It happened when she guested with the group Postmodern Jukebox on a jazz cover of "All About That Bass," revisited as "All About That (Upright) Bass." It's clever, and demonstrates Davis' prodigious talents as a singer and musician. But she didn't want to be a jazz singer, and she wasn't interested in bringing booty back. The internet trolls gave her the wrong kind of attention, and the industry tried to mold her into a retro artist like Amy Winehouse or Esperanza Spalding, when she wanted to be St. Vincent.
She got a record deal, but soon found out their vision did not include nurturing her as a songwriter and serious artist. In 2015, Davis made a high-profile appearance at the Kennedy Center as part of the PBS Great Performances series, but then vanished into an abyss of conflict with the label as she fought for her freedom. Now making music on her terms, her first album, Trophy, is set for release November 8, 2019. Fans of St. Vincent will like it.
Davis was born in the '90s (she's 28) and is part of the first generation willing to challenge the way women are portrayed in the standards written by men 80 years ago. "It was almost like I was giving voice to this character that was archaic and submissive and nothing without the aid of a man," she says of her time performing these songs. "I was presenting a character that no longer exists in these modern times."
She has a point. Certain selections from the Great American Songbook reflect awkward gender roles. Witness "Someone To Watch Over Me":
I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who'll watch over me
In this in-depth conversation, Davis goes into detail about how traditional jazz turned toxic for her, and explains how she is working to shed the "'All About That Bass' girl" image to express her true self.
Kate Davis: I first started writing songs in college. So, I feel like I was a little on the later side, probably my freshman year of college.
Songfacts: And this was at the Manhattan School of Music?
Songfacts: What was it like when you went to college and you started writing songs?
Davis: Well, when I got to college I was quickly very aware of the specific type of musician my peers and teachers wanted me to be, and it didn't really align with what I saw for myself. So I started writing songs to find a way to express myself outside of what the school and the teachers were expecting me to do.
At school, there was writing involved, but it was more like learning an older style of music and learning a language that was from another time. It was just regurgitating things and only being aware of music that happened before the '70s. So, writing for me was a way to not have to give in to those pressures at school and to find my own voice, having been really inspired by a lot of more contemporary music that I had listened to just for myself.
Songfacts: Before you went to college, who did you want to be?
Davis: Well, I think it was my senior year of high school, St. Vincent put out Actor , and I remember thinking that was who I wanted to be. I listened to a lot of Metric in my high school era and was a big fan of Emily Haines, so people like her and Annie Clark and even Regina Spektor in the Begin To Hope  era. Those were the women who were singing songs I felt connected to.
At that time, I was studying jazz and playing jazz gigs and feeling like I was on a very different path, but the music I listened to for the love of it and the people I admired who were singers were all of these younger pop and rock singers.
Songfacts: In the world of jazz, you were probably learning a lot of standards and songs that were written long ago that you're going to have a hard time beating as a writer.
Davis: Yeah, that's a really interesting thing for you to say because I was drawn to the American Songbook because of the quality of the songs. And when you're young, it's very easy to gravitate towards the American Songbook as something that has been tried and true, and it's really easy to identify what makes these songs great. Granted, there were a lot of songs that I think lacked in lyrical content - American folk music was a little more successful as far as storytelling - but I did glean a lot from the American Songbook and just the way song structures work and melodies and the marriage between music and lyrics, so it was a really interesting experience learning the American Songbook but also finding other material from other times or other genres to compare, put side by side, and do a pretty intense song study.
Songfacts: Is there a song from the American Songbook that you really got into when you deconstructed it?
Davis: Yeah. One of the very first songs I ever learned was a Billy Strayhorn song called "Lush Life." It was brought to my attention as a really young person and it's the kind of song I don't think any young person is emotionally equipped to sing or play. It's very emotional and it's beautiful, but it's kind of heavy. I remember spending a lot of time with that song and realizing how you could use songs and songwriting as a way to really get to an emotional place - like when you're heartbroken and you're feeling the realities of being a human - and to bring other people to that space through words and music. So, a song like that is a great example of how you can effectively write a song that will affect someone.
Songfacts: It seems like you're far more interested in the emotional output of a song versus the technical aspects of it.
