As badly as we want our trajectory to be linear and to make logical sense, sometimes life has other plans for us. We have to listen to that little voice within, whispering: rebel against the status quo. This has been the experience of singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Kate Davis, where she hits the brakes on the life she thought she knew, grabbed the creative reins and rebuilt her artistic foundation. As she triumphantly walks away from her previous life as a conservatory-trained jazz musician and into her future as an experimental art-rock singer, Davis has found a new home within herself. This coming-of-age story is at the heart of Davis’ sophomore album, ‘Fish Bowl,’ coming soon via her new label home of ANTI- Records.
That urge to rebuild started small. Growing up in Portland where she began playing violin at age five and bass at age thirteen, Davis later moved to New York City to attend the Manhattan School Of Music. At night, Davis would sneak down to Brooklyn, where she watched indie-rock innovators Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors and secretly dreamed of breaking away from the academic rigor of the jazz world she inhabited. In 2014 she was asked by the group Postmodern Jukebox to record a cover of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” which accidentally went viral on YouTube. As a lifelong musician, Davis felt constrained by the limitations of one viral moment. But with time, Davis found a way to take control of her musical destiny and define her own path, which is illustrated with vivid clarity on the highly conceptual ‘Fish Bowl,’ coming three years after her debut album, ‘Trophy.’ “She has this background of tremendous musical chops and that is poured into this record, but at the same time she is able to speak to her experiences,” said Stephen Thompson of ‘Trophy’ on NPR’s All Songs Considered. “As I listen more, the technical elements of her approach, her skills, her timing, her intelligence around arrangement … all of who she is is in this record, she’s just telling us about it in a different way,” Ann Powers added.
2019’s ‘Trophy’ felt like releasing diary entries - cathartic indie rock songs written in off hours away from Davis’s known world of jazz success. Like many artists, her budding rock career and touring plans were cut short by the pandemic, so after the album’s release she turned to music and introspection. Moved by the topical themes of isolation in Daniel Johnston's recordings, she spent months lovingly reconstructing his ‘Retired Boxer’ into a cover album entitled ‘Strange Boy,’ which she released in January of 2021. After reaching out to Johnston's management for their blessing, Davis's earnest enthusiasm and respectful covers turned the relationship into a partnership with proceeds from the album going to Johnston’s Hi How Are You Project, a non-profit that educates people on the importance of mental health.
“Recording a cover of ‘Retired Boxer’ was an incredible way to live and learn through Daniel’s work,” Davis explained. “I contacted the Hi, How Are You Project because I couldn’t imagine releasing the record without their consent. Enthusiasm and support from HHAY allowed me to share Daniel’s music through the lens of mental health awareness.”
In the time since ‘Trophy’ and ‘Retired Boxer,’ Davis hunkered down and expanded her sonic universe, recalling artists that thrive in the amorphous alt-folk-rock space, such as game changers Laura Veirs and Tori Amos. ‘Fish Bowl’ goes hard at times with charging guitar and percussion but pulls back in equal measure, while Davis’ sharp, harmonizing vocals lead the charge over a range of tempos and moods, which shift from ethereal and smooth to biting.
Across ‘Fish Bowl’’s 12 deeply personal tracks, Davis traces her very own hero’s journey, from the moment she steps away from her old life to the moment she finds inner peace. She follows these steps through the eyes of Fish Bowl’s central character, FiBo, who starts out on opening track “Monster Mash” realizing the community she cultivated has turned on her and starts to seek real change. “ “Monster Mash” was one of the first songs that was written for the record,” Davis expands. “This is the moment where the character is abandoned by everything that she knew. And there's this feeling of isolation in living your life up to a point where you're like, ‘This is what I've chosen.’ But when you transition into a different phase of life, it’s easy to feel like a monster, to feel like you're harmful to people, or that people are fearful of you.”[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]“The ‘FiBo’ character was a shorthand for ‘Fish Bowl,’” Davis continued. “It's kind of a way to mask myself when I’m having my own experience moving through this journey. These songs started out being personal, vulnerable. It was an easier way to create a narrative and give it more of a shape without having to actually see myself. It's a form of self preservation. At the same time, it's kind of fun to look at FiBo and be like, ‘Here is a spirit that only I understand, because I made her.’”
Leading the entire creative process, Davis wove multiple genres — art-rock, pop, and folk — into an intricate, unique tapestry of sound. She also drew influence from a vast catalog of visuals and literary references while writing ‘Fish Bowl,’ thinking about the films of Wim Wenders and the liminal space that exists between outer space and far beneath the sea.
On the ruminative, diaristic “Consequences,” Davis — through the lens of FiBo — considers the results of a lifetime of choices and lets them wash over her. “I experienced a major low point in 2020, tangled up in a chaotic love affair where I really met myself ,” Davis says. “It’s about a very peculiar kind of heartbreak and betrayal where you’re at the mercy of your “other”.
Finally, the spare, slow-building “Call Home” is what Davis calls her “big pandemic feelings song.” Processing isolation from the confines of a bedroom in her mother’s house, Davis describes the “kind of disorientation of things not ending up the way that you thought they would.”
She adds: “That song felt to me like writing my own little sci-fi tale — an apocalyptic romance of these unknown characters. It was a dialogue between me — or FiBo — and another figure who represents an escape from purgatory.”
As she steps into an exciting new stage of her music career, Davis is taking the very meticulousness she developed from her years in the jazz world and applying them to ‘Fish Bowl.’ Like genre pillar John Coltrane, Davis is transitioning to a more musically spiritual place — a place where rules don’t matter, experimentalism is encouraged, and change is part of one’s natural progression as an artist. As Davis continues to push forward with clear-eyed determination, the indie-rock world is about to gain a new sonic voyager.