In the video, a young female vocalist kicks things off with a knowing smile and a walking bass line. Although dressed up in a traditional jazz arrangement, the song is almost immediately recognizable; it’s Meghan Trainor’s pop hit “All About That Bass.”
The performance is a little kitschy. But it’s also really, really good. So good, in fact, that it went ridiculously viral shortly after it was published in late 2014.
That YouTube clip, featuring Oregon native Kate Davis, now has over 18 million views. While it seemed benign at the time, the singer’s offhand decision to appear in the video would change her life forever. In an interview with OPB, the now veteran musician said the spotlight was mostly unwelcome. She endured online harassment and began to harshly question the very foundation of her fledgling music career.
“I love jazz,” Davis insisted. “[But] this is not really gripping, emotional, improvisatory, enlightened music,” she said of the viral video. “This is some shit that you’d hear in a coffee shop or that old people listen to when they’re having a romantic dinner.”
In the following years, Davis became increasingly uncomfortable with her place in the jazz world. She gradually retreated before quitting the genre completely.
“I hid,” she admitted. “I kind of left and did some thinking and did a lot of writing and tried to redefine who I was and put the work in to find my own voice.”
That hard work paid off.
Davis resurfaced publicly in 2019 with a high-profile writing credit on Sharon Van Etten’s hit song “Seventeen.” It was a surprise turn that hinted at much more to come. Later that year, she put out her debut rock record, “Trophy,” an extraordinary 12 song album that garnered the musician critical acclaim and landed her a spot on NPR’s Slingshot Artists To Watch list. And now this month, Davis has released the fascinating “Strange Boy.” The album is a surprising reinterpretation of lo-fi pioneer Daniel Johnston’s 1984 album “Retired Boxer.” And while the irony of recording a record full of cover songs isn’t lost on Davis, she insists that this time around it’s entirely on her own terms.
Kate Davis joined OPB to talk about her background as a trained jazz musician, why she is drawn to the work of Daniel Johnston, mental health in the music industry and her complicated relationship with cover songs.
Jerad Walker: I’m joined by Kate Davis, who just released her latest album, “Strange Boy,” via Solitaire Recordings. Kate, thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Kate Davis: Of course. Thank you.
JW: I want to talk about the new record in a few minutes, but I also wanted to chat with you about some of your background, which I think is truly fascinating. You’re a trained jazz musician. You were a bit of a prodigy.
KD: I think prodigy is a strong word, but I definitely was trained. I also have Portland specifically to thank for that training as the jazz musician, but also as a classical musician too through the Portland Youth Philharmonic.
JW: You went on to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where you studied double bass and vocal. Fast forward to 2014, you’re living in New York and working as a jazz musician. You appeared in a video on YouTube with a jazz group called The Postmodern Jukebox. They mostly do covers of pop songs, and you were featured on a performance of the Meghan Trainor track “All About That Bass.” It exploded. It has like 18 million views as of today. You’re obviously a public performer and can handle a fair amount of attention. You’ve played at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, but I imagine that level of virality was a bit much. Was that a shock?
KD: Yeah. It was a shock, but it was actually a little bit — I don’t want to use the word traumatizing because that’s a strong word — but it was definitely very difficult. And it’s really unsettling to be on full display in that way.
JW: It seems like you gradually receded from music in the years following that. You continued to work, but you did slowly pull away. Was that a catalyst for that in a weird way?
KD: I did recede because I felt like it wasn’t true to who I was. I was really overwhelmed by the attention, and honestly, a lot of the attention was very inappropriate and really upsetting as a woman. So I hid. I kind of left and did some thinking and did a lot of writing and tried to redefine who I was and put the work in to find my own voice. Only in 2019 did I really feel like I kind of resurfaced and came out the other end.
JW: You resurfaced in 2019 in a big way as a co-writer on Sharon Van Etten’s song “Seventeen” which was about as big of an indie rock hit as indie rock music can have. Then your solo debut rock record “Trophy” came out later that year. I remember hearing the song “rbbts” from that record and thinking, ‘Wow, this is completely different from anything I expected.’ I can’t stress enough — it’s a tremendous shift from the traditional jazz world that you were immersed in for most of your life. How did that transformation happen?
KD: There are a lot of issues within the jazz institution, from a female perspective. But also there are issues with me being a white girl, playing bass and singing jazz music for a living. And that was a whole other reckoning that I had to face. And kind of in the same vein, [there was] the misogyny of the American songbook. To be a young woman getting up in jazz clubs, wearing cocktail dresses and looking cute and singing these songs about not being able to take care of myself or being nothing without the help of a man — that was kind of messed up.
