On a late January afternoon in Uptown Minneapolis, Davina Sowers of Davina and the Vagabonds arrives early for an interview. While waiting, the barista catches her ear and engages Sowers in deep conversation.
When the interview begins, we ask who the barista is, assuming it's a close friends.
"I have no idea," Sowers exclaims as her expressive blue eyes light up. "She just started telling me her life story. I think people feel I'm approachable. When I'm out with my husband, he's always like, 'I can't believe this is happening.'"
With deep red lipstick and hair pulled back, Sowers appears as though she could exist in any generation — a 21st century woman who would look comfortable in a speakeasy. Perhaps her approachability is the reason her fans love her so much, as if her singing moves speaks directly to them. Sowers and her band's latest album Nicollet and Tenth (the cross streets of Minneapolis' Dakota Jazz Club) captures a personality that fills a room and transforms it into a inviting place to have a cocktail and get lost in the music.
Known for her live show, Sowers says her fans have been asking for a new live album for a while now. She was happy to comply, expressing a desire to capture this moment to keep her warm when she’s older. With her longtime friend and engineer Zach Hollander, Sowers and her band recorded two nights at the Dakota Jazz Club in early 2015. The venue is her second home in Minneapolis, she claims.
“Their stage is a listening stage; it’s not like most bars where people come for the drinks and the music is an afterthought. It’s a good place to showcase our type of music. We were getting pegged, and I wanted to play in front of people with many walks of life," she says. "At the Dakota, you have suits, you have West Bankers, young kids, and people who have no money. Also, I’m not facing the audience. I like the mystery that comes with that. I enjoy people looking at me, but sometimes I’m a ham. It’s nice that there’s a wall, but I can still share.”
Sowers says the time she's invested in the Dakota makes the room that much more special. The venue and its audience have been privy to many of her song debuts over the years. It was one of the first venues that give her a stage to perform live in the Twin Cities, creating a bond of trust in an industry where promises are easier said than delivered.
In her 12 years of performing, Sowers has honed her live sound on the road.
“I really had to pay my dues in Minneapolis. We still aren’t known, and it used to bother me — the punk rocker in me was like, ‘Fuck you!’” she declares. “But that attitude isn’t going to help me in any way.”
Yet Sowers and her band stuck with it, recreating music from decades past that filtered in blues and soul of the New Orleans region.
Davina credits her parents for her signature sound.
“I was adopted through marriage, and my mom was a folk singer. She listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and the Mamas and the Papas," she says. "I grew up with that. My father was born in 1902 and had an Edison record player, and I listened to Dixieland on the player. There was a lot of turn of the century sounds in our house.”
Add to that Mr. Schultz, her 80-year-old neighbor who was also her best friend growing up, and the result is a girl with a lot of determination and character.
“Mr. Schultz would always say, ‘This is not dress rehearsal, Davina,'" she remembers. "He used to salt and pepper his watermelon and would show me his WWI swords. When he passed away, I got to pick out one thing from his house. I trusted him, and take what he said to heart.”
Much of Sowers' music has changed over the years. Most of her songs begin in the digital recording program Garageband. As they get played and reinterpreted live, they evolve. If they veer too far, she’ll often urge her bandmates to go back and listen and see where they came from.
“God, they must hate me,” she says under her breath. “I want them to know the core idea of the songs. Most of them come from the heart. When you get other people involved, part of their hearts become a part of it. It develops into something as a group. I’m the only one that writes, and when you’re pressured for time in the studio, the songs are not as road-tested as you’d hoped they would be, so on this album, you can definitely hear the road test.”
Nicollet and Tenth contains pieces the band has been playing for years, and opens with "Knock Me a Kiss" that has Sowers recalling Etta James, while the moody "You Must Be Losing Your Mind" summons 1930s jazz. Every song is uniquely Sowers.
“I know I have a large personality,” she admits. “I’m often on the road with four dudes. I’m a very type A aggressive woman. Sometimes it’s tough; sometimes it’s lonely when I have to yell at four other people I’m working with. Sometimes I do want to get in trouble — it’s my first instinct — but it grounds me, because I have to be in charge. I do have a tough exterior, but I want people to tell me if they disagree.
I’ve been surrounded by people who don’t want to step on my toes. I think they’re cheating me if they don’t tell me. Being a woman and career oriented in the music business, I always feel like I have to put on my dick to be taken seriously, but it's what I've had to do. I left home at 15 and have had to find ways to survive. Music is a way for me to feel at home. There's such a freedom in music."
Davina and the Vagabonds
Where: Dakota Jazz Club
When: 7 & 9 p.m. Thursday (4/21), Friday (4/22), and Sunday (4/24).
Tickets: $15; more info here.