Blues and Jazz musician Josi Davis took the long and winding road to a life of music
By Mary Jane Fine
Josi Davis can’t think of a time – not now, not ever – when music wasn’t part of her life. Singing? Well, that’s just doing what came naturally.
“I always sang things,” she says and launches into a demonstration that, at another time, in another place, could’ve been about brushing her teeth or shopping for groceries. Right now, it’s this: “Here’s my mo-o-ocha, here’s my mo-o-ocha….”
Which is precisely what’s here on this recent morning at Bartleby’s Coffee Café in Mystic. She’s sitting at an undersized table, hefting an oversized yellow coffee cup over-filled with “Mocha Especial,” the whipped-cream topping crisscrossed by a lattice of chocolate.
This is not one of her regular venues.
As a singer of blues and jazz, a composer of both, Davis has acquired a top-notch reputation and an enthusiastic fan base. She performs a lot.
“Her love-soaked and blues-infused repertoire incorporates rock, funk, and R&B elements, powerful originals and saucy interpretations of contemporary and traditional favorites that keep her listeners hooked,” raves Sonicbids, an online platform that connects bands and music promoters.
“Josi Davis is sublime,” guitarist Les Haley concludes, on that same site.
Arriving at this level has not been a tra-la-la through the park.
While music has always been her passion, it hasn’t always been her profession. There have been times – School of Hard Knocks times, she calls them – when Davis made her living working in far less glam fields. In a seafood bar, for example, and a B-B-Q place, a T-shirt shop and selling roses on a street corner. And, back in 2004, she worked at Foxwoods Casino in the fire-and-life safety department as an editorial assistant, her first “real job,” in Connecticut, she says.
It was there that she won an employee talent show, which rewarded her with a gig as the opener for a Bill Cosby appearance. A push toward her eventual career, but just a gentle push. There were many steps along the way, leading to the most recent one.
“It’s only in the last year that I took the leap,” she says. “I always had a day job.”
That would be the leap into full-time singing, songwriting and teaching both singing and songwriting.
“Everything I’m doing now is related to music and my career,” she says. “A choice, rather than I-need-to-make-the-dough. It’s the difference between working for someone and with someone.”
The leap was a scary one, she says, though teaching has been a steadying component, providing about half her income. It came about with a little help from her friends.
“I first met Josi through a mutual friend who was helping her assemble a band for a New Years Eve gig at Foxwoods in 2005,” says guitarist Chris Leigh. “It was immediately clear upon meeting her how serious she was about her work, and that she was also a truly gifted singer and songwriter. We got to know one another through the process of preparing for that gig, and when Amy, my wife and business partner, and I decided to open String Theory School of Music in Niantic in 2006, Josi was the first person I recruited to teach. She really rose to the challenge and has become a skilled teacher who is loved by her students for the effort and sensitivity she brings to their learning experience.”
So, now, here she is, on a Sunday afternoon, at String Theory School of Music where a profusion of students – hers and other instructors’ – are stepping up to the mike to strut their musical stuff. An 8-year-old drummer named Ryan Novick, who has the flair of a pro, plays back-up to one of Josi’s own numbers.
Not everyone demonstrates young Ryan’s level of talent, but this monthly “Coffeehouse” is partly a teaching tool aimed at helping students gain confidence and stage presence. The sessions are recorded and played back during lessons, for teacher- and self-analysis. They’re also, with a student’s OK, put on YouTube because, as Davis says, “It’s something you can share with the world; that’s what music is for.”
And for as long as Davis can remember, music has been a constant in her life. As a child, back in Washington, D.C. (her dad was a military man, stationed for 17 years at Bolling Air Force Base) and then Odenton, Maryland, she sang four-part harmony with her parents and her older sister Chariti. At church, she belonged to the choir. In high school, she involved herself in theater. Music was even the matchmaker for her parents, who met in the University of Florida’s marching band. Her dad played bassoon; her mother, flute.
Her first-ever composition? She was eight, and called the tune “Little Wagon on the Prairie.” She copied it down in pencil in a little blue notebook. Made sure each note was carefully rounded. Wrote it in one sitting.
But the long and winding road to a musical career really began during her college years with a possibility that seemed too good to ignore.
“I’m definitely a believer in that,” she says. “When an opportunity presents itself, you pursue it.”
One was back in her second year at West Virginia Wesleyan: There was this group of musicians, and they invited her to join their band as keyboardist/vocalist and head out to Seattle with them. So, she went home to see what her parents thought and at their suggestion, jotted down the pros and cons.
“And, of course,” she says, laughing at herself, “the cons way outweighed the pros.”
But off she went anyway. A 10-day, cross-country road trip — all for naught, as it turned out.
“There was a band when we left for Seattle,” she says, “but by the time we got there, it didn’t exist. I learned about existing though, and I learned some things about people. I was very angry when I came back. I felt I’d been discarded by these people.
“This is gonna be a great movie one day. Yeah, I’ve gotta write that someday.”
