The desire to tell a story: An interview with Andy Davis for Providence House

Andy Davis is a singer and songwriter who has been sharing his tunes and talent with the world for over 10 years now. Though he could be considered a veteran, he’s still pursuing new ways to create music that engages a listener to the tale being told. He was in Austin about to play a show at our cosy venue known as Providence House, and I enjoyed chatting with him earlier in the evening.

Hi there Andy. I must ask, have you played much in Austin before?

­ Yeah, I’ve toured a decent amount through Austin. Played a bunch of great standard places like Stubbs, Antone’s, Lazona Rosa which is now closed.

When did you first start playing music as ‘Andy Davis’ the solo artist?

I went to a college called Belmont, just out of Nashville. A lot of music people go there and I’d been writing a bunch of songs, practicing writing I guess, not really playing out too much. And then a couple of guys that had started doing shows a couple of years ahead of me were Dave Barnes and Matt Wertz, local singer songwriters out of Nashville that started building a little following. They heard my songs and invited me to go open for them and they were doing some recordings; but I didn’t have anything to sell myself with, a CD or anything like that. But because that there was going to be a lot of people at that tour I felt like I should have something for people to buy and might make some money. So, I recorded and put this compilation type CD together and burned all of them on my computer. I think I burned about 60 CD’s and hand wrote the titles on the back of the case, as well as initialed the number for each one. I went to that first show with Dave Barnes, and ended up selling every single one of them. I thought ‘Whoa, I just made money, maybe I can quit valet parking?’ They continued to invite me on the road with them and so that was a boost for me to pursue things as a solo artist. I thought about maybe having a band, but I was getting these great opportunities as a solo artist, and I said yes and went with the wave. Turned out to be a good way for ushering me into making a living with music. That would’ve been like 2004-2005. It’s been a long time.

Your most recent work, ‘Easy Takedowns’, has quite a moody, electronic feel to it. Is it essentially your traditional blues and soul but with a new instrumental aesthetic?

I was trying to play around with some new aesthetics, electronic sounds, seeing if I could figure out a way to blend in some of these with a singer song-writer vibe. I’m a fan of people like James Blake, Chet Faker, artists who I think have a bluesiness about them, even if it is an electronic version. But I think ‘Easy Takedowns’ was a bit of an experiment. I think the next project is going to be back towards the organic direction. I thought for a second that there seemed to be this rush of white dudes with high voices trying to sing an electronic, dark R&B or alternative soul. I thought maybe I could jump in on this and be a part of this vibe; and be in the conversation with those who do that. I’m proud of the songs I did but I think I’m more of a story teller than a lot of those guys are. They’re more about an aesthetic and creating a cool vibe, and I think I still have this burden to tell stories with my songs. It can be hard to keep people’s attention in telling the story when you might be putting music to it in which listeners might forget everything, and stop listening to the lyrics. Making that kind of music encourages people to get lost but not really hear the words. But storytelling in music is more about paying attention to the words, so I think I was trying to experiment to see if I could have a little bit of both.

That’s what is quite cool when making an EP, where you can record something and try some different things. Whereas an album is a much bigger statement.

It’s a good way to let people know you’re still alive and you’re still making music.

When I was doing my research on you, which of course includes reading your Facebook profile, amongst your references to blues, R&B, and country influences; Stephen Spielberg is also listed. How does a film director influence your music?

I think it comes back to the story teller. He’s one of the best storytellers of our time. I moved to LA a couple of years ago, partly because I wanted to start getting work out there, but also because I’m feeling drawn towards the medium of film making. As a writer I’m thinking of getting into screen writing, writing for film and TV. Part of it is that itch to be a storyteller, but if a person came to you now and asked ‘How do I make a living in music?’, I would tell them to get good at making background music for TV and film because that’s what will pay your bills. But what can be frustrating or a little confusing is that’s not always the best way to write good music. I’ve been in these situations where I’m really proud of a song that I’ve written, which have these stories and are lyrically interesting on purpose; end up getting rejected from use in commercial and marketing placings. Advertisers can’t use your interesting song for their Mercedes campaign unless it’s exactly about what you’re talking about. The stuff that works best for advertising is more vibes, styles, lifestyles. So, I think that as a writer and as a storyteller I’m becoming drawn to the film making world, where I can actually express myself instead of hold myself back; in the storytelling sense. Whereas with music if I’m not allowed to tell stories in my music then I’m going to tell them somewhere else. I think singer-songwriters and storytellers will be always be around, but it hasn’t really been in fashion as much recently. I’m more interested when it comes to fashion in something timeless, Chuck Taylor’s, things that don’t go out of style. And Back to the Future would be my favorite movie.

In regards to music for television and film, I see you were involved with writing songs for ‘Grey’s Anatomy’…

My favorite thing if I’m writing for a TV show is when I’m given a script and asked to write a custom song for them. Because then I can design it for that scene. It’s a fun challenge, and it’s less about that fight of whether somebody is trying to change a song when you can see exactly what is needed and what they’re looking for.