Davis: Oh sure, yeah.
Songfacts: Was that a challenge when you went to a music school?
Davis: It really was. And you know, you were mentioning standards earlier, and a lot of my issues with standards is the lack of emotional depth in a lot of these songs. There are a lot of songs that come from musicals that out of context don't have a lot of meaning, but also there are a lot of songs that are pretty poorly written as far as lyrics are concerned, where it's more about the way a big word might sound when you hear it in the context of a melody instead of what the word means.
I remember hearing really dumb standards like "Bye Bye Blackbird" and seeing through the words and just being like, What's the point? Because there comes a point where it's just cheesy. And I also had an experience as a young woman singing a lot of those standards where it was very obvious that the songs had been written from the perspective of a submissive woman.
This was obviously another time, but I remember going to gigs and feeling the really toxic older days of men interpreting the song as a woman without any sense of herself or what she was capable of. It was almost like I was giving voice to this character that was archaic and submissive and nothing without the aid of a man - whether it was financially or emotionally. Do you know what I mean?
Songfacts: Yes, because you were actually thinking about what you were singing.
Davis: Right, and I was presenting a character that no longer exists in these modern times when women are empowered and encouraged to be independent. These songs were written a long time ago, but they were also written by men who were able to tell that story from their own perspective, which made it a lot harder for women to be empowered.
Songfacts: What's an example of one of those songs?
Davis: I got it ready for you... There's a Gershwin song called "The Man I Love." The whole song is about how someday a man will come along and he'll be big and strong, and until I find this man, I'm just going to sit around and feel sorry for myself. It's a beautiful song melodically and harmonically. It's gorgeous, and it's a piece of history. But looking at it now as a progressive, empowered woman, it's like, You've got to be kidding me.
When I was growing up, I had a hard time being in clubs, looking cute, singing these songs and looking out at the audience at all of these men who were almost drooling because I was presenting them with this kind of fragile, submissive character they could fantasize about.
Songfacts: Not only that, the jazz community seems to have a thing for young musicians.
Songfacts: And you turned away from that jazz scene. What was that like?
Davis: Well, it felt at a certain point, inevitable. As a younger person, I was really supported by my parents, which is amazing as a musician - I don't think that is the case with most people, having the full support of their parents. But because I was coming up in the institution and going to music school, I was kind of on a moving train: I was almost destined for a certain type of career, and I was being groomed, not only by my parents, but also my mentors and teachers, to end up becoming like a weird amalgamation of all of these long-gone jazz artists, and also some of these newer ones, just because jazz is a music that is able to be regurgitated and reinvented.
Songfacts: In many cases, it's the record company that foists upon you something you're not, but in your case, it was not a record company, was it?
Davis: No, actually, it was.
Davis: Well, it evolved into that because when I got out of college, I had a couple of opportunities that fell into my lap and made the path harder and harder to step out of. I started working right out of college. I was involved in an interactive show called Sleep No More. It's set in 1939, so the music they needed for the club portion of the show was obviously some older jazz. So, I started working in that bar because I had the skill set to show up with a bass and pull it off, and I got involved with a guy who was directing the show at the time, and his whole thing was to play contemporary songs but in an old style. And, through that, I ended up making this video of a Meghan Trainor song with an upright bass, and it became a viral video. I didn't anticipate that at the time - I was just looking for ways to work and make a couple of hundred bucks here or there. But that instantly catapulted me into this more intense part of the journey, which is where all of these labels were like, You just did really well on the internet and people are responding to this, so we can put you in a box... sign here.
There were a lot of plans to turn me into some weird kind of old-school, singing, jazzy chanteuse. To somehow find a way to make it more contemporary and pop, but capitalize on this very kitschy, throwback, niche, upright bass thing. It all happened kind of fast, and I said yes in the beginning because the people I was involved with told me they were interested in the writing I had been doing, which was my own path, my own project. I had brought that to their attention, and they were like, Yeah we think you're a good writer and we want to support your artistic evolution and get behind what you're doing. You know, we're glad you've come to us through this kind of jazz covers thing but we think you're promising in other ways. But they were just saying that to get me to work with them.
Songfacts: Did you end up signing a record deal?