It was out on the West Coast that she worked the string of selling-roses-on-the-corner and other nowhere jobs. Just a life lesson, she says now. And maybe one reason she loves the blues: “The trials and tribulations. It’s heartfelt. There’s a power in that. It’s spiritual. You’re being lifted out of yourself.”
That goes for jazz, too: “I love jazz,” she says, a rhapsodic smile on her face. “I love the improvisational aspect. You never know what’s coming. And I live that way, too. I never know what’s coming. I think I was built for jazz.”
That kind of lifestyle covers much territory. A glimpse: She studied voice and music and theater in Maryland and West Virginia and Connecticut; got into her first band, Secret Service, in 1996; did a stint in 2008 as Mark Fusco Scholar at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Cabaret & Performance Conference; joined a few musical ensembles; won a couple of awards; and met some other talented musicians along the way. One of them was drummer John Van Ness, who can be heard on Davis’ first solo CD album, “Evolution of Love.”
“This is no easy task trying to convey what it’s like to work with Josi Davis,” Van Ness says. “I’ll start by saying it’s challenging, but a lot of fun. I have been blessed to make music with her now for two and-a-half years. Local musicians were always quick to speak of her talents as a vocalist and songwriter. She had heard about me from the same circle of folks being a solid drummer and a capable singer. But somehow our live-show schedules never seemed to work for one of us to get to the other’s gig. It got to be a running joke with us for months. At some point, the planets aligned, and she asked me to come to her music space and jam on some ideas. I was blown away. Her musical vision and vocabulary seemed endless, and she was so excited about where these songs could go.”
So what comes first, writing the music or the lyrics? Well, it’s either-or, Davis says. The muse can have a terrible sense of timing. An idea may strike when she’s tooling along the highway, unable to jot down either notes or lyrics. Her solution: carry an iPhone everywhere and record those thoughts.
“Usually, when I don’t have time, when I have all these other things going on. Then the muse goes, “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, that’s what you thought,” she says.
Her life is her raw material, and the writing process can hit some vulnerable spots. She has ways of getting around that. “Oftentimes, I’m not staying true to the experience when I’m telling a story about myself,” she says. “I will write with some humor because that’s the catharsis: ‘This wrecked me, and I don’t want to be wrecked.’”
Here’s drummer Van Ness on the subject: “It didn’t take long for me to understand that when “the Muse” appears, she must drop everything to accommodate, or risk losing that initial creative spark. Sometimes, she’d dig into it and, two hours later, she’d have a song she wanted to share. Other times, I wouldn’t hear from her for a week, and then a mostly finished song would come over in a text message or an e-mail, accompanied by a humble, ‘I think this might turn into something.’ She wouldn’t sit down at the piano or grab her guitar and say, ‘Today I’m writing a new song.’ It hasn’t generally worked that way. She has always seemed to honor the idea that inspiration comes from anywhere at any time.”
Davis’s blues-y, jazz-y, club-y, country-fusion style owes much to those who influenced her: Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter and Billy Strahorn. Nina Simone and Abby Lincoln and Duke Ellington. Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile.
“Her singing style reminds me of the best of the singers that I’d always loved,” says bassist Bert Coburn, who also played on “Evolution of Love.”
“Her voice can exhibit Joni Mitchell’s smoky fragility,
Phoebe Snow’s full bodied barroom belt, and Ann Wilson’s rock-and-roll wail. Occasionally, they come out all at once,” he said.
So, yes, music is her life – but not all of it. Paramount in Davis’s life is motherhood. Her 14-year-old son Elan plays drums and piano, but isn’t committed to music in the way she is.
“It’s definitely been an outlet for him; he has a wonderful sense of rhythm,” she says. “He listens to songs in video games. He’ll be able to tell me, in a movie, about the soundtrack. . . He’s an artist. He’s into the fantastical – space-scapes and astronomy. He’s fascinating. I think our children enlighten us to things we don’t know about ourselves, that we didn’t work through at times. It makes you more introspective.”
She and Elan’s dad, a keyboardist, met when they played together in a band. They split about a dozen years ago – “most of Elan’s life, really. But we’re friendly. Elan sees him a lot.”
Just about a year ago, Davis decided that what she really wanted was to have a band that allowed her to play her own music. A band that would provide entre into last year’s first-ever Mystic Blues Festival. So Josi Davis & Hot Damn! was born. But for the second annual Mystic Blues Festival (www.mysticbluesfestival.com) – June 27, 28 and 29 at Mystic Seaport – Davis is taking a behind-the-scenes position, as a promoter and planner. She’s chair of the education committee and all-but bubbles over with delight about it: “I’ve got a bunch of ideas. It’s moving into non-profit status . . . I want to do radio broadcasting. And workshops – master classes and clinics. It’s an opportunity for people of all ages to come and learn about the blues, about the origin of the blues.”
And then it will be back to business-as-usual, the business of making music. And what could be better?
“There is a question we ask each other prior to performance,” Bert Coburn says, setting the mood. “Who’s gonna have more fun than us?”
Like Josi Davis & Hot Damn! on Facebook to keep track of upcoming shows.