Long Distance: Mikaela Davis

Indie harpist and Penfield native makes her way in the Big Apple



Brittany Cool

Mikaela Davis has become a big fish in a little musical pond—and that’s OK.

Davis, twenty-two, has crafted her own brand of playful indie rock that’s caught the attention of fans far from home. The Penfield native was trained in harp from a young age and studied the instrument at Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. After graduation, Davis decided to focus her energies on building a career as a touring recording artist rather than try her luck as a classical performer. The decision is one she does not regret.

“I decided not to go to grad school because I wanted to pursue this and be really serious about writing music,” she says. “I think being a classical harpist is just as much a shot in the dark because there are so many amazing harpists and not a lot of jobs.”

Last summer she hit the road with bandmates Alex Cote (percussion) and Cian McCarthy (guitar/sitar/keys) and spent part of October 2014 touring the Midwest as a solo opener for folk artist Willie Watson. In December, Davis performed weekly at her favorite venue, Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan, as part of a residency there. The trio was picked up by Paradigm Talent Agency and, while currently unsigned to a label, they look forward to an eventful year of recording. Davis recently shared more about her inspiration—and daring to be different.

(585) magazine: There are so many great bands and musicians in Rochester. What makes you different, and why do you think your career has taken off in such a short time?

Mikaela Davis: I think doing something a little different helps—playing the harp as the front woman in a band. It’s not really classical, it’s like indie pop with a harp at the front of the band, and that’s why it’s so interesting. It’s not a gimmick, hopefully, since I studied harp and know the instrument. And just playing a lot.We’ve played a lot over the years and have not said no to an opportunity.

Not many concert goers have seen a harp in person before watching you play. What kind of reactions do you get?

I get a lot of “Oh, you’re like Joanna Newsom,” since she’s the only singer/ songwriter harpist that’s big in the folk world. I love her music, but I think ours is completely different.

Tell me about your decision to move to Brooklyn. How has that changed your career?

I wanted to move to New York City because there are so many things to do there and people to meet. It’s a great place to make connections, and it’s easier to play shows there. I do love Rochester, but you can only play the Bug Jar so many times.

What was it like to crowdsource your latest release, Fortune Teller? Did you ever feel like you wouldn’t be able to raise enough funds to make it happen?

It’s definitely awesome and very helpful to have a fan base of people who will donate so you can make more music. I don’t think I can do that again. I had to assume that it would be successful and just kind of go for it.There’s always that weird floundering period because you do it for fifteen or thirty days, and the first couple days some people will donate, and there’s this weird five-day period when people are waiting for the end to donate.That was sometimes a little scary.

Your band has done some great cover songs at live shows, including Norwegian Wood by the Beatles.What other covers do you have up your sleeve?

We tried covering a song by Broadcast, which is a really cool band from the nineties.There’s an amazing lead singer named Trish Keegan who passed away. We covered their song, “Long Once a Year.” I’ve also been wanting to cover a Tame Impala song for a while.

What’s on the agenda for 2015?

The one thing we have to do in the next year is record a full-length [album] and the goal is to have it put out on a label. We’ll see what happens from there and try to get that out there as much as possible. 

Bethany Bushen is a freelance writer from Rochester. Photo by Stephanie Kincheloe.

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