Davis: I did, and just for the sake of privacy, I won't say who. But I would present my own material, and they'd always be like, What else do you have? They were looking for something I wasn't going to provide. They had an expectation for me that they didn't make extremely clear. If I had been an outsider looking in, it would have been very obvious what they wanted from me, but it sounded to me as if they wanted to support my artist career, which I thought of as being a writer and singing, and having a more rock-leaning thing, which I had been really into, and there's just no way for those two worlds to converge. So, it was really a frustrating time.
Songfacts: Did they want you to be a social media star? I'm trying to figure out what they wanted you to be.
Davis: Artists like Diana Krall, Amy Winehouse and Esperanza Spalding all had their moment in a crossover type of music. It can be easy to play an acoustic version of a popular song under the guise of jazz. Also, they had these ideas and expectations where maybe they could put a pop-form song over some hip-hop beats, and if I was playing a more unusual instrument, like upright bass, and played the part of a throwback singer, it could be different. I don't really know what they had in mind, but I think they just saw the success of this YouTube video and thought, Oh, we need to capitalize on that.
Songfacts: The experience of doing "All About That (Upright) Bass" in and of itself, how was that for you?
Davis: Well, I looked at it as I was looking at a lot of things I was doing at the time: just as a job. I had learned to just put it on and smile and do the gig, and I think a lot of that translated into the the video. I remember growing up being pretty subservient because my parents were always really supportive, but they had a huge role in guiding me and being my coaches, like, if you want to get to this place, you have to do this, or if you want to get hired for a job, you need to have this type of repertoire, wear these types of clothes, have a certain attitude. So, I was really used to doing what other people, especially my parents, had suggested, because they wanted me to succeed. And coming out of college, I was a little confused. I had this whirling dervish attitude and wasn't being particularly responsible or healthy, and I kind of fell into things because I was a little lost. I had just lost my father. There were a lot of things emotionally going on, and I was a little bit directionless and had a hard time standing up for myself and being like, You know what? What I really want to do is have a career of my own as a writer and develop my own identity and be me, and be the cool person I know I am, instead of just playing all of these jazz gigs.
Songfacts: So, all of these experiences and emotions - losing your father and going through all this - it sounds like they have manifested themselves into the songs that are on Trophy, because this is really the first time we've heard from you. Is there one song that really strikes you as being Kate Davis?
Davis: I think they all are, just because they all were written by me and were conceived at times in my life when I had experienced something and then found a way to write about it, whether the story was through my own perspective or not. They're all kind of like my stories.
Songfacts: What was the song where you felt you found your voice?
Davis: I think "Trophy." It felt like a song that came out of my brain in a way that was unprovoked and not forced in any way - it just kind of popped out. A lot of the other songs were a little more labored, and I remember "Trophy" being written and feeling like, Whoa... where did that come from? Feeling like that was written in a dream or something.
Songfacts: It certainly doesn't sound like a song that a music school graduate would write.
Davis: I think that's an interesting thing for you to say, and it's something I know a lot of my peers who have gone through school struggle with: It's almost like you know too much when you study music in that way.
I really did make a conscious effort after making the commitment to myself and realizing I needed to go down my own path and start saying no to things and stick up for myself. I chose not to do things for the sake of doing them, or because of muscle memory. I tried to unlearn a lot of the things that were jammed into my brain through all of the years of institutionalized music.
Songfacts: Things like the structure of lyrics?
Davis: I never got to learn about songwriting or lyrics in an institutional way, which I think helped a lot because I could really approach it using only the knowledge I had about music. I think learning the American Songbook as a younger person helped me get a sense of what makes a good song or what is effective, but it wasn't like I had any experience going to someone being like, OK, how do I write a song? What's the formula? It was all stuff I could piece together myself and draw from songs I really liked. It felt like it was just my experience.
Davis: I was thinking a lot at the time about obsession, and the things that a person will do in order to have something they desire. I think that as humans, we do things from an animal place more than we like to admit, and everybody goes through a time in their life when they feel possessive over something or someone. I found those tendencies within myself and I was fascinated with the idea of wanting something so badly that you would do anything.
