Posted On 11 May 2017
As a well-known, respected vocalist, Steven Davis has explored many genres over the years. His Midwestern, church-based upbringing started him, musically, in Gospel at the age of 5. As he came into his own as a vocalist, he discovered a passion for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, big band sounds and the Great American Songbook.
Davis spent years wowing crowds in clubs in NYC, Atlantic City and L.A., and performing overseas with orchestras and big bands. With his most recent work, DEPARTURE, Davis has come back to some of the well-crafted pop music he heard on the radio in the 80s and 90s.
Listening to the radio in his Omaha, Nebraska home during his formative years inspired Davis’ love of a great pop song. “A good song is a good song, good lyrics are good lyrics, but the big production in songs from people like Elton John, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music… those really caught my attention.” He sensed, even then, that he would never be the guy climbing the corporate ladder – that music was his mission. “I sensed it,” he explained. “What kind of an artist I would be was the thing I had to figure out.”
In his time singing standards, Davis has headlined long residencies at The Rainbow Room and performed on stage with the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, among others. He did quite a bit of original songwriting during this time, including songs written with John Oates (Hall & Oates). A song he wrote and performed, “Sometime Soon,” was used on an episode of the popular CBS series, CRIMINAL MINDS.
After taking a several year leave of absence from the music business, he went in the studio to record some demos and “test the water” while exploring some new directions. During those sessions, he suffered a profound vocal bleed – and grappled with the possibility that he might never return to making music professionally. After nearly a year-long period of intense steroid therapy and weeks of forced silence, he was given a clean bill of health. Serendipitously, not long after, he met his producer, manager and collaborator, Josh Charles through a mutual friend who lived in L.A. Davis had lived in Nashville for a while and Charles had recently moved there to work in the Nashville music scene.
“I guess the best things in life happen when you don’t see them coming,” says Davis. “Now I am acutely connected to the idea at this point in my life and career that if something isn’t fun, I’m not going to do it – and I’m having more fun making music than ever before. I feel like the luckiest person around to get to work with so many consummate pros, starting with Josh, whose instincts and musicality instill me with great trust.”
Charles saw more in Davis than his ability to make standards special, telling Davis “(standards) isn’t the totality of you as an artist… you can do contemporary music too.” In Charles’ opinion, there was another dimension to Davis’ artistry that had gone unexplored. “And I wanted to make a record that didn’t require 35 musicians,” joked Charles. Davis and Charles decided on the DEPARTURE theme together and sought out songs that were meaningful to them.
DEPARTURE has a different palette, but Davis is the same man. He is living inside the great lyrics of these songs – leaving the intention unchanged. “If you are singing songs that have been famous over the years, you have to be very respectful, mindful and careful. Bring something exciting and new to the song since it has had a life before.” The duo added some texture to the tracks and kept the tonality consistent throughout.
“Under The Milky Way” was a big hit for the band The Church in the late 80’s. Taking a more ‘cinematic’ approach to the arrangement and bringing a modern edge to the production, Davis and Charles came up with their version of the track. “I’ve always been fascinated by the element of mystery in this song, both melodically and lyrically,” Davis explained. Re-making Tears For Fears’ iconic “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” was a timely effort. “I can’t think of a more relevant, powerful message, given the current geo-political state of our world and the political landscape here at home.” The arrangement is in a minor key for most of the song, and if you listen to the lyric, it is as if it was written for today.
Davis is a man who moves through time, musically, with great ease. His experience brings a confidence to the material in DEPARTURE, his charm brings it warmth and his audible love of what he does makes it a must-hear.
Learn more about Steven Davis in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! What are some words you would use to describe 2016 for you and your music?
2016 was an exciting, challenging, and rewarding adventure in my continuing musical endeavors! Whether writing, recording, or performing, I always remain energized and grateful for my good fortune and privilege to live in the creative zone.
How is 2017 treating you so far?
In the later part of 2016 the ground work and basic sessions began for Departure. We spent the first part of 2017 in the studio, which was a great way roll up fresh sleeves and kick off the new year!
Where does this interview find you today? Is there music playing in the background? If so, what is it?
I’m here at my home in Nashville. Spring is in full bloom, everything is intensely green. It’s tranquil and beautiful. Just yesterday I was listening to Pink Floyd’s, Dark Side of The Moon. It’s one of my all time favorite albums and a perfect sound track to my life : “Home, home again, I like to be here when I can…”
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician? Can you recall your earliest musical memory? Could you see yourself doing anything else today?
I started singing in church in front of lots of people at the age of five. It’s all I’ve ever known. I was raised in the mid west in a family who loved music. I had a very colorful grandfather who was quite a character. He was a self taught musician. He played the steel guitar, harmonica, banjo, accordion , and keyboards. Oh, and he had a wooden leg, and much to my grandmother’s displeasure, he refused to wear his dentures! There were five kids in our family. Every Saturday night we would go to their house, sit around the floor, and we’d have our own ‘music fest’ singing old songs into the night. Those were the simple, uncomplicated days of my childhood. Somehow I always knew that I’d have a life in music. It seemed like home, right from the start.
