For the past several years, Davina and the Vagabonds have been shining rays of sunlight over the Twin Cities music scene with their mix of blues, jazz, and soulful pop. With a unique lineup including a small horn section of trumpet and trombone, and with Davina Sowers’s inimitable voice—which has earned comparisons to a long list of female blues, jazz, and soul vocalists from across the last six decades, none of which quite capture it—on top, the group have been earning increasing attention both here and abroad.
Davina and the Vagabonds’ third album, aptly titled Sunshine, is coming out on July 15, and the group will be playing two shows at the Dakota Jazz Club this Friday and Saturday, providing a viable alternative to fireworks over this Independence Day weekend.
In a phone conversation, Sowers and I discussed the Twin Cities jazz scene, the Vagabonds’ successes in Europe, and more.
How was your European tour?
It was great. I actually just got back yesterday from two weeks’ tour in Switzerland—got back last night at 9 p.m., so I haven’t even been home for very long. But we tour pretty much nonstop; we’re always touring. Europe specifically: it was great. They love Americana roots, that’s what we do, with a little edge. That’s kind of a blanket genre…but, you know, New Orleans blues-jazz, and I’m a singer-songwriter, so it all stems from Americana roots, period. And [European audiences] just love it, they eat it up. It’s something they were raised with, and it’s something that we put a new spin on, so the new generation [of] European kids dig it as well. They treat us really well and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of travel, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, and I love it.
Were there any moments or performances that sort of stood out to you as unique on tour?
That’s so crazy because it’s kind of like they’re all unique—just in the fact that the culture’s so different, the scenery’s so different, you know? But I think out of all the countries we’ve played, Romania’s definitely one that sticks out to me. It was just a-mazing. It was just like a Tim Burton movie. We were there in the winter, so there was just this small amount of snow that laid oh so perfectly—it was like we were in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It was just amazing, visually. The history—we’re such a young country here in America we just never realize the history around us in other parts of the world. But I think that the shows, in general, just they’re always so heavy hitting with these people, they’re always just so much fun. They just now how to throw down, you know what I mean? The energy from [audiences] really really makes it such a phenomenal experience for the band and I.
Your style of music seems to draw on a lot of sort of distinctly American traditions such as jazz and blues. Do European audiences respond differently to that type of music?
Well, it’s so multi-generational, first of all, the stuff that we do. It’s so amazing the difference of generations that listen to our music; you know, the people that have grown up with it, people my parents’ age or even older, or your parents’ age or even older that listen to it. I think there’s still a nostalgia for [those generations]. It’s just like the Beatles, like the English blues invasion, how that was just huge in the UK, because they were taking Americana music, like Elvis and Bob Dylan, and all these bases of Americana: new folk-slash-blues—slash-jazz, even—and it was imported, something new and very mysterious to them, and I still think that that holds water to this day. When even the newer hip-hop groups or pop groups from America go to Europe or go to other countries, I think it’s just that strange, mysterious thing we, as Americans, are to them. Because it is so completely different to them. And they love it, they really do, they just straight up throw down and love this music, and treat it with a huge amount of respect, which is really refreshing to me.
You and the Vagabonds have been getting increased attention, both regionally and internationally. How has that affected your day-to-day life?
It makes me feel really good. It feels really great that people are enjoying the music. Day-to-day life? Businesswise, it’s a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it. I’m home for six days, and then I leave again for Europe on [July] eighth, so touring constantly, there’s just definitely added things to your list that you always have to take care of, just a little bit more than there would if I went to Fargo, or when I play outside of Minneapolis, or wherever. It just feels really good. This is my dream, and my passion, and I know that’s the Vagabonds’ dream and passion, so it feels really good when we’re getting this exposure and we’re able to share our music with people.
I’ve been playing in the Twin Cities for ten years now. That’s a long time. So it feels really good. I’m sure these people are sick of me, I’m sure the Twin Cities are just—I’m sick of me, you know what I mean? So it feels good to be able to get that exposure and to have fresh ears. And we still have our base of people in Minneapolis, but I think this just makes the heart grow stronger for sure. When we come back it’s nice to see old friends and faces. Day to day it feels good, it feels really really really good, and I just want to keep doing it, non-stop. I just want to keep traveling, and we are. We’re going to Israel, we’re going to France, we’re doing more in Switzerland, we’re going back to Norway. It feels really good to be loved in so many different areas of the world.
The closing of the Artists’ Quarter has made a lot of people concerned about the future of the Twin Cities jazz scene. Are you concerned?
There are other options available. I’m not really specifically into the jazz—well I’m into [it], I love the jazz in the Twin Cities area, I’ve played with a lot of people that are straight-ahead jazz players. I know that the AQ is going to be still a venue, I’m hoping that they hold up the tradition [of] jazz. The people that have bought it, I’m sure they will because they’re jazz lovers. I think that there are other outlets—[for example] there’s Jazz Central, which is a really cool venue for people who play straight-ahead jazz and traditional jazz.
I’m worried about musicians in general. It’s not an easy life, and it’s not easy to get gigs. So my heart goes out to all musicians, to be honest with you, that are trying to get gigs, and really trying to get exposure because it’s not an easy thing to do. You have to use both sides of your brain, which is really difficult ‘cause I’m rarely one side of my brain half the time. But I think Minneapolis and St. Paul both are really just full of music-loving people in the community. I hate to place this responsibility on everybody, but I feel as though they’ll get it together, and I think that they’ll keep jazz going. There’ll be ways and people will find ways. It’s an ebb and flow of business, and I think things will work themselves out and these players will find ways to play, and the venues will find ways to have them, and the community will go out and listen to them.
And there’s also, of course, the Dakota, where you’ll be playing this weekend.
And the Dakota, yeah, the Dakota’s phenomenal; they definitely do jazz, you know, they have a late night, and they have all the heavy-hitting people that are touring nationally and internationally go through the Dakota. The Dakota’s been my home. They’ve given the Vagabonds and I just phenomenal amounts of exposure and chances to play. It’s a room that we fit in so well. And I’ve goon there for other musicians and they fit in there so well. It’s intimate but it’s a big enough room where it still has that bigger venue feel to it. And they’ve always been really really giving to the talent in the Twin Cities, and all the world.
If you look at their schedule, you see such a broad amount of different genres that go through there, and they have a great sound system, and they treat you like family. They treat you really good, as a musician, which doesn’t necessarily really happen all the time when you’re going into a venue. But I love them, more than anything, Lowell (Pickett, the Dakota’s founder) has given me, since I moved here—I’ve only been here 10 years—but I’ve been playing there for a good seven years, and I love it. It really is my home away from home.
Do you have anything special planned for your shows at the Dakota this weekend?
I have a large amount of energy to show for all this traveling that I’ve been doing. We have some new songs—we have a new album that’s coming out. So there’ll be definitely new songs that we’ll be playing to the audience, and a new feel to a lot of these different songs that I’m bringing to the table for it. So, high energy, new songs, lots of love. Just happy to be home for this weekend. It’s a “welcome home” and a “good travel” show for us, a bon voyage show for us, so it’ll be a lot of fun.