And I have this weird fascination with serial killers and sociopaths and things like that... I think more people do than would care to admit, but I'm fascinated with the psychology of those people. I think it's amazing how close we all are to doing things that we don't think we ever would.
Songfacts: That sounds like a lot of what you see on Netflix or HBO. Dark stuff that makes you look inside your soul.
Davis: Right, and I think that we all have a darkness within us. I think the reason I'm so fascinated with these documentaries about serial killers and all of the different shocking stories that go on in the world, is because we all have a little bit of that in us already. I'm not saying I would kill someone, but I have done things in my life out of malice because of selfish reasons or just wanting to protect things. You have an animal mode.
Songfacts: If I'm around somebody who is perpetually wonderful, I worry about that person. I'm thinking, Is this person in a fight club? Do they have bodies in the basement?
Davis: Yeah, I think it's really good to acknowledge the things that make us really human, like jealousy, anger, or malice. When I wrote "Trophy," I had watched the TV show Dexter like five times, and I fell in love with this idea of the vigilante serial killer - the guy who goes around and kills bad people. You identify with him because he's the one who is cleaning up the streets - he's helping other people live their lives without interruption. He talked about a dark passenger, and the darkness that drove him to do what he does, and I feel like the reason people love that show is because he's actually a relatable character.
For a while, I was in a relationship with someone where it felt like I was so possessive and so jealous of other people that it would bring out really dark sides to my personality and to my everyday existence, because I was so obsessed with cleaning my territory or making sure what was mine was mine. Looking back, it just sounds ridiculous, and it does not identify with who I am at this time in my life.
The "Trophy" lyrics, it's like you want something so badly, in order to possess it, you have to kill it. I write about a biblical story with the same premise in the song "Salome." Salome demands the head of John the Baptist. In some versions of the story, she is in love with him, and the only way for her to have him is to have his head, and for him to be executed. It's the same thing, and I just thought it was a really interesting idea. I don't go around killing boyfriends or anything, but I do think it's something that everyone can relate to on some level and make you ask yourself, Where does that even come from?
Songfacts: Was "rbbts" the same relationship?
Davis: [laughs] Yeah.
Songfacts: This person gave you a lot of material.
Davis: Yeah, I guess it did, but it was a long stretch of my life, so it would be weird if I didn't get all this material.
Davis: I used to live on Prince and Sullivan in Soho, which was a really irresponsible move straight out of college. At the time, I wanted to stay as far away from any classical music as possible, and I decided to spend an exorbitant amount of money every month just to live in a place I thought was cool. But I lived in a total trash apartment, and one of the only good things was having this place rbbts pretty much across the street. It was like a skate-themed coffee shop that served breakfast foods and always closed at 4. I would go there regularly and always get some kind of breakfast food, but usually at lunch, because I would sleep in. Oh man, those days were debaucherous and very irresponsible. But yeah, that was like a regular fixture in my life, going to that place, rbbts.
Songfacts: Tell me about making the video for that song.
The original idea was a night in reverse. Like, the night of some kind of devastating event, like a breakup. You see the night go by after this has happened, and it's told in reverse order in the video. It's not completely clear, but it's supposed to insinuate that the very end of the night, when you are in the bathtub, the water is all the way up, and you're fully clothed, you are trying to cleanse yourself of this sadness. It feels like a tragedy, and you just want to sink into it, to escape it. You can't tell whether it's a rebirth or a death, in a strange way.
There are all of these different scenes. You have this club scene that happens in the middle - once you've gone through this devastating breakup, you run out to find some distraction, or some place where there are other bodies that will make you feel like you're not alone, and you participate in the dancing and the catharsis of being in this really kinetic space. Then, towards the end of the video, which to me is like the beginning of the whole story, is when you see this dancing couple. And at the very end, I don't know if you notice, but he does slip out of the embrace, so it's him leaving the moment, or the relationship.
Yeah, we had some challenges with the editing because the idea was quite ambitious. But that was the sentiment we were trying to get across: the idea of losing someone or having to go through this major shift and having to respond to that. It's meant to be very emotional and very sad.
Songfacts: Was it your concept?
Davis: Yeah, for the most part. I really like this Jean-Luc Godard movie called Alphaville. I really love this actress in it, Anna Karina. We took inspiration from some of the shots with this strobe, and we used that in the dance scene.
