Name: Caroline Davis of My Tree
Current Release: Where the Grace Is on bandcamp
Recommendations: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower / an untitled Carlo Zinelli work from 1963 or 1964. I think most of his works were created inside of a mental ward, they have a lot of repetition, an odd kind of quirkiness in them where you're like, is that a human or is that a military thing?
If you enjoyed this interview with Caroline Davis, visit her website www.carolinedavis.org to continue the journey and www.maitrimusic.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I grew up in Atlanta, partially, and my love of music started there, in terms of being involved with playing it. My parents listened to R&B and pop music before then, but I feel like when I started playing music, it was more R&B influenced in Atlanta. But some of the earlier music that I listened to there that was influencing my voice at the time were Mary J. Blige, En Vogue and Boyz II Men and the Stand By Me soundtrack. Maybe Huey Lewis and the News, which is a hilarious influence, at the beginning. Stand By Me was huge with The Silhouettes and The Coasters and the song “Yakety Yak.” That's like the first saxophone solo that I remember being able to sing to and really, really liked. Jerry Lee Lewis and Ben E. King, Shirley and Lee, all the artists on that soundtrack. I love that movie. I loved early ’90s R&B and I liked--like every kid--movie soundtracks. What was it about music and sound that drew me to it? As for what drew me into music I’d say it was the soulful quality of the voice and the earthiness, those kinds of qualities, as well as rhythm.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Most of that came from jazz musicians. And I would say, more influential were jazz camps, because those were the places where I was feeling more of a daily grind to know what it feels like to be a real artist. The main one for me was Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut. And some of those artists taught me how to transcribe the music. And some earlier influences of emulating musicians include Charlie Parker on alto saxophone. Another one, not necessarily the best to transcribe early on, was Cannonball Adderley. I still do a lot of that today. With singing, I've transcribed and emulated the gospel singer Kim Burrell, Mary J. Blige, and all the singers in SWV. CoKo is a really big influence on me. I sang along with her when I was little, but more so emulating, like really going in and trying to see what she's doing. Her given name is Cheryl Gamble, but she goes by Coko, so Coko Taj, and Lelee, the three women in Sisters with Voices. They were really influential for me. I think a lot of people know that song “Weak,” but I had all their records when I was growing up. Those were the most important and I feel like I still go back and do a lot of that now, because, as artists, we develop at different moments, and we become different people throughout our lives. I'm constantly changing my voice/growing and developing my voice. I wouldn't say that there was like a transition. I feel like it's always transitioning. I would say that it's like a wave.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
This is an interesting question I've been thinking about a lot. There's this thought that identity can make you stuck, I guess, or feel stuck. And so what I've been trying to do lately is to put my identity into more of an active state. So I wouldn't say that I feel that I have a solid identity. I know that sounds really dark or weird, but I would say that my identity is always fluctuating. I was just in Puerto Rico where there were a lot of waves. So now I'm really thinking about how to recreate the feeling of being inside of a wave, artistically? Running also has this wave-like quality. Whatever I'm doing during the day and trying to incorporate those non-musical ways of being into the music and into my energy state.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think there's always challenges regardless of how long you've been doing something. It always goes back to the instrument and getting in touch with your voice and getting in touch with your instrument. It doesn’t feel like a daily challenge; it's more like a daily hike, which is really enjoyable for me. You're coming into contact with this other external thing, which is either your instrument or your voice. And you want the music to sort of flow between you and that other voice. So you do everything you can to make things natural and feel honest, which is kind of like a daily hike for me. And that never changes. Some of the professional things about the industry, like getting gigs and getting paid the right amount of money are still a challenge. The idea of being strong inside of your vision could be seen as something that wavers at the beginning, but now, it's not as much of a challenge because I have a clear idea of what I'm going for.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started playing saxophone as a little girl, but I started singing many years after that, something like 20 years after, more professionally. During the pandemic I started learning a lot more about Pro Tools, recording equipment and microphones. I got a nice ribbon microphone for myself. The pandemic really changed that for me, since we couldn't really go anywhere and had to do a lot of recording here. It was so important to rig up some funds to get those technologies going here. I've always been interested in singing. The song writing aspect happened when I got a divorce. That became a big part of my expression with my voice. Hardship was a motivation. A lot of hardship motivates my choices in terms of instrument change.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
For sure. There's really nothing like the possibility with the voice. I guess you can get pitch wheels and things like that or can use the guitar or other instruments to bend notes. There's just so much possibility for bending notes into expression with voice. It's so akin to sounds in nature. I'm going back now to these extremely loud sounds of bullfrogs in Puerto Rico. I was wondering how to emulate this on an instrument, but I think the voice would be the best way to do that. Or these grackles--the way that there's singing--I don't think there's a better way to do it than with the voice. Same for emulating waves too, you can do that with your voice. I think that the voice is so married to sounds in our natural environment. Something else that’s really exciting for me is the possibilities of textural change for different instruments, meaning using additions to the saxophone. Sometimes I'll put a water bottle in the bell to make the sound a little different. And or I'll play without the mouthpiece, or just use key clicks, or just different extended techniques on all the instruments to make the music sound a little more like what our environments sound like.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I collaborate with Ben Hoffmann in our project My Tree, and I would say that that's the closest collaboration I have in terms of us bringing songs to the table. I recently started doing a little bit more of that with my friend Lucia Stavros who plays harp and sings and we're getting together and writing songs. I’ve also been doing that through the pandemic with my friend Wendy Eisenberg who plays guitar. And they are a big influence on me for song writing. I do a lot of improvising with people, playing songs that we both know or things like that.