Although originally from Portland, it’s in New York that we find Kate Davis, in the midst of a heatwave, “it’s so hot right now”. Sweltering summer days aren’t the New York we know from the movies, or the black-clad, uber-cool bands playing in darkened dive bars; although over her decade in the city, Kate has probably seen most sides of the city that never sleeps. “When I got here I was in college and I had a lot of time to find my people and hear all sorts of music and I could make sure I was getting everything out of the city that I could”.
It was Kate’s previous guise as a Jazz musician that brought her to New York, where she went to college to study upright-bass. Growing up in Portland, sharing mixtapes of TV On The Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it’s perhaps easy to imagine Kate as a romantic dreamer heading for the big city, a talented jazz musician with a secret passion for the entirely different appeals New York has to offer. The truth is perhaps a little more practical, “I think I just didn’t want to be in Oregon anymore. I knew I could go to school in New York and it be a bridge into a life there. It’s an easier transition when you go there for school because it’s not like you’re just dropped into the real world”. After graduating, the expectation was for Kate to continue to explore the world of jazz, yet a divide between the music and the musician was growing, “I have a kind of strange relationship with the music as a more creative outlet, I think I had such a technical experience with it growing up”.
While Kate’s love affair with jazz seemed to be waning, her love for music was still burning bright, one door closed and another into the dark and thrilling world of indie-rock opened. If jazz was a world of technique and rules, the appeal of songwriting was the creativity and freedom that comes with it, “it all comes from songwriting, it’s not so much about improvisation, it’s more about songs and the emotion behind it. The American tradition that is not jazz”. Kate made what she describes as, “a palpable switch”, and jazz’s loss was undeniably the alternative world’s gain.
The result is Kate’s debut album, Trophy, coming out in November on Solitaire Recordings, an album of cathartic sounds for the night time hours, tracks laced with emotion and poetry, keening examinations of love, loss and self-discovery. At the foreground throughout is Kate’s voice, simultaneously powerful and intricate, wringing emotion from the words; whether yelling her heart out in the chorus of recent single rbbts or finding the more subtle light and shade on the beautiful country-licked Open Heart.
If Kate seems to have burst into the music scene from nowhere, the reality, as it so often is, is that her debut album was a long time in the making, “it was the songs I had written over the span of almost 10 years…you know how they say sometimes it takes your entire life to make your first record. It was kind of like that”. The recording process too, wasn’t a fast one, the record was put together in Brooklyn across multiple sessions and multiple studios, bigger rooms were used to track the songs before Kate and her producer finished the details off in the producer’s own studio. If that sounds painstaking, Kate thinks otherwise, “I worked on it for a long time, because there was so much development which had to happen with the songs to figure out what was the right style. So actually it did take a long time, in a good way, I was able to have the the process to get the time, I wasn’t in a situation where anyone was rushing me”.
A desire to get it right wasn’t the only factor in the long run-up to the album’s release, in fact the record’s title, Trophy, is a reflection of that, “it kind of represents coming out on the other side, trying to wrangle a professional music career. I think I had a lot of experiences where I was in really bad contracts with labels. I was trying to fight for my independence and my own voice and it was really hard because there’s so much money involved. People don’t look at art as expression, they look at it as a way to make money and I was stuck in a lot of that for a while, so I think that’s a lot of the reason for the name. It’s kind of a triumphant way to come out on the other side having taken back my own voice and having control over my art”.
After those difficult experiences, Kate perhaps understandably, decided to go into the album writing process without a label pulling the strings, and even after it was completed, Kate took the time to find the right home, “I had the record done for almost a year actually before I got with Solitaire”. The story behind the artist and label coming together is quite charmingly old fashioned, “when I was growing up in Oregon I had a friend during middle-school, we were always buddies but really kind of lost touch during high-school and college. Thanks to social media, we kind of kept up with one another, and when I put out a song last spring, she heard it and happened to be dating someone who was at Solitaire, so it was an extremely small world situation. We have been working together ever since. It was kind of sweet how it was a very actual personal thing that brought it all together.” The combination already feels like a great match, “I’m just grateful I found the right people, because it doesn’t always go like that.”
Another real life situation played a role in the rather unusual way that Kate shared rbbts, the first single to be lifted from Trophy. While most artists might team up with a website, or a blog to premiere new material, Kate’s was instead shared on Sharon Van Etten’s Facebook page. We ask how that came about, “I got to know her a few years ago, I reached out as a fan actually. I knew one of her managers and asked if there was any possibility of getting to meet her and talk with her. She was so warm and welcoming to me, and we spent some time together and got to know each other, then ended up writing. Which was kind of the dream experience for me, because she’s one of my heroes. She was so generous and open to the idea of just getting to know me. That always makes writing easier”. The collaboration resulted in Kate co-writing on Sharon’s track Seventeen, one of the stand-out moments on Sharon’s stunning Remind Me Tomorrow album.
While comparisons between Kate and Sharon are as unhelpful as they are inevitable, there’s certainly a certain shared DNA in the way they both approach songwriting in such an open way. In Kate’s case a huge theme behind Trophy is that of loss, “I think loss is a huge theme. All different types of loss, I lost my dad like five years ago, so there are a lot of songs that try to explore that. It’s just a very difficult thing that a lot of people do experience”. While loss is such a universal theme, it can also be a deeply personal one, and something some artists struggle to portray, we ask if Kate found it easy to be so open in her songwriting, “I think it took me years to be able to do it. Maybe that’s why some of it did take so long. I think being able to express those things comes to different people at different times, and it was in a lot of ways a cathartic way for me to process grief. I think I’m lucky because I’m not sure that everybody gets to do that”.
While undeniably a record that dips into that most difficult of experiences, like the titular Trophy, there’s also a sense of reward here, of coming out the other side and being able to look forward to the future. We ask what Kate’s aspirations for this record are, “I want to be able to share this, and I want to be able to make another record. I want to be able to go all around and play this music because I feel there’s something so special about making things that are important to you and connecting to other people through them. And you know getting to play music and play with people you care about, that’s kind of like the dream life, to create all the time…at least for me”.
Trophy is out November 8th via Solitaire Recordings. Click HERE for more information on Kate Davis.