But the label I worked with was like, "Hey, we've got to make a music video," and I was like, "How about this really evil idea?" So, they ran with it and they supported it and helped me see it through, which was amazing.
Songfacts: Yeah, usually if you see an artist in a bathtub, it's a director that puts them there - they don't want to be there [like this one].
Davis: Yeah, I really wanted to be there. I put silicone plugs up my nose so I could lip-sync underwater. It was the first time I really got to make something that accompanied my music but was able to represent the aesthetic side of things, the visual side. I was so excited about it, because for me, it's never been about the visual, other than looking goofy and stupid with an upright bass. I always thought there was so much more to me aesthetically than how the public has seen it.
Songfacts: It's really interesting that you see yourself in "All About That (Upright) Bass" as being goofy. I didn't think you came off that way at all. I thought you came off as very poised and confident, and very striking in what you could do.
Songfacts: When it started taking off and millions of people started seeing it, how did you feel? Did you get swept up in that whole I'm a star thing?
Davis: I was mostly scared because I wasn't used to attention in that way. I was used to being mostly underground, just showing up and playing the jazz gigs. I was really lucky in Portland [Oregon], where I grew up, to have really nice, kind, supportive older fans who were really interested in the Portland jazz scene and were always supportive of me being a younger person getting out there and playing gigs. When this happened on a more global level, it scared me because I got a lot of really unwarranted and disturbing attention from men, through the internet. There were really nice notes and comments from people who were like, "This is so fun," or "my daughter wants to play upright bass now," or "this is the coolest thing I've ever seen." But, a lot of it was creepy older people leaving inappropriate comments about the upright being some kind of dominatrix thing, or like, 'Wanna play me like that bass?' or just stuff that really got under my skin and freaked me out, because I never signed up for any of it.
I did some gigs after that - I had a short little tour because there was some interest - and I would show up at these scenes around the country, mostly in the Midwest, and play a whole set of my own songs, and people would just heckle at me and say, "Play it's all about the bass!"
I'd have a lot of creepers show up to those things. Unfortunately, because I'm a young woman and because I play something that is different and because there is so much of that kind of misogynistic, submissive woman thing that's spilling over from all of the years of the American Songbook, it permeates that world, and I still can't be an empowered woman playing something that is jazz-like because of some types of people who are interested in that music. The only nice things people would say to me came from women, or when they came from a place of great respect or admiration for the years that it took me to be able to play an instrument at that level.
So, about 70% of it was really inappropriate, unsettling notes from older men. They were like, "I'm in love with you because of the way you stare into the camera and sing." The weirdest part was the fan art that was drawn of me as like a really curvaceous, bigger lady. I'm not a tiny little stick, but the way people interpreted that song was as if I were a big girl singing about my big body, because that's what the song is about. And I had a bass next to me, which is an instrument that was literally designed around the female form all those years ago when string instruments were first invented. I was drawn as a caricature of myself, as a curvaceous, jazzy songstress. The whole thing was so weird - I wanted to hide.
Songfacts: I'm thinking about how Sting played upright bass in the famous Police video for "Every Breath You Take." It was this elegant, striking visual, and he never had to deal with anything close to what you were just describing.
Davis: Yeah, but he's not a woman. Looking back, this was a fascinating experience because it raised a lot of really thoughtful concepts to the surface of my life. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist because I knew I had a lot to say and I knew I had the technical ability to pull it off. I always loved singing, and it's just amazing that so much of the way you are perceived as an artist is about the way you look or how your sexuality might sell. Or the way other people want to see you, which is totally what happened in this case. As soon as I started making more of my own music and my own artist personality became more obvious, I had men writing me comments saying, "Don't lose too much weight Katie, otherwise you can't sing your song."
Davis: Yeah, it was such a trip, and for years after that I kind of rebelled. I remember I bleached my hair and I tried to do things that would make me different. I was focusing on my own music and trying to use the interest to support these newer songs and go in this different direction that had been derailed by the "All About That Bass" thing.
