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YOUNG AND (SOMEWHAT) RESTLESS
By Tim Roberts
O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!
--Joseph Conrad, "Youth"
I don't really know what the hell I'm doing," she confessed.
The tall, slender young woman with long brown hair and eyes the color of freshly brewed coffee sat stirring a straw around her glass of water with a force that spun the ice cubes and slice of lemon so quickly that they were still spinning for several seconds after she stopped. It was an act that underscored the anxious energy she gave off as she talked, the kind you might feel awaiting for a jury's deliberation, or waiting for that one sweet job offer to come through, the one that's going to get you out of the lousy one you currently have and make your checkbook happy.
But Andrea Davidson knows one thing for sure.
I want to play music. I want to travel. I want to do all these things. I'm just kind of trying to get it all together. I'm taking some classes at [Jefferson Community and Technical College]: a writing class and a philosophy class. Not for any particular reason. I just like to learn new stuff. I like to learn random things. Don't really care about a degree. Not to say that won't change. I like to keep my mind open to things.
But I want to play music. Definitely."
We were at the Third Avenue Café in Old Louisville. The café is in a building that used to house a pharmacy called Zeiden's. Like the old pharmacies, the entrance is catty-cornered to the street. Where the café's bar now is used to be the pharmacy's soda fountain. The glass-windowed hutch still towers behind it. What once held a variety of sweet syrups to make phosphates of any flavor now stored a generous supply of Bourbons and other liquor. Enough artifacts of the little building's former occupant remain that somewhere in the place you can probably still catch a whiff of oil of cloves. Maybe, when it is quiet, even hear the ghost of a creak from a comic book spinner rack.
Plus a mannequin dressed like Elvis guards the door. Appropriate, because Elvis was the symbol of restless youth more than a half-century ago. He and the others that followed wanted to make music, too. Definitely.
I went to Berklee over the summer to study piano," Davidson said, "and I've been writing with that and taking it with me out to play over the last few months. It's very new, but so fun to try. I have wonderful crowds that come out. They're very supportive."
These wonderful crowds show up in the two places Andrea Davidson has regular gigs: Tuesday nights at Dutch's Tavern on Shelbyville Road in St. Matthews, and Thursday night's at Saints right around the corner on Breckenridge Lane. Handling both gigs is a full-time job for her. But like any full-time job, there are times when she wants to run out the door screaming.
It can be brutal," she said, "because it's hard to separate it. When you're playing regular gigs, a lot of times you're playing in a bar. And the reason they have you in there weekly is because you can pull a crowd. And the reason you can pull a regular crowed is because you're playing songs they want to hear. Yes, they want to hear your songs. But, yes, they also want to get drunk and sing along to Lynyrd Skynyrd and other songs you would rather cut off your fingers than play. So it's kind of a compromise, and it's a really hard thing to balance. And it's a hard thing to not let get to you."
Davidson has been playing music in Louisville for three years. Born here, she was raised up river in Madison, Indiana, returning to Louisville when she decided to try a career in music after learning how to play the guitar. And already she's run into the one frustration that can cause some to give it up entirely: starting off strong, then immediately hitting a flat spot.
I've found out it's so much harder than I'd realized when I decided that's what I wanted to do," she said. "When I graduated high school I was 17. I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to play music, so I kept practicing the guitar. I worked for a law firm for about a year and a half and was miserable. I saved up money to buy a PA, quit the job, moved to Louisville, started playing gigs. It had this burst of energy. There were so many things I needed to do. It was easy at first, then you hit this plateau and you ask, ‘What do I do now?'"
And it's not just the abrupt leveling-off that frustrated Davidson. It was how the entire business operates, dealing with all the dotted-i and crossed-t details.
I hate the business side of music," she said, "with a deep, burning passion. I want to play music. The gigs that are most amazing to me are gigs that are original shows, where when you walk in and there's a sound system already set up, where you walk in and plug in, play your own stuff, then leave. And it's not so much about the money. It's just being able to do that. I need management. I need somebody to help me book shows. There's a time when I'm booking the shows, I'm recording, I'm writing, I'm playing, I'm setting up and breaking down, I'm trying to promote. I'm trying to do all these things, and I suck at spreading myself that thin. Some people are great at it."
One big step in Davidson's career that helped her reach that plateau was the recording of her debut CD Pick Your Poison. As she claims, it also suffered from her restlessness.
I have a really hard time listening to it now," she claimed. "The problem with it is that one of my biggest downfalls is that I'm impatient, and it shows on the album. We did it in three months. They were songs that were my first songs ever, and I never revised them. I never took the time to figure out how they reflect on me, what they say about me, how I connect with them. It turned into something that was rushed. I listen to it now and it just makes me cringe."
And the lesson learned?
