Given that she’s often lived a transient lifestyle over the years, singer-songwriter Davina Sowers says she thought it would be appropriate to name her backing band the Vagabonds.
“I was myself pretty much a vagabond,” she says via phone from her Minneapolis home. “I hitchhiked and traveled the U.S. I had lived in Key West and California. I have been called a vagabond by my family. Little did I know that it would have ended up manifesting itself in the fact that we travel as much as we do. I didn’t know it would take off as much as it did, not that I have this massive career. It was more of a personal thing than anything. I’m probably the most vagabond-like of all five of us in the band.”
Drawing from New Orleans jazz, Memphis soul and musical theatre, the group capably defies categorization. Sowers rightly draws comparisons to Etta James, Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday and Betty Boop. Another remarkable mish-mash of musical styles, her latest album, 2014’s Sunshine
, represents her eclectic taste in music and shows her maturation as a singer and songwriter too.
Sowers grew up in the “economically depressed” Altoona, Penn., a heavy railroad city. The experience wasn’t necessarily a positive one.
“My mom Delores will remind you that her name means ‘pain,’” she says. “She went through so much. I grew up with her vinyl. I listened to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Seals and Croft, Melanie, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. I listened to all of her pop folk music. The Mamas and the Papas really taught me how to harmonize. That’s how I grew up. My father listened to Fats Waller and eerie turn-of-the-century music. The pre-war jazz and even the early country that was kind of eerie. Now, I’m this huge melting point of weird music.”
Eventually, she was drawn to Dixieland jazz and music from New Orleans.
“I had hired these horn players early in my career,” she says. “They were brass band players. They helped me understand that type of music. I fell in love with it because it reminded me so much of the stuff my father liked. If you listen to our music, it’s really my love for that early Dixieland minus the clarinet. I always throw the clarinet in my recordings. From that point on, I never hired a reed player. I always had brass players and it was a trombone and trumpet. I loved what they could do as two horns together in those traditional songs.”
With the band’s first full-length, all-original album, 2011’s Black Cloud
, Sowers shows her maturity as a writer.
“It shows that I’m starting to hone my songwriting skills and shows what I’m going through with music,” she says. “It’s part of my heart. It’s the first album where I had the chance to express myself one hundred percent. With the first two [self-released albums], you can smell the naiveté of it and you can just smell the insecurity of writing. You can just smell it. I don’t run into many people who have those albums. They’re horrible. I feel like Black Cloud
is more me. It shows the growth I had.”
She used vintage equipment to record last year’s Sunshine
. The album kicks off with the woozy title track, a piano-based tune that benefits from a spirited horn section. Sowers sounds a bit like the late Amy Winehouse on the song as she croons, “I ain’t got the time.”
“There is a little more production on it,” says Sowers when asked about the recording approach. “The writing itself is still me. I can’t say that’s different. I wasn’t attempting to change myself. It’s definitely recorded differently. The clarity is much different in the recording. It’s better. I had to keep telling my engineer to not put so much reverb on it. He was really into the Beach Boys and that natural reverb.”
Currently at work on a live album, the band will conclude the year with a few tour dates, including one that takes it to a Swiss festival. For Sowers, who says she’s received plenty of unsolicited advice on how to sing, finding the confidence to trust her abilities has been key.
“In the beginning, I think people were telling me who I should be [and what I should do] with my voice,” she says. “I’m going to sing the way I want to. I just want to express myself. If people hate it, screw them. At least I’m being honest. I just want to be a well-rounded vocalist. I don’t want to be that girl where you listen to ten songs and they all sound the same. I want to entertain with my voice. I’m a ham and I love to entertain people. To me, that’s what singing live is.”
Davina and the Vagabonds, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $15 ADV, $18 DOS, musicboxcle.com.