Mikaela Davis AND Southern Star- Perseverance Pays Off 

August 5, 2023
Slide & Banjo

When you hear the name Mikaela Davis, the first image that will most likely pop into your mind is a harp. It makes sense. There aren’t a lot of harpists fronting rock bands. For Davis, her ability to play the harp, which she has done since age eight, is the tip of the iceberg of her musical abilities.  

Davis’s latest album “And Southern Star,” a nod to her backing band is a shining example of the growth she’s made over the five years since her debut “Delivery.” The album is bursting with flavor. It bounces from country to rock to pop with Davis’s outstanding vocals leading the way. Pristinely produced, the album is also filled with instrumental voyages inspired by Davis’s collaborations in the jam band scene the last five years.  

Technically, this is Davis’s sophomore release. But she’s been grinding it out in the music world for over a decade. Out of print and practically impossible to find, there are Davis self-releases as far back as 2012. Older than that is the musical relationship and friendship she’s had with drummer Alex Cote. That goes back to their school days. In the middle of high school is when Shane McCarthy (bass/vocals), younger brother of Cian McCarthy (guitar/vocals) joined the band. He graduated early to make sure he was available to tour. Steel guitarist Kurt Johnson rounds out Southern Star.  

Davis gained an instant, loyal following after performing with Grateful Dead legend Bob Weir just after “Delivery” was released. Since then, her visibility has grown exponentially. She’s performed with Phil Lesh, Grateful Shred, Circles Around the Sun, and numerous others. “And Southern Star” is loaded with instrumental sections Davis says are a direct result of playing alongside some of the world’s best improvisers.  

Despite numerous sets of extra eyes and ears on her music thanks to Weir and Lesh, Davis had a difficult time getting this album released. She parted ways with Rounder records who released her debut “Delivery” in 2018. Davis decided to self-fund the album, betting on herself and her loyal backing band.  

Davis begins by discussing the momentum created from that magical meeting with Bob Weir. “Right after Delivery came out is when I got the call to sit in with Bob Weir. That whole world evolved pretty quickly. I was focusing on touring to support Delivery in 2018 and ‘19. My band had the songs on this album ready to go when Delivery came out. In 2020, I reached out to my label and asked if we could put out the next album. Then the whole world fell apart for a couple of years. We put everything on hold.” 

Davis states, “When Covid ended, Rounder said it would be some time until they could put out a new album. I didn’t want to wait around. People don’t realize I’ve been doing this for over 10 years. I had to wait to put out Delivery and didn’t want to do that again. So, we amicably parted ways. It was nice of them to let me go.” 

Label-less with an album’s worth of material, Davis searched for the best avenue to bring her music to life.  She was not going to be denied. “I decided this album is getting made one way or the other. We made it ourselves. I’ve done session work with my friend Kenny Siegel at his Old Soul Studios in the Catskills over the last 10 years. He really wanted us to make the record at his studio. We talked about it, and I told him we don’t have a label behind us. We worked it out where we were able to record a lot of the album there. Cian, my guitar player, tracked my vocals, keys, guitars and all the extras in my apartment. He essentially produced the album with me and the band. The whole process took about a year.” 

After taking the album to Mike Fridmann and Tarbox Road Studios to polish everything up, Davis and Southern Star were ready to find an outlet to get this music to the public. Enter Kill Rock Stars music label. Davis had recorded a song with Mary Lou Lord for an Elliot Smith tribute album the label released. She also worked with Chris Funk to record another song featured in a Dungeons and Dragons release on the Kill Rock Stars label. 

From there, Davis muses, things lined up perfectly, “After that, I thought it only seemed natural they might want to put out an album with me. I asked Chris and Mary Lou to put in a good word. After reaching out and having a great conversation with Slim Moon, they agreed put out my record. It’s been such a cool experience working with Kill Rock Stars. They care about the artist and trust your vision. When we were picking out what singles to add, they had their thoughts and I had mine. They trusted me enough to let me pick. I’m so excited about that. I’m so grateful that I aligned myself with a label so willing to work with the artist.” 

