It’s human nature to want what’s bad for us. For Davina Sowers, it was drugs and toxic love. She calls these substances “sugar drops,” and they’re the inspiration behind Davina and the Vagabonds’ new bluesy jazz album of the same name.
“We’ve all loved the wrong person,” Sowers says. “We all love the wrong food sometimes. We all love the wrong chemical. There’s something that we’re all yearning for.”
Sowers pays homage to two completely different kinds of partner on this album: a narcissistic, manipulative ex (“Mr. Big Talker”) and her innocent, angelic husband (“Magic Kisses”). Other songs examine themes like temptation (“Devil Horns”), self-care (“Take My Time”), and the rat race of the music industry (“Bone Collection”).
Sugar Drops came with a lot of firsts. This is the first time the band has been on a label (Red House Records), the first time Sowers went out of state to record (to Nashville’s Compass Sound Studio), the first time she used studio musicians rather than her road-tested band, and the first time she’s had a producer (Garry West). Instrumentally, she also added guitar, clarinets, and strings to the album to give it texture and a more sophisticated sound. “I threw everything at this,” she says.
Sowers grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Her mother was a folk singer who played piano and guitar—like mother, like daughter. “I’ve been singing into my hairbrush for as long as I can remember,” she says. As a teen, she was a “handful.” “I spent a lot of time being a Pennsylvania punk-rock kid. I was just super naughty and sassy and I hung out with the wrong kids,” she says.
Sowers also began experiencing anxiety and depression. She self-medicated with a “hefty drug habit” that lasted a decade and led to heroin addiction, homelessness, and jail time. “I spent years wanting to get clean. It’s not fun being a heroin addict. It’s a horrible existence,” she says. She isn’t sure what gave her the strength to get clean, but she did.
Around 18 years ago, Sowers came to Minnesota, and in 2004, she started Davina and the Vagabonds. The tattooed, retro-styled beauty quickly established herself as a vocal powerhouse with a modern take on the Great American Songbook. The band has since performed in almost every U.S. state and in venues all over the world, including an appearance on the BBC’s Later... With Jools Holland.
Though her career is soaring, mental illness persists. “It’s every day for me, dealing with me. It’s exhausting sometimes,” Sowers says. “Sometimes I just can’t do shit and I just lay there and cry.” Music helps her stay on the right path, as do Totino’s Pizza Rolls, journaling, meditation, baths, and bike rides.
Sowers believes there’s strength in songwriting, but performing such personal and confessional songs night after night can take its toll. “I try to do my best to take a minute to freak out if I need to,” she says. “I definitely choose nights to do really emotional stuff, when I’m feeling it, because I think that’s a form of self-care, too. If something’s too heavy for me to sing and I’m in a good mood, I’m not going to go up there and sing it. And sometimes I just want to throw down.”
Sowers met her husband, trumpeter Zack Lozier, through the Minneapolis music scene. His nonjudgmental attitude, unconditional acceptance, and the way he makes her laugh are just a few of the reasons she knew he was “the one.” “We allow each other to be ourselves,” she says. “I love him. He’s hip. We’re best friends.” They’ve been together for seven years, married for two.
Lozier wrote the string arrangements for “Mr. Big Talker” and was in the studio during the recording of Sugar Drops. “He was a huge help for me with this album. He was the glue who held this album together—for me, with me,” Sowers says. He’s also her road manager, so the couple tours together—a good thing, since last year the band was on the road for nine months. When she is home, Sowers is a self-described recluse, her way of decompressing from the hyper-social nature of van rides, sound checks, call times, and interviews while on tour.
Sowers is busy, no doubt, but “busy isn’t everything,” she says. While she has personal dreams—a greenhouse among them—professionally, she comes up blank when asked about band goals.
“I’d love to sit in first class sometime,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe I should dream bigger.”
Or maybe not. A caring partner, a sustainable career, and clean living seem like accomplishments enough. “I’m really lucky to be alive,” she says. “I’m not a huge big thinker. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other one. My goal is always to make music that I love.”
Davina and the Vagabonds
Where: Guthrie Theater
When: 7 p.m. Mon. Aug. 5
Tickets: $35-$45; more info here