Davina and the Vagabonds are getting ready to release their eagerly anticipated new studio album Sugar Drops.
The five-piece outfit fronted by the delightful Davina Sowers hail from Twin Cities, Minnesota. The group’s debut studio record Black Cloud, received critical acclaim as well as being named by the Minneapolis Star and Tribune as one of the ten best releases of the year. Subsequently, their follow-up record Sunshine led to an appearance on the prestigious BBC Later With Jools Holland television programme.
Davina and the Vagabonds have firmly established themselves as a live hit on the international touring circuit. The genre-defying outfit is currently in Edinburgh for an exclusive run of shows in the city.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Davina Sowers whilst in Edinburgh to get the lowdown on the group’s new album Sugar Drops, their love of Edinburgh, to discuss the influence of the New Orleans greats on their music along with the artist’s frequent comparisons to Amy Winehouse.
You’re over here in the UK at the moment. You are currently performing at the Edinburgh Festival where you’ve got a run of shows taking place. I was just wondering how have the show’s been going so far?
They have been great. This is my fifth year at the festival. So it’s kind of like coming home when you spend that much time in a place. And we never just spend like one day a year, you know, we’re here this time we’re doing seven shows. I think the smallest amount of time we’ve been here is three days for a festival, which is still quite the unicorn of touring. Being in one place for more than one day, you’re very excited, because you can settle for a second. So to come back here, it’s amazing. And the city is pretty magical, it’s pretty cool. And I don’t know I just feel at home, you know, I’m not a big fan of sunshine and that’s great cause it doesn’t happen here very often (laughing).
You can say that again. I read a recent post that you made on social media and it just said, ‘Can I stay here forever Edinburgh? So obviously the city and Scotland, it’s got a special place in your heart. What is it about Edinburgh in particular that makes you want to take root there?
I mean it’s the vibe like I hate to sound woo woo, but like in general, just the history and the vibe and the community’s pretty amazing. I’ve made some great friends and fans here. It seems like with these shows that I feel more connected to the audience in a lot of ways than I do normally. And it happens in other places too, here and there, but it seems to happen more often here, which you know, is a gift. That’s why I do what I do, to have people relate with me and I relate with them. You know, that’s the reason I think, and that just seems to happen here a lot.
You’ve got a new album coming out, which is titled Sugar Drops. The album is going to be released on the 2nd August. Could you tell us what your starting point for this album was? Did you have a particular sound or theme in mind for the release? How did it come to fruition?
You know, I just sit down and write and I think. I don’t know if my life has a theme album to album, but I think the album just kind of – every album I’ve done kind of encapsulates that time in my life, you know. So, I mean it was a long time that it took for me to write this album. Half of it I had written and actually recorded like three or four times – and it just didn’t work out. And personnel change changes happen – life just was turbulent for me for the first couple of years trying to finish this album.
And then so to me, listening to it, it’s like listening to two different parts of my life with this specific album. I mean there’s no concept for me in this album. I think because I’d gone through things/life, I think that I couldn’t think outside of that for a concept other than what I was going through. Does that make sense? You know, like my life was enough, do you know what I mean? I didn’t need to think outside of that at all.
But you know, it’s just really interesting for me to hear them. I’m not going to tell you which songs, like maybe you guys can or whoever listens to it can kind of hear that. I don’t know, but that’s the gift of writing. People can take it however they want, or not at all.
So your recent single was, I Can’t Believe I Let You Go, and it was recently voted as one of the Top 10 Best Country and Americana Songs to hear right now by Rolling Stone. How does that make you feel?
It’s never happened to me at that level before. I was kind of surprised, to be honest with you. I was nervous because you’ve heard us, so you’ve heard how we’re all over the map and how I write all over the map. So people pigeonhole us a little bit and go, well they’re New Orleans jazz, which sure, sometimes, yeah. Even though I’m not from New Orleans, but I love traditional music. And then you hear people say, well, she’s blues. Okay, sure. And I write poppy music.
I don’t know how deep you are with us, but there’s some music, I write pretty poppy and I have since the beginning, you know – it’s not a new thing, but it was the first time one of those songs was pushed. I’ve never had a release that was just straight pop, so I was kind of nervous about it, just people hearing it. That article was released before the single was released. So I was just really nervous about it and I was scared that people would not like it. My fans who think we’re just one thing or that’s what they enjoy or think that’s what we are. I was worried and I was nervous, you know? But I’m also really excited because something like that’s never happened at that type of level for me before, whatever that means. Do you know what I mean? So, but it was exciting.
Like you just mentioned your music traverses different genres including some jazz and blues with some pop stuff in there. Do you prefer not to be able to put inside of a box musically?
I really don’t care, I just don’t know what that box is like. If there is a box, I want it to make sense and I don’t think there’s a word for that box. I don’t know. Do you have a word for that? I don’t mind that people do it. I always make jokes and say, call me whatever you want, just call me. That’s kind of my thing when that happens. I’m just happy you’re listening to it enough to want to say something about it, you know? But I also want it to make sense because it is me. So there’s also that struggle, like, what do I call it?
