Delivering country-tinged Americana music is a priority for songstress Elise Davis.
The Little Rock, Arkansas, native grew up believing she'd follow in the footsteps of the women around her — marrying at a young age and having children — but she's done quite the opposite.
For Davis — who plays with Black Lillies and Radio Birds on Dec. 1 at Visulite Theatre — her commitment is to music, not matrimony or offspring. At 28, she's released several independent albums but her most recent album, The Token, is her debut on the Thirty Tigers label.
The first song on the album is the namesake, "The Token," and it sets the tone of the record.
"I titled the record The Token and made it the first song because I feel like that song is sort of the mission statement for the whole record, which is basically whichever path you choose there's always going to be good and bad. That's just life," says Davis. "And all the songs to follow are little snippets of my experiences as I am trying to decipher what my life will look like in that way."
While she addresses the inherent pressures of a woman living in the South, she also speaks freely about sexuality and substance abuse. Tracks like "I Go To Bars And Get Drunk" and "Benefits" speak on alternative lifestyles and views. On "Benefits" specifically, she makes a bold statement about the rewards of having friends with benefits.
"Sexuality, in particular, you're often made to feel guilty about. In the South, as a woman I feel like if you're really open about your sexuality it's often tied in with being slutty. That's something that the older I get has made me realize how sex-negative America is," says Davis. "I wanted to speak on sexuality and substance abuse. It's definitely a little uncommon to sing that one in front of my granddad, but there wasn't anything that was going to stop me from putting that on there."
- Elise Davis (Photo credit Gregg Roth)
Other songs, like "Penny," take a sensual approach to sexual escapades without the intent of relationship development. Davis sings of freedom, as have other singer/songwriters — Lana Del Rey springing to mind. The no-strings-attached attitude is refreshing, lending to the song's sexy twang.
Davis describes her music as "not straight up country," fitting best in the Americana genre. Her songs — personal, honest and vulnerable at times — are a direct reflection of her life. "Hotel Room," one of the more vulnerable tracks on the album is about a bad relationship she was in. "Make the Kill" is another breakup song that was influenced after a move from Little Rock to Nashville, Tenn., where she's lived for the past five years.
It was in Nashville that Davis started work at a publishing company. She later entered a "Pub Deal Contest," presented by Martin Guitar and American Songwriter and won a year-long $20,000 publishing contract with HoriPro Entertainment Group.
After that, she pushed to release her debut album with a label. Her manager connected her to producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive, Erin McKeown, Langhorne Slim, and more), who arranged for the album's recording musicians — including guitarist Josh Kaufman (Bob Weir, Day of the Dead collaborator with Aaron and Brice Dessner of The National), bassist Bradley Cool (Indigo Girls, Shannon Van Etten), drummer Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver, Hiss Golden Messenger). They all met to record the album in a secluded winter cabin in Maine where they were shacked up for 11 days.
This was a long time coming for Davis, who recorded her first song — inspired by running away after her parents refused to let her attend a Bush concert — at just 12 years old. "It was a song about feeling alone in a big house," says Davis, who returned home from running away only to discover that her parents hadn't even noticed she was missing.
Much like those days, Davis still uses loneliness as a muse for her songs. The Token's "Not the End of the World" is a sad tour song, written after one of her solo outings. But at the end of the day, Davis is happy about where she's at, despite touring's effect on her relationship status.
"I've had trouble with [relationships] as you can probably tell. People will get jealous and it's easy to lose touch. It's definitely hard to maintain relationships doing what I do," says Davis.
While on the road, she often hears from friends who are eager to announce their engagements. The song "Diamond Days," was inspired by her being asked to be a bridesmaid.
"I was super hungover with my hair in a greasy ponytail in the backseat of a van driving back from a Houston show," says Davis. "I started to write that on a napkin in my lap." The result is a song about feeling alone, yet content, and alive on the road.
The chorus echoes: "I chose to take my time. She chose to take his name." She's ok with being a bridesmaid, though.