But it was just such a struggle, and when I finally got out of this label deal, it took two years of me just sitting around and them kind of holding me hostage. I had almost met my breaking point, but once I got out of that, I was like, "Alright, I'm going to do something to get me back on my feet and find a way to fund an album." So I made a Kickstarter, and because I had visibility from "All About That Bass," I was lucky enough to accumulate a lot of nice people who supported that, and I was able to fund the record. And, during the time I'd been held up with the label, I had met a great producer [Tim Bright] who was really committed to helping me see an album through, and once I got the money to do it, he was so on board and we were able to finish the whole thing, and that was Trophy.
So, it's a long story, and it's a really strange one. Most people probably can't conceive of all of the ridiculous music industry bullshit that went into it. But it's weird to be out on the other side and just hoping that people will hear it and respond to it in a way that just makes me feel like I'm just doing what I want to do. The response I got from "All About That Bass," there was so much of it, but it was like surface level. I couldn't have made a career out of being the "All About That Bass" girl. I would have done five more covers and then people would've been bored. That's what I wish the label had picked up on: There weren't a whole lot of ways to evolve that character. So, it's interesting now to really feel like I've come into my own. I'm representing myself how I want, and I'm really hoping people will hear it and be affected by it in an emotional way. It's almost the opposite of "All About That Bass."
Songfacts: The first track on Trophy is really interesting. It's called "Daisy." How did you come up with the line "coming up Daisy"?
Davis: It's a song about losing my dad and when he was on his deathbed. He had brain cancer, and we were able to be with him for about five years at home when he was sick. When it was near the end, we were all together, and my sister, who is a beautifully traditional human who wants a very standard American life with a family and a suburban house, it was really important for her to get my dad's input for her children's names. She asked him, and he gave her these beautiful, flowering names. One of them was Daisy, and the other was Rose or something. Then he turns to me, and my sister was like, "What about for Kate?" And he looks at me and says, "Volcano," which is him both knowing me, and also being a bit of a smart-ass, even if it's the end of his life.
But these floral names that were easy to digest gave me this idea for creating this expectation of what my dad wanted for his kids. Daisy represented all of the things we needed to achieve to help promote his legacy.
So it ended up being a word to describe the experience once you've lost someone. It's good and bad, it's hard and easy. It's total self-destruction, it's total empowerment. It's the experience of loss in a word, which I know is very abstract and strange, but it also represents the potential I have for my future, whether it is that I have a child, or if I can have a career I think he'd be proud of. It's just all of those things in one word.
Songfacts: Will your child be named Volcano?
Davis: Well, maybe, but I thought this idea of Daisy really lended itself to the idea of growing up, because it's a flower that comes up out of the ground, and when you die, you return to the ground. It all made sense to me. And my parents, when we were growing up, grew little starter seeds in our basement. I have this really deep memory of going down to the basement and seeing all these tiny seedlings under one of those lights that is supposed to be like the sun. I related to that - I felt like I was one of those little seedlings, being very protected and nourished and isolated in the basement.
Songfacts: Regarding the song "I Like Myself," was there a time that you didn't like yourself?
Davis: Oh yeah. Totally. There was a Comden and Green [Betty Comden and Adolph Green] song called "I Like Myself" - an old song that I don't think necessarily qualifies as a standard, but it was a song I heard Blossom Dearie sing when I was young, and I loved it. The lyrics are:
Can it be I like myself
He likes me, so I like myself
If someone as wonderful as he is can think I'm wonderful
Then what a gal am I
You know, that kind of sentiment where you're validated by the person you love or admire.
When I first started working on the song, it was in the same vein as the Blossom Dearie song because at times when I was writing and I would get stuck, I would just go back 50 years or more and get inspired by these sentiments and these writing styles and older stories that I could pick out and shine a different light on. So the song went through a big evolution because it started out feeling like you only liked yourself if you were validated by another person, and as I went through more things in my life, I realized that wasn't the way I wanted to live, and it wasn't a way in which I would be empowered, so the only way to help change the narrative in my own life was to literally write it into a song, so I did that.
October 16, 2019
Here's the video for the Trophy track "Open Heart"
Want the "All About That (Not Upright) Bass" story? Here's our talk with the song's co-writer, Kevin Kadish
You might also like our interviews with Paula Cole and Kristin Hersh
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