I get that. I think to be honest, in this day and age so much music pushes boundaries and blurs the lines between different genres that there are lots of artists that are knocking down those barriers. And I think there are so many artists these days which I would just class has been genre-defying and I would kind of put you somewhere in there as well.
Well, I mean it is the basis of like fundamental American roots. I mean there’s R&B, blues, jazz. It’s not like we are reinventing the wheel by any means and I’m not trying to even claim that. Like I’m cool and I’m doing something different. Like, because I’m not, I’m just doing what I want to do, you know? And so it’s hard because I want people to love us and not be deterred because they hear jazz and they think, ooh – even though I don’t know why they would do that, but do you know what I mean? I’m just using that as an example. But yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re 100% right. I just want people to like it and to listen to me. And so, but I can dig it, you know, that’s what I want.
So you’ve also just recently shared a new track, which is Little Miss Moonshine, which I believe is going to be the next single from the record. I was just wondering, could you tell us a little bit about that song and the inspiration behind it?
Yeah, I can. It’s tough because I got in a little bit of trouble locally because I wrote the song, but it started with just me being frustrated. And it started with a little, I call it a ‘haterade’. Like I was feeling like I was pissed that a fellow performer in my town was singing my songs and doing songs that are close to my heart. And she’s young and it’s not her fault, you know?
But it started off with me saying like, please find your own. I mean, it just started off that I was angry. I felt like I was being artistically violated. Do you know what I mean? Like I felt really angry that I felt like someone was taking me and mimicking it and it frustrated me. And then through the writing, the hook is awful. The Hook is, ‘I don’t need an echo’ and it’s biting, but it’s such a good hook that I couldn’t get rid of it.
But, through the process of me writing the song over a couple of weeks, I started lightening up on her and then I started kind of using it as like an under my wing. Like, this is what I think is happening and it’s OK and I get it. I was just like you when I was younger and that’s what music is kind of about. But that’s what the song is about.
I got a couple of comments that felt as though like, I wasn’t supporting another woman and it had nothing to do with the gender at all. It had nothing to do with the gender, you know, it was purely me just writing a song and expressing myself. And like, I thought it was a good song, so I finished it, you know? There you go.
Going back to New Orleans. Whenever I’ve seen you play, I think it’s particularly when you play songs like Bourbon Street Parade that song kind of always gives me that whole Preservation Hall Jazz Band kind of vibe. And I know that we recently lost Dr John and he’s a New Orleans great.
And Fats Domino was not too far in front of him as well, which was sad too.
So I just wondered, how much of influence would you say those guys were on your music.
Huge. Yeah, huge. I mean piano and arranging and instrumentation wise – huge. I mean massive, you know. I have like love for that kind of pre-war like twenties to thirties kind of jazz, traditional jazz love. And then the instrumentation, you know, the trombone and trumpet and not having a reed was thought of early in the band. My husband kind of introduced that to the band because he’s my trumpet player. And he also did the horn arrangements and the string arrangements too for Sugar Drops on the new album.
But anyway, massive, you know. Dr John and Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, those three piano players right there taught me groove and swing, and rock and roll even. You know, that New Orleans sound, I mean there’s nothing else like it. Nothing. So that was huge to me. They are a massive, massive inspiration to me.
Sweet Emma – she was an old piano player for Preservation Hall. And it’s incorporated in so much of my stuff, like even so much of it, not just like the obvious stuff, you know, like Bourbon Street – which I didn’t write, but you know, the whole New Orleans stuff. Red Shoes – there are so many songs. So, they’re national treasures of the United States. To me, those are the treasures that we have right now, and what we’ll have always as treasures.
I read a post on Facebook today which said that you never have owned or listened to an Amy Winehouse album in your life. Yet, I know pretty much you get compared to Amy all the time. Even the press release I got sent about this album had a comparison to Amy Winehouse. How does that feel for you? Do you sort of resent the comparison?
I don’t, I don’t at all, I just never have owned an album of hers or listened to her. You know, I’ve heard her music everywhere, when she was really in her prime, it was like the grocery store, Starbucks bathroom, you know, it was just everywhere – Pizza Express. I mean, just everywhere all you heard was her and Adele. And to me it’s just, I’m 40 years old. Like, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I just needed people to know she hasn’t been an influence of mine.
You know it’s crazy because the record company is the one who wrote the press release. Of course, I agreed to it. But, you know, I feel people are creatures of habit and they just need to be able to have that comparison. I don’t know if it’s because it’s too much of a risk just to listen to a person as who they are. I don’t know. Maybe that’s it, you know? So that’s just the only reason. Because like, I got this three times today, you know. And I get people who ask me every night, do you do an Amy Winehouse song? And I don’t – I don’t know any of them. I don’t know like I can sing her hooks here and there, you know, but I just don’t, so I just think it’s ironic.