I learned that it's all about taking your time, and don't put it out unless you believe in it. I wasn't really sure that I did, but I thought, well, it's my first album, put it out and let it be that. If I'd had taken an extra three to six months, it could have been something really special. Not that it isn't. I'm glad for what it is. But it could have been something better."
Davidson is taking her own lesson to heart on the new release she's preparing. It will be an EP of new material, produced by Brian Cronin and recorded at his Cornerstone Studio.
I'm spending a lot of time on this little EP," she said. "We're not rushing it. We're trying to add other instruments and make it not just a solo thing."
The production is more of an experiment for Andrea Davidson instead of an impetuous, gotta-do-it-right-now event in a young musician's life. There's nothing like hearing yourself reproduced as a bunch of little digital signals and burned onto a shiny plastic platter early in your career. But if you're not happy with the result, it could linger on as an embarrassment. So for this next outing, Davidson is taking her time and trying new instrumentation.
The decisions aren't being made off the cuff like they were before. We're experimenting with other instruments. I love trying to do that. It's probably not so much fun for Brian, because I don't really know what I'm doing, but he's a pretty patient guy. And it's fun to just experiment and not go in and say, ‘we've got to get this done today! The CD release party's already been booked!' And now it's like, ‘let's try this.' Then I'll come back in a few days and try something else. And it's not just the music. It's my entire life. I just get out of my head and enjoy being in the now."
Being in the now has its benefits, especially for a musician. The more present you are in the now, the more receptive you might be to the little song ideas that just bubble up from somewhere. And without new material, your career goes flat faster than an open can of beer. Davidson, however, has tools for capturing and keeping those ideas and keeping her repertoire fresh: her cell phone and Apple's Garage Band software.
It's just so handy. When I'm in my car, that's when so many songs come to me. It's usually melody. So I have this little recorder I just discovered on my phone. I can record for up to 40 seconds, which is perfect. Or it will be a little melody with a catchy phrase. If you go into my Garage Band, there are between 50 and 100 songs I've started that have so much potential. They're just sitting there. If someone stole my computer, I'd be so upset on so many levels. There's a lot of potential there. I sometimes start things but don't finish them. But I'll get to them eventually."
A major goal that Davidson wants to achieve now is to teach music to children during a month-long residency in Capetown, South Africa in May. She has been accepted to a volunteer teaching program. Now all she needs is the money to get there.
They need teachers. All kinds. They don't' have any way to teach the kids music. Now it's a matter of getting something together, find a sponsorship or raise the money to get me over there and find some low-end guitars so the kids can learn. I'm pretty pumped up about that, because I've never been out of the country before. So it might be a little extreme to go from Kentucky to South Africa."
And why teach in South Africa?
Music is in peoples' souls over there. Kids should be able to learn it. You don't have to have a degree to do it. You just have to know how to teach and know how to play something. And be patient. It's culturally a completely different world."
Davidson is determined to get the funds to follow through with her goal, even if it means taking out a loan. She needs $4,500 to get over there and do the teaching, plus she'd like to raise a few extra dollars to purchase some guitars to take with her so the students can have something to play.
Meanwhile, she continues her twice-weekly gigs at the two clubs in St. Matthews, mostly playing covers and her own material. But sometimes she gets a surprise request when the audience wants to hear nothing but her songs, which happened to her during a show at the Phoenix Hill Tavern on New Years Eve, 2008.
I like it when you go to a gig where you expect no one will want to hear your own music. Then someone shouts out randomly, ‘play one of yours!' My prior experience at Phoenix Hill has been playing cover songs. I was in the Taproom. I end up playing one song, and for the rest of the set I played my own stuff. It was quiet, people were listening, they were into it. Five people got ahold of me on MySpace the next day. It was incredible.
Never go on with preconceived notions. You never know what's gonna come out of it."
Davidson is still young enough to be highly flexible in her approach to performing and recording. She's also learned the hard lessons about the music business very early in her career, especially how much is involved in planning a recording. But another lesson is to never have those preconceived expectations of your audience from show to show. Sometimes they'll want to hear your stuff, sometimes they'll want to hear Skynyrd and Petty and some Dead. If they like you, they'll support you and see you every chance they can. No matter what you play.
There is a solid group of people that come out who want to hear my music and believe in what I'm doing. I try to hone in on that. That's how I make my living. That's how I pay to go to school and live in Old Louisville. It's always a good experience to get out and put yourself in front of people. And even if you have to throw in covers and play an original every couple of songs. Or if they don't want to hear originals, play covers and suck it up, but separate it. You have to separate it from going out and playing your own music. And keep that close to you.
That's easy for me to say, but it's hard for me to do sometimes. There's a lot of turmoil that goes along with that."
Keep close to Andrea Davidson by checking out www.myspace.com/andreadavidson.