You may have already seen the YouTube video of songwriter Kate Davis, backed by the internet-darling cover band Postmodern Jukebox, adding a little swing to Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” while playing — appropriately — the upright bass. With 12 million views since its posting in September, it’s a fun, lightly jazzy trifle. And it’s a lousy introduction to Davis’ music.
Of course Davis is grateful for the exposure. But as a gifted multi-instrumentalist with a flair for emotionally incisive songwriting and grand orchestral arrangements, she has a lot more to offer than cutesy covers.
“It’s created a lot of great buzz, but also a little bit of confusion because if somebody sees a video in a very specific style, it’s not their fault, but they assume that that’s what somebody is,” Davis says. “I was wearing a costume and stuff. It was very much a kitschy kind of thing.”
For her Spoleto show, Davis will focus on her original material, which more readily draws comparisons to the baroque-pop theatricality of Rufus Wainwright or Regina Spektor than whatever bubblegum hit is sticking to the charts at the moment. She takes inspiration from Joanna Newsom, another artist who belts out her lyrics from behind a non-traditional lead instrument for pop music, the harp.
“She’s using a beautiful instrument to accompany herself, and she’s clearly a top-notch writer, just a beautiful poet, really,” Davis says. “It’s inspiring to me because she’s taking all these really intensely beautiful things and putting them together.”
There’s a lot of beauty crammed into the recording of Davis’ song “Only Growing Old,” which starts with a base layer of classical guitar and vocalization by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and builds to a sweeping climax with strings and horns, Davis pulling it all together with driving bass and aching vocals. (For her Spoleto concert, Davis will perform with a stripped-down backing band consisting of Alex Foote on guitar and Conor Rayne on drums.) Davis, 24, says she wrote the song while coping with the mortality of her elderly friends and mentors.
Other songs are a bit more playful. On the guitar waltz “Be Honest,” Davis sings smokily, “The only thing I still expect from you / Though you’ll say what you’ll say and you’ll do what you’ll do / Please be honest, but be kind.” Davis wrote the song when she was 19 years old.
“I was at a place where I was kind of making up problems and issues and things that hadn’t necessarily happened in my life,” Davis says. The refrain, “Please be honest, but be kind,” was lifted from a musician friend’s text message. “That’s a pretty lame way to talk about it, making up very intense things that you haven’t experienced yet, but I feel like I always did that as a kid, and I grew up learning a lot about jazz music and the American Songbook, finding those songs that were deeply intense and emotional, singing those things, not having gone through much of anything, having lived a pretty charmed life but trying to put myself in that situation and really try and feel what I’m supposed to feel.”
Davis’ charmed musical life began in Oregon, where she devoted much of her childhood to playing the violin in what she describes as an intensely competitive community of young violinists. After admiring a high school classmate who played violin in the orchestra and bass in the jazz band, she decided to try her hand at the bass.
By the time she arrived at the Manhattan School of Music, she had made the bass her primary instrument, and with it came an appreciation for her jazz forebears, particularly Scott LaFaro, a groundbreaking bassist who died young in the ’60s. But she chafed against some of the strictures of music school. “I was pretty frustrated going through the motions of being kind of a modern jazz bass player, especially because I identified so much with singing and that wasn’t something I had the opportunity to do in school,” Davis says.
After college, she moved her arsenal of instruments — including two upright basses — into a tiny New York City apartment. “It was like a really sad, very small musical instrument museum that I was just trying to eat and sleep in,” Davis says. And as she plugged into the city’s music scene, she got down to composing original tunes. Now two years out of music school, Davis is in the process of recording an album.
Davis isn’t all about that bass; she’s liable to pick up a violin or sit down at a piano in concert. But after falling in love with the bass as a teenager, she still hasn’t gotten over it. “I think I loved it for its function more than anything else,” Davis says. “It’s one of the only sounds in music that can control not only the harmony but the rhythm of things.”
Listening to the gracefully layered arrangements of Davis’ original compositions — and even watching YouTube videos of her at her kitschiest — one thing is clear: She’s fully in control.