I don’t resent it at all, you know, whatsoever. I think she was talented from what I heard. I believe she wrote all of her songs or a lot of them. And I think her songwriting is amazing. I think she listened to the same stuff I have growing up. I think maybe we’re both influenced by the same stuff. She had more of like a reggae influence, and 50s influenced, you know, I’m a little earlier than that, but I mean, I can see why it’s done. I don’t think it’s like these people are appalling or anything. I just think it’s very ironic
I think you hit the nail on the head there because I think that it’s because you do share some of the same influences that it’s kind of almost, you hear those influences coming through and then you kind of make that comparison. So I think you probably hit the nail on the head there.
Yeah, and we could go deeper than that too. You know, I’m a recovering addict, I’ve been clean for almost two decades. But you know, like I suffer from a lot of the demons that she suffered from. I didn’t know her, but it’s kind of obvious, you know? And I think that’s hand in hand with a lot of people who can sing and bend notes. I think once again, I don’t want to sound, woo woo, but I think it comes from a deeper thing and I see that every day in musicians I play with. You can peg out who’s got it and who doesn’t, you know. And so I think that’s also it.
I’ve seen you live several times over the years and whenever I’ve seen you, you know, you do sink your heart and soul into your performance. It’s not like when you see other bands and they’re just phoning it in. But when you play, you can see that you are channelling raw emotion into your delivery. I’ve even seen songs move you to the point of tears on stage. I just wanted to know, is there any song that you find this too hard or too deeply personal or emotional to perform live.
Yeah, there’s tons I’ve written that I will never sing again I would say. I mean I can say four off the top of my head that I’ve written that are not only because of emotion but also just because it’s been about somebody that I would prefer not to think of. You know, things like that for sure. Yeah, absolutely.
I could tell that from the last time I saw you, there was a song which I think was relatively new.
Yeah, it’s actually on the album. I don’t know if that’s the one, but there’s one recently that I wrote called Deep End. I’m okay with sharing that. I can’t share it if I’m not feeling it. I mean it’s important to me that I do that one. I mean I have to be in a place where I want to share it. Like I’m not gonna do it when I’m feeling super happy. But, I’m a huge advocate for people talking about mental health and that’s a huge one for me. So, yeah and there are times I refuse to do it. Like I said if I’m feeling good and I’d have to fake it, like that’s gross, you know. So I can’t have that capability. But, yeah, it’s on the new album, it’s the last track. Well, the CD is a deluxe edition, there are five more songs after it, but it’s the last track of the real album.
Because it comes out positive, it’s about gratitude. It’s about the process that you go through when you suffer from depression. It’s about, there’s just so many things, you know, it’s a flipping sad song. But I think it’s imperative for me to sing it, to remember how important things are in my life that I should be grateful for.
I’ve noticed in your live shows, you quite often throw in some covers. And for example, like Fats Waller’s, Louisiana Fairy Tale and Louis Jordan’s Knock Me A Kiss. Is there any song that you would like to cover that you haven’t managed to work into your set just yet?
Yeah, there’s one – it’s called a Bye Bye Baby by Janis. We’ve never really covered a Janis tune. She’s the other one. I get Amy Winehouse and Janis all the time. And Janis is a huge influence of mine. I mean, I was 13/14, you know, but anyway, there’s Bye Bye Baby – I would love to do that, I think it’d be perfect with this band, especially if we arrange it, it’d be so good.
And then there’s Everyday by Buddy Holly – I think that would be super hip. There is a guy named Frank Black. Did you ever hear him? There’s a couple of songs I would love to cover, just like a bass player and a piano. Anyway, there are tonnes, you know.
Watching the band on stage, you always seem to be having a lot of fun together and there’s great chemistry with you guys. And your husband’s in the band, so there’s got to be good chemistry. Which song do you enjoy performing the most live in your shows, would you say?
You know, I love performing personally the ones that the guys do. You know, like St James Infirmary and Bourbon Street Parade and Connor does Louisiana Fairy Tale. I enjoy that not because I’m being lazy, and it gives me a break, but it gives me a chance to connect with the band on a different level, you know? So yeah, let’s say St James Infirmary or any other ones of the guys do.
We’re sort of halfway through this year. I just wondered have you got the next 12 months mapped out? What’s on the cards for the band?
Oh, there’s so much. I mean we’re doing Europe for three weeks. We’re doing a North East tour. I’m going to be doing another show completely different from my show, but it will be my band and another band called the Hot Club of Cow Town – a brilliant western swing band. And we’re teaming up to do a special show about World War II and the ending of World War II, which happened 75 years ago next year. So next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two. So Hot Club of Cow Town and the Vagabonds and I are doing a tour. Like all these amazing songs from like 1945. There’s nothing in the UK or Europe – hint hint – if anybody wants to hire us. Right now I think we already have like 15 shows already on the books for the U.S.
Sugar Drops by Davina and the Vagabonds will be released via Red House Records on the 2nd August. For details of the band’s current touring schedule please visit the social links listed below.
Words & Photo: Adam Kennedy