I stumbled across Joni Davis’s album, A Bird’s Heart, while frigging around on We Are Hunted one day. What a find. A lovely singer-songwriter album of understated but powerful songs by someone I’d never heard of before. Serendipidity doesn’t get much better than that.
For me, the stand out track is ‘Black Smoke’, a scary chant of a song with a mesmerising melody that suits Davis’s voice to a tee. But it is far from the only good track on the album, I was pleased to discover.
Fortunately, I recently got a chance to ask Joni some questions and I hope her answers give you some insight into her music. I also hope you dig up her album and have a listen for yourself. (Try CD Baby or iTunes.)
Tim: My first question might seem a bit from left field, but I was wondering about the piano you use on A Bird’s Heart. I might be completely wrong, but it has a sort of honky tonk sound to it and I was curious to know if it was a piano you owned that might have a bit of a history or whether it just happened to be the instrument that was available when you recorded? Either way, I really like the sound of it.
Joni: Great question! I am glad you like the piano sound we got… My husband and I recorded the whole album in the small apartment we were living in at the time in Santa Rosa, CA. We worked pretty hard to get a piano sound we really liked which was a little difficult because our living room was pretty small. The piano we used is an old family heirloom. It was given to my Grandparents on my Dad’s side as a wedding present from my Grandfather’s parents. So my Dad grew up with it in his house, and my Grandmother taught piano lessons on it. It is the piano that I had throughout my childhood, the one that I learned on, and wrote my first songs on, so it is a special little thing to me. It is a small upright piano with a lovely touch and a really good sounding bass. I have a soft spot for that piano, but I have my own now which is treating me pretty well so far.
Tim: I’m guessing you won’t be well-known to my readers in Australia, so it’d be great to hear something about your background, where you live, where you grew up, how you got into music and how you ended up as a songwriter.
Joni: Well, right now I live in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California. We are about 60 miles north of San Francisco, nice and close to the ocean. I was born and raised here and will probably live here for the rest of my life because we love it here and a lot of my family lives here. I started playing the piano consistently when I was about 12; that is when we inherited that little piano I was talking about. I played mostly on my own, by ear, and was so happy to have found music when I did. It really pulled me along through the tough school years – junior high and high school. When I was 16 I started taking lessons with an amazing woman named Anne Berry, and she really opened my eyes up to just exactly what music could be for me, which was a real gift. I started singing around 18, not really knowing that I had any kind of voice, but just kind of rejoicing in that great thing that the human voice can do. Because I always really loved a good song, and admired songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and Kate Bush and had grown up listening to songwriters like John Lennon and John Denver, it seemed like the natural progression of playing the piano and discovering singing. I started writing songs when I was 17 and that is that. In 2001, I moved to London to be with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). I lived in London for five years, and found it a pretty inspiring place in a lot of ways, and I think my time there has had great impact on the songs I write and probably always will. There is not a whole lot more in life that is better than a good song. Except for a good piece of cake or pie. But a good song really is a treasure. Especially if you wrote it yourself!
Tim: How much touring or live performance do you do? And do you have preference for live work over studio work, or vice versa?
Joni: Since I am an independent musician with a life outside of the music, I don’t really tour or perform much. I used to play shows a lot more, but lately haven’t felt compelled to do so. It takes a lot of time and energy to set up, promote and play a show. The performing side of things I quite like, but the other part of the equation I could really do without. There are a lot of things I love to do, and would rather spend my time doing those things instead of tending to a Myspace page or trying to get a good gig or radio play or whatever. I used to really work hard at that stuff, but now I just feel like life is way too short! I do love to perform though, and will probably start playing out a bit when I am done with my new record. You know my favorite thing is how I got on your blog. I don’t know how you heard about my music, but I think that if I just put it out there, people may find it and they may like it. If that happens, that is the best!! It may not be the best way forward for my music sales but really, it is hard to care about that stuff too much when there is the living to do. I am going to make music whether or not people will be buying it because I love to make music and I love to play music live. I love the exciting spaces you can enter into when you are recording in your studio, and when you are performing live. All of it is GOOD.
Tim: I love the imagery of the ‘bird’s heart’ and was wondering where that came from?
Joni: The cover art was made by our good friend and very talented artist Chris Dennis. It was kinda cool how the whole thing came together actually. A lot of the imagery of the songs is tied to water I think because I grew up by the ocean, and it has always been an important place to me, full of all sorts of mystery. I wrote both the songs ‘A Bird’s Heart’ and ‘Silent at Sea’ really quickly, one of those kind of divine moments of inspiration which happens very very rarely. I decided soon after I wrote them that they would be the bookends to the album. I always knew I wanted Chris to do the artwork so when I was telling him about those two songs he told me about a painting he started working on and it was completely perfect. So it was really cool how our ideas came together without any directives – we were both kind of working with the same themes and man I was so pleased with the result.
Tim: The album has a sparse sound with not much instrumentation outside your voice and piano. I love that aspect of the music, but was curious, as I always am with independent artists, to what extent this result was driven by artistic or economic considerations? That is, if you had a bucketload of money to devote to recording, would you be tempted to a ‘bigger’ sound, or is the approach taken on A Bird’s Heart simply your preferred way of performing?
I do like to make music that isn’t very complicated. Part of that could just be a reflection of my limitations as a musician. If I had the ability to write some string sections and some brass sections, and could get players and space to record them, that would be so fun! Like the Tindersticks! I love their music. As a general rule, though, I like to stick to simplicity. I feel like since my craft is writing songs, I like to keep the piano/voice at the forefront of anything I do. I just want to write good songs. Lyrics are really important to me, as important as the music. Having said that, I am working on a couple of instrumental tracks for my new album and they are good fun… they have voices, but no words and it is pretty great getting into that world of writing. I don’t find it as easy to tell a story as I do when I can use words (I love language!) but it is a very rich world to experiment with. If I had a bucketload of money to devote to recording, I would get a good string player and good drummer and rock out. I would pay Jim White from Dirty Three to be my drummer! I love that guys drumming so much.
Tim: Just on the instrumentation, three cheers for the use of the saw! It works really well and it is such mesmerizing sound…
Joni: Isn’t the saw great?! Such a creepy sounding parallel to the singing – it is so evocative and adds so much to a song. It is played by the very very talented Quinta who I was fortunate enough to meet and play with while I was in London.
Tim: Final question is what happens next? A new album? Touring? A bit of both? And would it be too ridiculous to wonder if you might ever make it to Australia?
Joni: Yes, I am working on a new album. It is really taking shape now and we are going to start recording it this winter. I am really excited to get some of my new stuff down and begin the process of making another collection of songs. After I get my album out, I would like to play some shows, but I am not sure how I will go about that yet. There is a great place that I like to play in the Netherlands called The Green Swan which I would love to return to. As far as Australia goes… I would love to come and play over there if you all would have me!