Harpist and singer/songwriter Mikaela Davis, center, will perform in Brattleboro with her band, Southern Star.
Jamie Goodsell/Courtesy photo
Harpist and singer/songwriter Mikaela Davis, center, will perform in Brattleboro with her band, Southern Star.

New album ‘a meditative, transformative experience’

Mikaela Davis and Southern Star to perform in Brattleboro on June 15

BRATTLEBORO — With a new album being released in August and a multi-city national tour underway this week with her band Southern Star, harpist and singer/songwriter Mikaela Davis, 31, of Catskill, New York is garnering a lot of well-deserved attention these days.

The band, which performs for the first time at the Stone Church on Thursday, June 15, includes Davis on harp and vocals, Alex Coté on drums, Cian McCarthy on guitars and vocals, Shane McCarthy on bass and vocals, and Kurt Johnson on pedal steel guitar.

They “create an original and genre-bending catalog that weaves together '60s pop-soaked melodies, psychedelia and driving folk rock,” according to the band's publicity materials.

For Davis, releasing a new album - And Southern Star - is a dream come true.

“This album is more me than anything else that's been released,” Davis says, calling the process of its creation “a meditative, transformative experience.”

And Southern Star will be released via the Kill Rock Stars label on Aug. 4. Although her band has been playing together for over a decade, this is the first time she and her bandmates will appear together on a full-length record.

When asked about the band's origin, Davis explains, “Everything I've put out has had my drummer Alex on it. We grew up together. And then Cian plays guitar and Shane plays bass. They're brothers and have been playing with me for over 10 years.”

She describes Johnson as “a great Rochester musician who would play with us sporadically whenever schedules aligned.”

“He was such a natural fit, and we all enjoy playing together so much that he eventually joined the band,” she says. “It was very organic."

“Mikaela Davis is a great representation of the genre-bending innovative artists we're trying to feature more,” says Robin Johnson, owner of The Stone Church. “A classically trained harpist, she seamlessly weaves flower-child-era psychedelic rock with modern-triple-A pop sensibilities, crafting delightful earworms layered upon infectious grooves.”

The Commons caught up with Davis on the road and talked about her band, their new album, their summer tour and why she chose the harp. Here's an excerpt from the conversation.

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Victoria Chertok: It's so nice meeting you, Mikaela - a fellow harpist! I heard you began studying harp at age 8 and went on to get a degree in harp performance from the Crane School of Music (SUNY Potsdam). How have your early educational experiences helped shape the harpist you are today?

Mikaela Davis: My entire background is in the classical world. Studying with two incredible harpists, Grace Wong and Dr. [Jessica R.] Suchy-Pilalis, gave me the foundation on which my entire approach to the instrument is based.

In the classical world, technique is everything. I am grateful to have spent so much time developing mine, as it is the way in which I'm able to express myself through the instrument.

V.C.: How did you decide to play the harp?

M.D.: My elementary school offered it as a part of the music program. I remember that in second grade, they took us to the music room and showed us all of the different string instruments that we could choose from the following year to start studying. The harp was the last one they presented, and I was immediately drawn to it.

I was very close with my oma, who loved music, and she had passed away right around that time. There is a skylight in the house I grew up in, and I remember wanting to play the harp under it so that my oma could hear me practice.

V.C.: I heard you have a funny story about your mother listening to a particular album. Tell me more.

M.D.: I am a huge fan of Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, and several years ago I discovered his album Down to the Moon.

I fell in love with it and one day mentioned it to my mom, because I thought that she would also like it. Not only did she already own the record, but she told me that she would listen to it constantly when she was pregnant with me. I couldn't believe it!

V.C.: That's amazing! How did you come up with your band's name?

M.D.: Cian came up with it. He and Alex had a band in college, Southern Star. The name is taken from a variety of pipe-weed grown in the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.

V.C.: You play all originals on the new record and live. I hear you also play a few Grateful Dead covers. How do you come up with your set lists?

M.D.: We focus primarily on original music, and lately have been throwing in one or two Grateful Dead songs outside of the residencies we have done this year in which we focused more intently on the Dead.

Our set lists vary from night to night. Alex usually comes up with a rough draft, and we fine-tune it together.

V.C.: How did you get introduced to the music of the Grateful Dead?

M.D.: Well, I've been a fan for a while, mostly as a listener. My bandmates are the ones who introduced it to me more as a player.

I didn't really get fully immersed until I was asked to sit in with Bobby Weir and Wolf Bros back in 2018. I didn't know the catalog at the time, so naturally I was nervous and excited to play with an original member of the band.

The Dead community has really embraced me, and it's been a lot of fun playing the music with my band. It is a great platform for improvisation and has taught us all a lot about songwriting.

The music of the Grateful Dead is challenging, unique, and vast. I've become a better musician from learning this music! And it's just really pretty genius the way Grateful Dead songs were written.

V.C.: You've caught the eye of many notable musicians recently, including Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Christian McBride, Bon Iver, Lake Street Dive, and Circles Around the Sun, to name a few. What was it like sharing the stage with Bobby Weir and Wolf Bros?

M.D.: Playing with Bob Weir is obviously a tremendous honor. Wolf Bros is particularly fun because it's a three piece and so there is a lot of space for the harp. They really encouraged me to stretch out and play more solos. The experience really inspired me to approach the harp as a lead instrument in my own music and with my band.

V.C.: What style harp do you tour with, and how do you amplify it?

M.D.: I own a Lyon & Healy Style 100 semi-grand and have had it for over 20 years. It was made in the '60s and has a giant coffin case that is essential for transporting it on the road. When I got the harp, my mom didn't want to store the big ugly case, but luckily the seller insisted. I can't imagine touring without it.

I use a Barcus-Berry pickup to amplify my harp, the same kind that's used on pianos. Because of that, I can run it through guitar effects pedals to get sounds and textures that aren't possible with acoustic harp.

Sadly, harps only last so long with the amount of tension from the strings, and mine is nearing the end of its usable life.

V.C.: Your new song “The Pearl” on your new album is a special song to you. How so?

M.D.: “The Pearl” is a song I wasn't sure would make the cut on the album because it's so different. It's very short, and the arrangement is sparse. It's one of only two songs on the record I wrote entirely by myself.

During the pandemic, some friends - fellow songwriters - created an exercise in which we were all challenged with writing seven songs in seven days. Each day we would send demos of other songs and give feedback.

“The Pearl” is one of the songs I wrote, and it was my favorite from the seven songs I wrote during that time.

The inspiration came from my Aunt Julia, who one day was wearing a pearl necklace. We got to talking about how amazing pearls are.

Pearls are often formed from a single grain of sand that makes its way into the shell of an oyster. As a reaction to that tiny invader, this beautiful object is created. I liked the idea that way down in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean something beautiful is formed out of essentially nothing.

This song is a reminder that out of the darkest times can come the most wonderful things.

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Mikaela Davis and her band Southern Star play at the Stone Church, 210 Main St. in Brattleboro on Thursday, June 15. Doors at 7:30 p.m., and the show starts at 8 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit stonechurchvt.com.To pre-order the vinyl of And Southern Star, visit mikaeladavis.com.

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