Mikaela Davis Interview by Riley Funk
“They showed the harp last and I was immediately mesmerized by it”: Mikaela Davis talks inspirations, music, and more.
July 20, 2019
Mikaela Davis is arguably one of the most talented and unique musicians to come out of Rochester, NY, a small city with a big heart. I was lucky enough to get to sit down with her and chat before her most recent show in her hometown at Abilene Bar and Lounge this past Saturday. She was just as sweet and charming as her photos portray her to be. Her porcelain skin and round moody eyes were complimented by her humble demeanor and soft, alluring voice. Mikaela was simply adorable and an absolute pleasure to talk to.
In our interview, she discusses everything from her eco-friendly fashion choices to meditating with Bob Weir.
R: I see you’ve been out and about doing some really awesome stuff lately, but tonight you’re playing in Rochester, NY, your hometown. When you’re back home, do you have any favorite go-to Rochester staples?
M: That’s a good question. There's so much. Natural Oasis; great restaurant. Have you been there?
R: I haven’t been there!
M: It’s all vegan… I’m not vegan but it’s just like comfort food for me. And, I mean, Lux is always a fun bar. That's definitely a Rochester staple for me. I used to go out a lot more, and lately when I’ve been home, I’ve just been kind of staying home and like, going to Wegmans.
R: I would say Wegmans is certainly another notable Rochester staple.
M: Wegmans and going for a walk through Highland Park.
R: You say that you’ve been hanging out at home a little more when you’re in town lately. When you do decide to go out, do you get recognized a lot in Rochester?
M: Yes and no. I mean, sometimes. Now that my hair isn’t white anymore… my hair used to be like, platinum white… and now that I’m growing out my natural color, I think maybe people don’t notice me as much, so that’s nice.
R: I bet. So another local show you have coming up is the Big ‘G’ Jam Music Festival, which is August 9th and 10th at The ‘G’ Lodge. You’re on the bill with a plethora of other lady-led performers like Hayley Jane and Rochester’s own Danielle Ponder. Are there any ladies in the industry that influenced or inspired you most as an artist?
M: Oooh, yeah. Let’s see… I went on tour with this band Lake Street Dive. I love them so much. Rachel (Price) and Bridget (Kearney) are two of the members of Lake Street Dive. They are just incredible musicians and incredible people. Rachel has taught me a lot about stage presence and how to work with a crowd. It’s really cool to watch her. My booking agent is a lady; she’s a woman, and she’s badass. Her name is Sara Bollwinkel at Paradigm. I’ve been with her for, like, 6 years. She discovered me on Youtube and she set me up with management and different connections. She’s been a big part of my life.
R: I’m sure when you get interviewed you get mostly music related questions, but as a lover of fashion, I can’t help but notice that you have a very unique 60’s/70’s inspired wardrobe. Are there any designers, thrift shops, or clothing stores that you gravitate towards when you’re looking for a new piece?
M: Thats a good question. I’ve been trying to thrift more and, as of recently, I’ve decided I’m going to try to exclusively thrift and not buy new materials that just is being made in like, China. I really really love The Op Shop. Have you been there?
R: No, I have not.
M: It’s a cool vintage store in town. They’re right above Ugly Duck Coffee. I’ve been shopping there a lot. I like Savers. What I like to do is look up something really expensive that I like and just go to Savers and try to find something that is similar to it.
R: That’s really smart. I couldn’t help but notice your instagram was full of cute outfits. Okay, this is a little bit of a silly question. When you gig around, do you carry your own harp?
M: So my harp goes around on a dolly on wheels. I put it on a trolley, or a cart, that’s specially made for a harp. It’s easy to wheel it around. When we’re touring with the full band, we actually put it in this huge wooden coffin, that’s what it looks like. Everyone just calls it the coffin. It’s just like a huge wooden box for the harp, and then it goes in the trailer. I always have my band to help me, especially up stairs, because it’s hard.
R: How much does one of those weigh?
M: My harp weights about 90 pounds, so it’s not like, over the top. I can pick it up and move it across the room, but it would be a real drag to move it everywhere if I didn’t have the dolly.
R: Definitely. I actually work for your old school district, Penfield, and they always have one or two elementary students in the school I work at that plays that harp. They use the little trolley’s you were talking about to move them around now that I think about it. I always see your pictures up in the band room at the high school when I’m chaperoning concerts, which is how I knew you went there.
M: Do you love the little munchkins?
R: Yes, they’re my favorite. Such a good district, too.
M: I really liked Penfield. That’s so cool that you work there.
R: Now was Penfield where you began playing the harp?
M: Yes, I did. I started playing harp BECAUSE of Penfield. I don’t know that I really knew much about it before that. They were showing us all the instruments at the end of second grade. They show the kids all the instruments and then you get to pick one. I almost picked the cello I think, because I really liked that one. Then, they showed the harp last and I was immediately mesmerized by it.
R: So, Mikaela, you just had a HUGE announcement the other day regarding Lockn’ Festival 2019. Do you wanna tell me a little more about that?
