- Mon, 2009-07-13 16:53
I only breathe in thick black smoke
For lack of air it hangs in my throat
I can see his face all wings and eyes
Teeth gnashing through flesh
Smoke blocking out the light
Joni Davis “Black Smoke”
Joni Davis steps forward and shakes my hand confidently, a broad grin on her face. Relaxed and tanned from two weeks of cycling, camping and eating in France, she’s positively bubbling with enthusiasm as she greets me. Giving her husband a sweet little wave as we leave for the interview, she turns back, chatting warmly, asking me how I am, telling me about her vacation.
But this wasn’t what I expected at all. I’m actually quite unsettled. Where the devil and the deep blue sea is the singer songwriter I was expecting to interview? The woman seemingly obsessed with the sinister and the cynical; author of songs about death, burying hearts and the dark side of religion. Is this woman sitting opposite me describing the joys of French cheese and macaroons really the same person?
Just then, she starts telling me how on one morning whilst in France, she was woken by an incredibly electric storm. And instantly we’re back on track. As she delights in the intensity, the brooding, the flashing of the storm at its peak I tell her it sounds like perfect subject matter for one of her songs. I ask her where that dark side comes from. “Everybody has it,” she begins, “everybody’s got that part of them and it’s actually quite moving to me: the darker stuff. I’m moved by the sadness in the world and I express it in the things I write, because you write about what inspires you, what’s moving to you”.
“I guess it’s just relating to the sad side of things quite easily. It’s having empathy for that kind of stuff and I’ve always had that. It’s not like I’ve been depressed in life, I’ve always had a strong sense of the sadness in the world”. This much is clear. Joni Davis’ songs are most definitely dark; her deep, powerful voice as intense as her lyrics; resonating over strong, simple piano. Think Carole King shaken with Nina Simone and poured by PJ Harvey. If you like your piano seventies singer-songwriter style, your voices large, low and dour and your reverb heavy, you’ll love this.
“It’s there,” she states, emphatically, “I’m not one of those people who always has to be happy all the time because I don’t feel that’s very truthful. Sometimes things are just kind of crap! And you have to remember that that’s ok; it’s ok to have that part of life, it’s ok to express that. I express that in my music but I also feel that I’m hopeful as well. Sometimes it bothers me that people see my music as very sad and they don’t recognise the hopeful part”. Certainly an expression of sadness in music as in life can be every bit as exhilarating as an expression of joy. Such a song is A Tear For Maria; Joni sings of shedding tears but at the same time the song pays homage to its protagonist. There’s an acceptance in that song that sadness is simply part of life; part of the ebb and flow of the human experience. Just like her electrical storm, the song is scary, it’s dark and brooding. But it’s exciting and uplifting too. Like the instrumental Piano on the second album. Just 40 seconds long, it’s heavy on the reverb, heavy on the melancholy; reminiscent of This Mortal Coil at their best. There’s certainly a sadness to it, but it’s so beautiful it lifts you at the same time.
Joni was born in Northern California to where she has now returned, after a number of years in London with her English husband (“love makes you do crazy things!”). During that time she studied music at Goldsmiths where she met her good friend and musical collaborator, Quinta. “She’s the greatest musician I’ve ever met!” she states. They recorded the 2007 EP Wire Wings together, a collection of three mournful yet beautiful songs, Quinta’s violin parts dancing around Joni’s dark piano. They play together whenever they can; Quinta is joining her on her current mini-tour of the UK and the Netherlands. Yet Quinta lives in London and Joni is back in Santa Rosa. “Yeah – it really hurts!” says Joni. “It’s something we both really struggle with because we would be playing music together all the time if we could. We have ideas and things we wanna do together. We both really love each other and we love each other’s music.”
She grew up in the suburbs in a secure, tight family who were regular church-goers. She doesn’t mention a picket fence but I’m sure there were plenty around. She was a good Christian girl and says she read the bible every night before bed during her adolescence. These days religion still plays its part in her life; it’s a recurring theme in Joni’s work. But it doesn’t get great press. Take the cynical This Game We Play on her second album. She hums along like an earnest gospel singer then sings wryly “They’ll all learn when it’s much too late you can’t buy no mercy from the offering plate” and “They’ll soon learn in this game we play, what the haves will say to make the have-nots go away.” So what went wrong? “The basic thing I got out of that religion was the fear of God” she snaps. “And that, I think, is not right.” Despite complete support from her parents, her rejection of her faith upset others in her extended family. “Oh yeah!” she states, “I’ve been told that I’m going to hell.” It’s a sore subject. She says there are times she still doubts herself, she still feels the fear. “It’s my humanness that scares me” she states, again in This Game We Play “I find the devil in me every day.” She says she doesn’t now identify with any formal religion, but it’s clearly not something that has left her easily; the harsh reactions of those around her have left their mark. As our conversation turns to the extremes of the religious right in the US and the power it wields, her anger quickly rises. “Prop 8?” she shrieks, referring to the recent over-turning of same-sex marriage rights in her home state. “I mean, what the hell is going on!” Anger breeds anger, breeds anger.
It’s apparent that, above all, Joni Davis has a huge ability to feel. She says she has always been very sensitive and had a very strong sense of empathy. There’s a down side to being like this of course, you get your feelings hurt a lot, yes, you worry a lot. “You just cry a lot basically,” she laughs. “But I’m grateful for it because when you see people that don’t feel anything? That’s as scary as hell, man. That’s as scary as hell”.
Joni Davis remains unsigned (have you A&R people heard this woman?). She still has a day job and both her albums, 2005’s eponymous release and the wonderful A Bird’s Heart in 2007, were self-financed and recorded at home. Her first album was written in between her gardening and caretaking duties for her elderly neighbour in Stoke Newington, North London. Despite the obvious financial issues, she joins an increasing number of artists who have either lost or haven’t found a record deal, who revel in the creative freedom they enjoy. “The music business is anti-everything I want to be. I don’t want to be beholden to anybody” she declares. She will record her third album herself this autumn, hoping for an early 2010 release. The only real clue she’ll give me is that there will be more instrumental pieces than on the first two albums. The piano lessons she’s been taking recently have put a different spin on the way she writes; focussing solely on the music instead of thinking about the lyrics. Quinta will fly to California to put down her parts. Joni says she’s still in sketching mode but, safe to say there’ll be plenty more songs about The Dark and The Hope. She’s really excited about it and dismisses any thought of not doing it without the backing of a label. “Music is something I have to do, because I love it” she states. In line with this ethos, as we part we talk more about her tour. And the gig she appears to be most excited about playing while is in the small Dutch town of De Rijp, about half an hour north of Amsterdam. She raves about the venue - an old church with a wooden, domed roof – and its fabulous acoustics. But it’s the spirit of the place she loves so much. “It’s like community run, people just wanna see music. Someone does the sound for free, someone does the programming for free. Everyone just wants that in their lives. It’s excellent. It’s the way to do it!”