The country soaked openers “Cinderella” and “Home in the Country” are perfect examples of Davis and Southern Star working as a team to maximize the creative output of each song on the album. “Cinderella is one Alex wrote. It was different before I took it.” Davis remembers.  “I heard him playing it at a campfire at his family’s cottage. I thought it was so gorgeous. I asked him if I could please have the song. He said, ‘Sure, I don’t know about the chorus. Do what you want.’ I wrote a new chorus and rearranged the song to make it what you hear today.” 

For Davis, transitioning from sole song writer to co-writing with others took some time, but has paid off significantly. “I was so against co-writing when I was younger. I thought I should be writing all the songs myself because that’s what a true songwriter would do. Finally, I realized how wrong I was and how I love co-writing. When you get stuck, bringing the song to someone you trust makes all the difference.” 

She continues, “This band, we’re all songwriters and we all contributed songs to this album. There’s tremendous diversity in the makeup of the band. I’m classically trained on the harp. Cian and Alex are multi instrumentalists who studied jazz.  Kurt studied Indian classic music in college. Shane is a multi instrumentalist with a deep knowledge of music. When you look at all our diversity, it only makes sense that the music we make will be equally diverse. We all have different inspirations and put that in the album.”   

As Davis explains, “The rest of the album is full of contributions from everyone involved. Cian is a prolific songwriter. He has hundreds of songs. Not many have been released. I heard him play “Saturday Morning” and “Home in the Country” before and loved them so much. I asked if I could record them for the album. Cian and Shane wrote “Far From You” a long time ago. I added the melody and outro at the end. “Don’t Stop Now,” Cian wrote the words, and I wrote the music. Our manager asked us to write this song for a documentary. It wasn’t picked. I don’t care because we got to record it for the album. It has a great feel and certain tone the rest of the album doesn’t touch on” 

Where “And Southern Star” stands out the most is the familiarity and tightness each of these “new” songs have. Davis and crew have been playing them on the road for a while. She notes how that familiarity entering the recording studio made the final output so much sweeter. “The main difference is we’ve been playing these songs for years. We knew how we wanted them to sound before we went in the studio. With Delivery, we had about half the songs arranged and ready to go. The other half we hadn’t played live yet and didn’t know how we want them to sound. I did this on purpose because I was curious to see where John Congleton would help us take the songs. Alex, Shane and I went in blind with Delivery, which was cool, I’m not against that method. I like how the album turned out and it’s now this moment forever captured in time. We play these songs completely different these days, the live versions have grown with us.” 

The improvisation on the road and instrumental sections on the album are a direct result of Davis wandering into the Grateful Dead and jam band world. “I’ve always been a fan of the Grateful Dead’s music. I hadn’t learned it before I started playing with Bob. Learning that music opened a whole new door for me. As a classical harpist, that’s something I didn’t learn in school. Playing with Bob in 2018 was the first time I’ve ever improvised a solo. I was so nervous. Bob, Don Was and Jay Lane were so positive and encouraging. It made me realize the endless opportunities for the harp.”

w. Phil Lesh and Friends Stern Grove 2022

Davis adds, “That community has been amazing. They took in my band immediately. It’s great to have an outlet for fans to find my original music. People will say I saw you playing with Bob, or the Relix session. From that, I discovered your original music and was blown away. The other great thing about that community is they are fans for life. They are super dedicated and will come out to every show. We’ve been improvising and stretching out songs. Trying to make each show as different as possible so people will get a unique show each night. Because of my band’s background and love of jazz and the Grateful Dead, it was an easy transition to more improvisation. I have Bob and so many others to thank for that.”

Davis wraps up by weighing in on the unplanned trail she and her band took to make this album and her one simple goal for everyone’s efforts. “I wanted this album to have the spirit of a live record. I wanted it to feel like a band. Not a studio record full of different session musicians. I wanted it to be cohesive even though the songs are different. Producing on our own was a decision we made. We wanted to make it sound how we wanted it to sound. It was also out of necessity. I’m so happy with the outcome and so proud of us for doing it ourselves. I’d love to get us out of my mini van, we’ve been touring in that van for 10 years. We don’t have a crew, a sound engineer, or any of those things. My goal is to get our music out to as many people as possible and hopefully those people will connect with it.”


Mikaela Davis “And Southern Star” Kill Rock Stars Records 2023 

Feature Photo: Wyndham Garnett

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