In June, you will be releasing your newest album, “Departure.” Can you talk about putting this collection together and what that was like for you? It’s a total 180 from anything else that you have released. Why is that?
Recording Departure was a great ride! Last summer I shared a weekend of concerts outside of Palm Springs, with my producer and co-writer, Josh Charles. It was a spectacular weekend of music from some of the greatest artists and bands in the world, all packed into three nights of music, under the light of a full moon. This once in a life time event was called, Desert Trip. And it really was ‘a trip’ to say the least!
The shared experience of all that music washing over us, like a musical oasis in the desert, got us to thinking about embarking on a new musical direction. The seeds of recording Departure were sown in that weekend last summer. We decided to explore the iconic songs and recordings of the 80’s, bringing a fresh take on some of those classic new wave hit songs. That’s really how “Departure” was born.
How did you go about selecting the songs to cover on “Departure”? Were these all your most favorite songs of the 1980s?
We listened to over 500 songs from that era. Often times, a favorite song isn’t always the right song for an artist. I’m lyrically and melodically driven. We wanted to preserve the melody of each song, sometimes changing the tempo, mood, and feel of the original track. We brought a sort of Lana Del Rey meets Radiohead sonic back drop to these tracks. There’s a lot of rich, sonic ear candy, textures and layers in Departure.
I’d love to know more about how you recovered from your vocal bleed and what it was like knowing you might not be able to sing again? A year of forced silence sounds intense!
After a long leave of absence from the business, just when I decided to ramp back into recording, I suffered the vocal bleed, due to a profound coughing spell. The ironic timing of the bleed was a crashing surprise and crushing event. But sometimes in life, a crisis can be a hidden gift. When you’re faced with the possible end to something you have taken for granted all your life, it wakes you up.
The vocal bleed demanded almost a year with periods of absolute silence, sometimes for over a month at a time. It was one of the longest years of my life. I call it my “Zen Period.” The sobering reality that I may never sing again allowed me to embrace my gift in a way I’d never before understood or owned on a personal, emotional level. The timing was perfect! In the wake of my recovery, I met my co-writer and producer, Josh Charles, entering into the most prolific, creative period of my entire life.
Do you plan on moving back to the standards with the big band for the next collection or have you not thought that far yet?
As an artist, I try to stay fluid in my musical expression, inviting the challenge of exploration. I don’t draw boundaries in terms of genre. Good songs, lyrics, and melodies, will stand the test of time in any genre. Departure is indeed, a side step away from what we know as the Great American Songbook. The common thread between my previous work and Departure, is all about The Song. I hold a great respect for the art of writing good songs, good lyrics, with melodic integrity. Those are the kind of songs I wanna record, those are the kind of songs I wanna write. Right now, I’ve already began writing and recording new material in the vein of DEPARTURE and plan on releasing an EP of those songs later this Fall. The new songs have a harder edge rhythmically and are much faster, and the tracks have more electronic elements which kinda bring it into a Post New Wave vibe. I love the melodic sounds of bands like Echo and The Bunnymen, Tears For Fears, Psychedelic Furs, New Order, U2. I hear a lot of new bands that really embrace the 80’s sound right now which is great! I’m really fired up and angry about what’s happening in our country and these new songs reflect that feeling. As an artist , you have to have something to say and right now is the time to create.
Do you think that what drives you to make music and be a musician in general has changed and grown over the years?
Yes of course. My musical aspirations, dreams, and ambitions, have grown and morphed over the course of my life, just as I have grown and evolved through time. The evolution of an artist can’t be separated from one’s own growing awareness and emotional evolution. As the world changes, we also change. Nothing is static. That’s why music is always changing, like a mirror of our inner selves and the world around us.
Who are some of your very favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? What musicians would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
Where does one begin? There are so many artists, players, singers, and bands that have had a great impact and influence on me as an artist, performer, and writer. I think one of the great poets and artists of our time is Sting. The anthology of his prolific song book is stunning! He’s a great story teller and a true original. There are so many artists I’d love to work with and Lana Del Rey is at the top of my list right now as I think our styles match up accordingly. Her voice is incredible and her lyrical and melodic sensibilities evoke a feeling of another time that feels very familiar to me. I think we would sound great together. My musical appreciation is a broad palette and there are many artists today, too many to enumerate, who continue to inspire me. The latest Radiohead album blew me away!
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people take away from your songs?
Music has the power to inspire, energize, tranquilize, inform, stimulate, and even provoke. I would hope that my music holds some element of all those emotional colors, which help define what it is to be a part of the human race. Music is the score to the movie we find ourselves in, called LIFE.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourself or your music?
If you listen closely, you may find a piece of my head and heart in my music. That is my hope. If you do, and if it touches you on a personal level, if you find just a sliver of magic; I will perhaps have found the reason why I came here.