M: Yes! So I got asked to sit in with Bob Weir last November in Syracuse. I remember when I got the text from my manager at the time and I literally screamed in my seat. I was at my moms house and she’s like “what’s wrong?” and I’m like “nothings wrong, it’s good!” I was actually terrified. I got asked like a week before, maybe less, like 5 days before and I was so nervous, because like, it’s Bob Weir. My guitar player, Cian (McCarthy), is very familiar with the Dead tunes so he helped me learn them. I got to pick, like, 4 or 5 songs. I got asked back in Buffalo, and that was really fun. Both of those were a surprise though, so I couldn’t announce it and I couldn’t say anything about it. It had to be a surprise to the audience. This time (at Lockn’), I get to actually announce it, which is pretty cool. I’m actually billed on the festival instead of just being a surprise.
R: So you’ve played with Bob Weir twice before? What’s he like?
M: Really chill. Really humble. He introduces himself to you even thoughts it’s like, yes, I know who you are. He’s super intelligent and very open. He’s trying to learn bebop on guitar and he’s listening to a lot of Charlie Parker when he’s on the tour bus. He told me that the two things you need to be happy in life is to exercise and meditate. Before the last show in Buffalo, he invited me onto his bus with his band to meditate with him. He led it and it was really amazing. He’s a great guy.
R: I didn’t know Bob Weir meditated. Thats awesome! The opportunity to play with someone like Bob Weir is something that a lot of musicians can only dream of. Before you got invited to play with him, would you have considered yourself a Grateful Dead fan?
M: Yes, but now, I think I am much more than I was before. I really like the Grateful Dead and my boyfriend and guitar player, Cian, he’s a huge Grateful Dead fan. Jerry and Bob and everyone are his heroes, so he’s introduced me to a lot of the music. I remember the first time I listened to Dark Star in college. Cian showed it to me. We were at our friends house. He had us turn out all the lights and we just sat there in silence, completely sober, just listening to Dark Star. I was just blown away. Are you a fan?
R: Indeed. Fun fact: I was in my mom’s belly at the last show with Jerry Garcia.
M: Are you kidding me? Wow, that just gave me chills. Whoa. That’s crazy. Yeah, so you actually got to hear Jerry.
R: Hear him? well, kind of.
M: No, you did. Actually my mom used to listen to this harpist all the time when she was pregnant with me, and I think that’s part of the reason why I’m playing harp. I believe that when you are in the womb you can hear things to some extent.
R: I can agree with that. Alright so this is my last question for you today. What’s the coolest place that you’ve traveled while gigging so far?
M: I was just in Ireland. Ireland is absolutely magical. There’s a lot of history there and they say there’s fairies that live in Ireland that can put curses on you. Ireland’s incredible. Also, I just went to Denmark for the first time and it was absolutely gorgeous. I went and played a show in Coppenhagen but we stayed outside of Coppenhagen; the fields and the animals and the cats everywhere. I love cats. Yeah, it was gorgeous.
R: That’s absolutely wonderful. I, too, am cat-obsessed. Well, Mikaela, I’m so excited to check out your set tonight. Thanks so much for sitting down with me today.
I wouldn’t say I just simply ‘checked out’ her set after our interview. Instead, I danced and laughed and stood there wide eyed listening to the melodic and electrifying sounds coming from the stage.
Her band, dubbed ‘Mikaela Davis and Southern Star,’ consisted of her and 5 other gifted instrumentalists, mostly all of which had a microphone as well too create some of the most lovely harmonies I’ve heard live. Mikaela’s fingers gracefully danced over the strings of her harp while she sang ever so sweetly. I enjoyed watching her lead the band behind her with poise and confidence. This was unlike any pop music I’ve heard before. Some songs had a whimsical shoegaze sound while others I could only describe as jive funk. Her voice was dreamy with a bit of twang and reminded me of the great Stevie Nicks. Mikaela and her band uniquely and successfully mixed pop music with seductive psychedelia to create a subgenre I haven’t quite experienced yet.
One of my favorite moments of the night was her cover of ‘I Know you Rider’ by the Grateful Dead. Now, I’ve heard a lot of Dead covers in my day, and I rarely am impressed by them. This time, however, was one of the very few exceptions. I haven’t heard a band able to do a Dead tune with such justice in a long time. The harmonies made from at least 5 voices at a time during the choruses really stood true to the sounds of the Dead in the mid-1960’s versions of the tune. The crowd certainly came alive during this song. I stood right up front, only looking behind me once to notice the plethora of people standing from their seats to partake in the dancing. I didn’t see a single onlooker without a smile on their face.
After the show, I sat down outside the venue to relax and meditate on the adventure Mikaela had just taken me and the rest of the crowd on. While outside, I found myself in a post-show conversation with some of her local fans, a mother and daughter duo, Liza and Beth Bridgman. Liza reminiscenced about the show, remarking that “the whole room goes silent when she plays.” Her mother, Beth, said that Mikaela was “mesmerizing, like nothing I’ve heard before. Her voice is like an angel.” I couldn’t help but agree. “Her sound is timeless,” Liza added.
If you haven’t seen Mikaela Davis perform yet, I would highly suggest checking her out. In just a few weeks, she’ll be headlining The Big ‘G’ Jam Music Festival, an event featuring notable women in the art and music community. The festival will be benefiting Planned Parenthood of Central & Western NY. Get your tickets HERE.