Do you have any new songs and recordings in the works?

I’m not going to start recording tracks for a new album until I get back [after the tour]. I have a lot of songs I’ve written over the past few years to put in the popper so to speak. But in a few weeks I’m going to launch a new Kickstarter campaign that’s a ‘52 song campaign.’ Basically, I write a song a week for a year and people that will subscribe to it will get all the songs. Sometimes it will be rough demos and things, but it’s more for people who want to encourage me to write and want to be a part of it. I think creative people need deadlines, and they need people to be disappointed in them if they don’t do their job! It’s often sad but true. For me, a part of it is giving myself an audience to work with so I have to finish, and have to do hard work every week. I did a Kickstarter back in 2011 for my record ‘Heartbreak Yellow’, and it went really well. I raised about $41,000 or something in 30 days. I think that the Kickstarter message is kind of old and worn on a lot of people. Everyone will say in their Kickstarter video; ‘I’m setting my goal for this much, if I don’t make it then when we’re not going to be able to make the record.’ But people are a little bit over that message so I wanted to switch it up to where it’s ‘Be a part of this if you want to, I’m going to write a song a week for a year for the joy of making it and the hard work of doing it.’ And I’m setting my goal at $52. Hopefully it raises a lot of money. Also, going back to the film making conversation; I decided to go overly ambitious this time on my Kickstarter video and made a short film for it. It’s like the opening of a movie about song fairies who find me and tell me they’re under a curse, and they need me to write a song for each of them to set them free. I think it’s going to be a ‘save the song fairies’ campaign. You’ve got to refresh, re-use things; and create something new.

Any future plans with Nashville songwriter collective Ten out of Tenn?

Yeah, I think it’ll always be a family unit. They’re doing a collaboration with the Nashville ballet right now, which I wasn’t able to be a part of as I was traveling a lot; so there will be things I’ll miss out on. But for shows I’ll probably fly back for it. I still fly back to Nashville to stay plugged in there.

For the Providence House show tonight, how often have you played a show in someone’s backyard? A nicely decorated backyard I should say.

I’ve done a few, but this is a great situation, where people have made an effort for things look to really really cool. It goes a long way, especially when things are a lot more visual today than when I first started 10 years ago. People sometimes can’t understand if they like a show or not unless it looks cool. They have to see it in order to understand it.

Yeah, it’s a backyard show, but it actually feels like a ‘show’. You’re not simply sitting on the grass with an acoustic and us in a circle…

It has a magical feel about it.

How did Providence House get you involved in tonight’s show?

I just put up a Facebook post asking if anyone wants to do some house shows in April or May. And Dietrich [who lives in the house and organizes the shows] reached out to me. A lot of people here in Texas reach out. I’m basically playing about 25 shows in about 30 days, so there’s not a lot of time off. That’s why I’m trying to eat healthy. [He did have a rather nice salad in-front of him] I have no time for recovery days.

I heard you playing the Crowded House song ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ during your soundcheck. Do you think of Crowded House as an Australian band or a New Zealand band? It’s one of many mini-controversies we have with each other.

Oh really? They’re a New Zealand band?

Hmmm… it’s a tricky one. Neil Finn is from NZ, but started Crowded House with two Australians after his NZ band split up. And he did live in Australia while he was doing it….

Well, when I became a fan of Crowded House; that’s how I discovered the producer Mitchell Froom [who had produced some of their albums]. Then I started following his work and I was working with a manager who knew Mitchell. My manager brought Mitchell along to one of my shows and he said: “let’s do a record together.” I did my ‘Let the Woman’ album with him, and then I did a Kickstarter campaign, and went back with him to do ‘Heartbreak Yellow’.  It was one of those situations where I was always asking him Crowed House geek stories; “What about this song they did? What did you do with this one?” But he’s worked with a lot of Australian artists. Missy Higgins is one I remember. I always thought maybe I should just go to Australia and record over there.

And NZ’s only 3 hours away on a plane…

My friend Matt Sherrod, who plays drums for Crowded House now, I met him in Nashville when he used to play for Beck. I’ve become really good buddies with him, and I remember his wife is from New Zealand.

Is there a strong song writer community where you’re staying in LA?

Most of the songwriter community gathers around the Hotel Café, a venue in Hollywood. It’s a really active venue. And it’s actually starting to have a resurgence. Back in the day, 10 years ago or whenever the Ten out of Tenn was happening in Nashville; the Hotel Café scene was happening in LA. Which is a lot of artist such as Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Carey Brothers, Greg Laswell; there’s this whole other scene happening in LA at Hotel Café. There was a bit of a dry period, but now it’s starting again. It’s a big community. The cost of living is so much higher that people have to really hustle and work hard to make it. But I like it.

My final question that I always give to my interviewees; when you hear the term Kiwi what first comes to mind?

I just want to go visit to be honest. If I don’t think of the fruit then I just think of spending about a month in Australia and New Zealand. There’s so much I want to see.

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