Immediately after the “All About The Bass” thing, it became very clear that I was a caricature. I was a very specific type of performer — this cute, unassuming songstress girl who plays a large instrument who’s like “But I happen to be really good and I sing!” It just felt so backward.
I love jazz. I’m a huge fan of jazz. I will always love jazz and it will be a huge part of me. But [I thought at the time] this is not jazz. This is not really gripping, emotional, improvisatory, enlightened music. This is some shit that you’d hear in a coffee shop or that old people listen to when they’re having a romantic dinner. And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be real with myself. Is this who I am?” Sure, if I were just an entertainer and just wanted to put on a hat and be like cool, this is what I could do for money. That’s one thing. But I was unfortunately born to have greater ambitions to be an artist, and I have something to say. And that was the other thing I realized throughout all of this. I have opinions about things and my own life experience. And I love to create things and make things out of nothing or make things out of the amalgamation of all my interests.
JW: Which brings us to “Strange Boy.” This is essentially a Daniel Johnston cover album, and I think it’s a really interesting choice on your part. He was a hugely influential artist and songwriter from Austin, Texas, and really, really big in the lo-fi music recording scene of the 1980s. He kind of made that sound acceptable beyond just people’s bedrooms. You’ve reinterpreted his 1984 record “Retired Boxer.” What attracted you to this project?
KD: There’s a rawness and a directness and almost like an innocence to the way that he wrote the music and captured it, performed it, and recorded in this really DIY [way]. Like anything that was happening in the room, you heard. There’s nothing polished about it. And having come from a background that required so much polish or put so much pressure on perfection, I felt like this is the type of North Star artist that I need in my life in order to start shedding some of those annoying, unnecessary things that muddle what it is I’m trying to say.
JW: His vocal performances were uneasy almost by design. And a lot of his songs were captured on really warbly consumer-grade tape recordings. With that in mind was this project exciting from a modern production standpoint, like you had a lot that you could do with these interpretations?
KD: Yes. The thing about Daniel’s music is that it is complete while leaving room for you to take it wherever you want it to go.
JW: Kate, can you tell me about your interpretation of “Too Young To Die”?
KD: Yeah. This one was a particularly difficult one for me to wrap my head around and my heart around, mostly because I lost my father many years ago when he was much too young to die. And the song is just such a clear — I mean it is what it is. It’s about that. When I was recording the song, I linked it to my father and my experience, and it was just a really cathartic experience to really get inside this song and do my own emotional work. But then, after Daniel Johnston passed away [during production of the record], it was even more difficult. This song took on a whole new meaning. It was just so heartbreaking. He died far too young. But what a beautiful thing that we have — this incredible legacy that he left behind.
JW: Daniel Johnston battled mental illness for much of his life. It was documented extensively in the 2005 film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” Because of that, his legacy is pretty intertwined with the modern-day mental health awareness movement. For this record, you teamed up with the nonprofit that he and his family and friends founded. Can you tell me about that collaboration?
KD: Yes. So, the Hi, How Are You Project do this incredible work trying to carry on the legacy of Daniel Johnson through his music and his art but also by initiating these really important conversations about mental health and aiming to destigmatize a lot of the negative things that come up about mental illness and really just [create] a positive space to try and have conversations about how we all should strive for health. And there are ways in which we can lift each other up and take care of ourselves. In rock music, specifically, we’ve romanticized the struggling artist or the suffering artist — the sick artist. And that’s got to go. To be suffering and struggling does not mean you’re going to make great art. In some cases it did. And you know, there are countless artists who have left behind these incredible legacies, even though they very obviously struggled And, well, you know that that will be a part of their legacy, the struggle. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
JW: Kate, I feel like you’re always keeping us on our toes. What’s next? Are you going to do a dubstep record or country album?
KD: No. Well, you know, it’s interesting. I was really, really glad to make this covers record. One, because it was a straight-up cover of the whole record. It wasn’t like my favorite Daniel Johnson songs. It was a real study [about] what makes songs great and how to make a record. But having this kind of complicated past with my career and covers, I was wary of it. And part of me is like, ‘You know what? I made these this record. This is what covers mean to me.’ I view Daniel Johnson as being one of the biggest, most influential parts of the American songbook. You’re talking to someone who has studied the American songbook extensively in a kind of old-school way.
But I am well on my way to completing my second artist LP of my own [original] music, I guess you could say. And it’s nearly complete. I’m very, very excited. And this whole conversation is really making me think that I started out here — we all have these markers along the path — and I am the most myself at this moment in time than I’ve ever been in my whole life, and that is such a gift. And all of these other places that we’re at in our lives that reflect or that make us a little uncomfortable, they’re just meant to be there so that we have a clearer idea of who we want to be and how to grow into that.