter. The idea of parents killing their own daughter because of their extremists beliefs is rather potent and farfetched. Yet, it is not uncommon to see people doing heinous things because of extremist beliefs and in this way the song adopts a social commentary. However, at the forefront, the song is catchy and uplifting. It’s function is similar to that of a well crafted joke; that is, a proposal to think about a  serious idea veiled in exaggeration, hyperbole, and the absurd. It is the song’s spirit and playfulness that exhibit a subtlety  proving that Davis is more than just a girl with a guitar. 


 “One thing I like to do” she says, “is mask a serious topic in an upbeat major key kind of sound. There is a lot of dark matters on that album.” 


“Diablo” encapsulates that with it’s very catchy and upbeat tune, including a charming show tune-y piano interlude, in the middle of the song.Davis laughs as she recounts how she is often recognized as the “Your daughter is the devil girl.” 


Dark Matter shows an added dimension and improvement of her craft, a fleshing out of a deepening world view, enmeshed in a year that she herself describes as a “tough one,” wherein she alludes to several personal experiences of profound impact. 


Another gem of a song in the album is “Little Box,” where one gets the sense that the nuance and complexity of her musical vision is expanding, pushing through its frame. It's a highly dynamic song, with soft moments that swell and crescendo into a climax of rapid violin and Spanish-style strumming.  It’s exciting when one can see the ambition and creativity of an artist fill their work to the brim. 


In listening to her debut album No Real Destination there is an indication of a songwriter whose reaching for something and in Dark Matter she gets closer to it. Some of the instrumentation in Dark Matter allows for Davis' voice to belt out, to let go, and blossom. The backing of a band, the violin, piano, drums, seem to allow her to uproot her emotions and display the very raw power underneath.  

In only five years Davis has released three albums, which I point out to her is incredibly prolific, a comment she shrugs off and says, “I’d like to think so.” 
Yet, in between the second and third album, there was a stretch in which Emily Davis completely stopped playing music. Much of it, she describes, was brought on by having played in two bands, the local Cigarettes After Sex and Emily Davis and the Altar Boys and then being left  to play on her own again.


“You go from never being in a band to being in two bands and back to being alone. I took it really hard. School became a focus and I became kind of afraid of music.”


This hiatus, she describes, brought on a kind of loss of identity. Music had been such a fundamental part of her life. Since she was young music played a big role; she grew up with music of the church and artists of her fathers generation: singer songwriters like Cat Stevens, and Paul Simon, as well as Southern rock like Credence Clearwater Revival. She had played throughout high school and spent the last couple of years recording her first and second album and touring across the country. And then suddenly, for about two years, she dropped it all. 


When I asked her what she spent her time doing, she said mostly focusing on her studies in Anthropology. Yet, constant reminders only brought back the painful realization that music seemed so far from her now. She tells a story of driving home and hearing a man on the radio talking about his fear of growing old and realizing his squandered opportunities. That is, knowing you could have done something you loved and you didn’t. 


“I was frustrated because I knew this is what I wanted to do. I remember I was driving and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe and I had to pull over and gain composure. I thought that’s me right now. I’m not even old and I already feel that way. It was really hard not being able to do that so I’m glad I’m trying to do it again.”


The return to the stage however, was a challenge. Davis mentions her “crippling self doubt” as a familiar hurdle and how this album really became about facing a lot of insecurities and fears. 


 The stage was scary after what seemed like a long time, but she was thrown into it with an opportunity she could not refuse. An opportunity “so far from the realm of possibility” that she simply couldn’t walk away from it. Jay Bentley from the band Bad Religion, whose influence appears to be monumental in Davis’ life and music, contacted her asking if she would be interested in opening for them during their show in El Paso. 


“It was the best day of my life. I thought, it’s all down hill from here.” She laughs. 


It was Bad Religion that during her teenage years expressed so much of what she was feeling, which wasn’t being expressed elsewhere. Her initial drive to play music, she discloses, was the idea of leading a worship at her church, but she started questioning and doubting this worldview and slowly drifted into a different direction.


Needless to say, Davis agreed to open up for Bad Religion in April of 2015. As she prepared she realized she’d forgotten some of the words to her own songs and had to go back and listen to Dark Matter in order to re-learn them. Going back and listening to the album did something to her. It made her realize that she might still have it in her. 


Then there was a conversation she had with bass player Jay Bentley in which he told her that she should be doing music. She saw it as encouragement, but also as a mandate. How could she not? It had been, after all, one of her idols that had urged this. Not many people get personally encouraged by their heroes. 


Shortly after opening for Bad Religion, she got to work on the new album. She raised the necessary funds on a crowd funding campaign and arranged to have her album recorded in Hollywood with producer Rick Parker. 


The making of The Worst Kind of Curse has propelled her into facing various obstacles. The drive to California for the recording was in itself a tremendous challenge. Davis was in a bad car accident in 2011 while on tour. This created a fear of driving, particularly on highways, with semi trucks abound.


“I can’t live in that [fear] because I know that if I’m terrified I’ll stop again and I don’t want to stop again. There is something I’m supposed to do so I should do it.”


As she says this, I get the sense that obviously, she had thought about this before and had articulated it to herself in this very way. The album was more than just a testament of an evolution in her music, but also an evolution in her personal life. A capturing, perhaps, of a moment of insight and understanding. 


The song “Scatter Me” on the album depicts the story of her crash. It’s filled with haunting images of floating debris and highways, accompanied by a somber melody. 

Bitter sweet South Caroline
Nearly stole my very soul from me
A trembling hungry breath
Then the semi and I met
I should've become scattered debris

  And if I die out in the highway
I'll lose my life where I loved it the most
 


A defining theme in the album, Davis’ says, is impermanence. That is, the very humbling realization that the person, the body, only exists for a moment before its gone. Her concern for what is left behind after death, also permeates throughout these songs. Davis talks about a friend of hers who passed away late in 2011, an event that affected her deeply and forced her to address these ideas. Traces of this appear in the album with lines like, “A melody the only trace of this phantom runaway,” and “We all become saints someday when our bodies give out and our lives are based on what other people say.” In the song “Beautiful Tomb” she addresses death as a continuation:  

One day I’ll be scattered beneath a canopy of leaves
And that’s fine by me
Maybe I’ll become a tree
That lovers and children can sit underneath

“The album isn’t a concept album,” she says, but there has been a philosophy that has helped me cope with some interesting events in my life the last few years. The fact that we’re impermanent and the way we operate is governed by the fact that we’re all going to die.” 
Davis’ trajectory since her debut is one of progression and growth. Her voice has matured, discovered a widening range, as have her compositions and overall sound. It is this process that seems to aid Davis in her own reconciling of her mortality. As she describes, it’s a hard thing to do, but it all boils down to time. Quite simply: it’s limited, it’s fleeting, but while it exists let us fill it with music and poetry and possibly, bourbon.   

 

The album release party for The Worst Kind of Curse will be held at Bowie Feathers on Saturday September 26th at 9.p.m. 

Purchase the Digital Download The Worst Kind of Curse here

Emily Davis will also be hosting this years El Paso Song Writing Competition (EPSWC) on October 2nd at 7 p.m at the El Paso Playhouse.


 

Mari GomezComment