Music » Music Feature

Everything Zen

Singer-songwriter Stuart Davis combines comedy and rock 'n' roll



Singer-songwriter Stuart Davis is a modern-day Renaissance man. The guy does a bit of everything. An avowed Buddhist, he sings and plays guitar. He also paints. And he hosts Sex, God, and Rock 'n' Roll, a comedy show that airs on HDNet. It's all the culmination of a career that has certainly been on one long, strange trip.

"My musical life came to the fore in Minneapolis," he says via phone from his current home in Boulder, Colorado. "I lived there from the time I was one year old and never remembered anything else. I started releasing albums when I was in high school and continued to put out music while I was there until I moved when I was 31, releasing an album year."

Davis then dropped out of college and toured the region, regularly playing Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin on a regular basis. Eventually, that "Midwestern circle," as he refers to it, kept getting bigger.

"I was influenced in strange, angular ways by the region," says Davis, who acknowledges he also has a particular fondness for Brits such as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. "One of my biggest influences from the Midwest was [folk guitarist] Leo Kottke. People don't think of him as a Minnesota act, but he changed my universe in terms of being an instrumentalist."

Davis's career took yet another unexpected turn when he started meditating in the mid-'90s. He initially didn't think that embracing spirituality would influence his music, but it certainly did.

"That had a strange and surprising effect on my songwriting," he says. "I didn't start meditating for that reason. It had the effect of really focusing what I was trying to do with my career. There are a lot of elements that were amorphous and orbiting inside of my interiors, and when I began to meditate they appeared and formed a specific algorithm, and then my writing shifted. I felt like I was reborn and started writing again."

Shortly afterward, Davis became a Buddhist monk.

"I'm drawn to that because it's not based on beliefs, but about cultivating an intimate relationship with your own nature and whatever reality is," he says. "Coming from a fundamentalist Christian background, I was really drawn to that."

If this all makes Davis sound ultra-serious, think again. The guy's TV show, which resembles a commercial late night talk show, is very funny. And getting it off the ground was practically effortless. Davis says he first approached a production company thinking there was no way they'd go for his concept. But they agreed to film an entire season, and he then made a list of all the cable TV networks in the country and emailed about six of them to see if they would be interested. One of the first to respond was HDNet owner (and noted billionaire) Mark Cuban.

"He emailed me back in five minutes," he says. "I mean, it's Mark Fuckin' Cuban. He emailed me back and I sent him the show, and he picked it up and put it on the air. We're going into Season Three now. I had no idea how anomalous it is. Since then, I've come to appreciate how lucky we got. I tried to do some other film stuff, and the industry is tough."

Davis says his upcoming concert in Cleveland will be a mix of comedy and music. He'll do some monologues in addition to playing songs from his new album, Music for Mortals. While a band backs Davis on the album, he won't have the group in tow with him for this show. But that's not to say the show won't properly represent him and his music. He says he often tours without the band and likes to tell humorous stories as much as he likes to play his music. He might well be the only monk who can lay claim to being a comedian, but he doesn't think his religion is out of sync with his music.

"Zen has more of a sense of humor than other traditions," he says. "It has a history of humor and paradox and pushing your mind past rationality and the usual way we conceive of things. That lends itself to lots of humor."

He says he's always had an affinity for comedians who "deal with cosmology or deeper stuff" and adds, "The quest for enlightenment is so quixotic and ridiculous."

"The ego alone is an infinite source of humor," he says. "I'm not trying to convert people to anything. I can't think of what I would try to convert people to. I know less and believe less than I did when I started to practice Buddhism. The one thing I know is that when we laugh and there's truly a humor relief in a performance, there's something really cathartic about that. I love that feeling of being with people and laughing. I feel better about humanity when that's going on."

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