Mikaela Davis is the kind of songwriter who routinely defies expectations. The 25 year-old artist is a composer of striking maturity. Her arrangements deftly combine elements of psychedelic rock, folk and chamber pop, and her vocals display a wisdom and a ruefulness that belie her years. Davis’ instrument of choice is the harp, which she has played since she was eight years old, right about the time she could actually get her hands around the instrument. A native of Rochester, New York, she spent her formative years in youth orchestras rather than in garage bands and later earned a degree from the Crane School of Music.
Though Davis is clearly well-versed in the classical canon and is accustomed to performing in a recital setting, her approach to the harp is an unorthodox one. She often employs her instrument as a pulse, a rhythm or as texture as muscular as a guitar’s. Her sound is seamlessly integrated into a rock-band context, or, on a track like “Interlude in the Sky” from her 2014 EP Fortune Teller, as part of a beautiful and dynamic orchestral arrangement. On “Feels Like Forever,” from the same EP, the harp functions like a loop in a dreamy groove, layered with vocal harmonies and synths. Even in high school, Davis was thinking outside the box in regards to her instrument: Despite her rigorous schedule, she often managed to do a little weekend outdoor busking at a local market with a ukulele-playing friend.
Rochester-based Brian Moore, producer of Fortune Teller and Mikaela’s 2012 self-titled debut album, recently told The Boston Globe what it was like to experience her music for the first time: “She had the personality, and she’s obviously talented at harp and songwriting. I think the unique thing about Mikaela is she could stand alone with her songwriting and her vocals, but combined with what she can do technically on the harp — hearing that was just a shock to me.”
The young Davis — who has garnered opening slots with such artists as Punch Brothers, The Staves, Rayland Baxter and My Brightest Diamond, among other artists — is now writing her second full-length recording with her long time band mates Alex Cote and Shane McCarthy. (“They’ve also helped me develop my sound a lot,” Davis notes. “I would be a very different performer without them.”) She recently wrote and performed a piece for the new Joywave album and, in turn the Rochester-based indie rockers remixed a track from Fortune Teller for her. Nickel Creek singer-violinist Sara Watkins also asked Davis to contribute harp to her new disc. Davis’s own forthcoming album, promises a sound even more intriguing than what she’s created already: “It’s a big step for my songwriting.” she declares. The new material, she promises, will be her most ambitious work to date.
“I think a harp can do anything,” Davis declares. And so, as her recordings and live shows already indicate, can Davis.