There is something especially intense and nerve-racking about sitting down to do an interview for the O.K. Show — a podcast where I have very consciously made an effort to dig deeper and discuss matters that affect the heart, soul, and general well-being of the musicians I’m speaking with — and realizing that I’ve literally never said more than two words to the person I’m sitting across from until I invited them to be on my show.
Being a music journalist is weird like that. Even after a decade-plus of interviewing artists, there are still so many musicians whom I’ve only admired from afar; even though I’ve sat in the audience as they poured their heart out on stage or teared up to an especially moving song they’ve recorded, we don’t actually know each other out here in real life. And yet here we are, carrying on our first conversation with microphones hot, tape rolling.
I couldn’t wait to speak with Davina Sowers. She has such a tremendous presence both on and off stage, whether she is fronting her cabaret jazz/blues band, Davina and the Vagabonds, or simply letting out a hearty laugh. And she confronts the darker things in life with a fearlessness that I admire; she speaks about her history with addiction, her fight to gain respect in a male-dominated industry, and her relationship with her bandmates with an unwavering veracity.
Without further ado, I am happy to present the 21st episode of my O.K. Show podcast: A conversation with Davina Sowers.
Andrea Swensson: Hello, Davina. Welcome to the OK Show.
Davina Sowers: Thanks for having me. I’m excited; a little nervous, just to let you know.
I get nervous with each one. I’ve done a few dozen now. I like it. I like things that make me a little nervous.
They say to scare yourself once a day. So you scared me today. Thanks.
Check that one off. I am interested in doing this because I don’t actually know you at all. This is the first time ever talking to each other, and it’s interesting because I’m basically asking you to tell me your life story.
That’s alright. My heart’s on my sleeve.
I was very moved by the interview you did with Hazelden ahead of your Hazelfest performance. Why don’t we start at the beginning. Tell me where you grew up.
I grew up in a railroad town — Altoona, Pennsylvania. My father was a foreman in the spring shop. My mom — well, who I consider my father was her fourth husband, and he was born in 1902 and he adopted me, so I have his last name, which is Sowers. My real father’s last name was Cupper, so I used to be Davina Beth Cupper, but now I’m Davina Marie Sowers. I don’t know why they changed my middle name. So I grew up there. It’s a really economically depressed town. Railroad isn’t really the bees knees anymore; it’s just not the way things are done. So have places like Detroit or Altoona, which is on a small scale, it becomes a hard place to grow up in. And I’m not really central Pennsylvania normal for them. I don’t know what that even means, and I don’t mean to down them in any way. Just — they were not ready for me. I could just put it that way. I was the girl that wore used bowling shoes she got at Salvation Army in second grade, which is maybe normal in big cities for people to be able to express themselves, but it wasn’t where I came from. I didn’t really fit in very well.
Davina and the Vagabonds in the Current studio (Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)
I hear you. I’m from a small town as well.
It’s weird. It kind of affects you socially. I’m still kind of an outsider. I don’t have a lot of friends – not because people don’t like me. But maybe they don’t! Just joking. So I grew up there in a really dysfunctional home. My mom has borderline personality disorder. She’s a little bit Mommy Dearest, Joan Crawford in a way. So it was really tough, and I left when I was 15, and I’ve been on my own since I was 15. When you do that, you make really bad decisions. You hang out with adults that hang out with 15-year-olds, and they’re not really balanced human beings if that’s where they’re finding company. And so I think my drug use just really started there; really young, like 13. It just happened very quickly, because that’s really all there was to do in that town, was hang out with bad kids. They were the ones that got music and introduced me to the Violent Femmes, and that’s just who I hung out with. Who else was I supposed to?
I got into heroin, which is an epidemic in central Pennsylvania. I still keep up and see it’s still a massive problem, especially in economically depressed areas. People from big towns just go in and saturate [the town] with drugs, and so I had a good heroin addiction for probably a decade. I got a train ticket to go to New Orleans. I think I was like 17 or 18. I ended up back in Altoona, and I’m like, “I’m going to kick drugs and I’m going to go to New Orleans.” Why New Orleans? Horrible decision. But I couldn’t make it and I left and ended up in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh ended up in Key West. Key West ended up in California, and this whole time I’m carrying an addiction. I ended up back in Key West, homeless. Like homeless. Like no joke. Like eating-out-of-trash-cans homeless. I was clean, though, and that’s where I got clean. I went into seizures; that’s how bad my addiction was. I had to go the hospital. My withdrawals were horrible. I was at that rock bottom thing that people talk about.
And I firmly believe, and I know people are going to disagree with me, but I firmly believe that addiction is a symptom of an illness, which is mental illness, which I obviously suffer from. Anxiety and depression. I have partial characteristics of borderline personality disorder because of my mom. I’m very detached and somewhat empathetic sometimes, and then I’m overly empathetic. But I made it. I made it out of it. I don’t know what happened, but it’s a miracle. It really is. People have no idea here who I used to be at all. I tell them I used to be a heroin addict. They’re like, “Okay.” And it’s a serious thing. Addiction is so rapid and so common. There’s some sort of stigma on mental illness, and some sort of stigma on addiction. You’re really looked down upon, and it’s unbelievable to me that people can be that ignorant at this age, knowing what they know at this point, still. So I am proud of my mental illness, and I am proud of me being a recovering addict. I will never not be.
You mentioned it had been a decade of heroin when you got clean. Was there a moment or an experience that was a turning point?
I think I just couldn’t do it anymore. I literally had no veins left in my arms. I couldn’t function. I would get sick after four hours. It just was really ridiculous, and people aren’t built to do that. And when you’re in it, you are built to do it. It’s weird. You can’t get out of it. It’s just hopeless and horrible, and I think with me, just like I have to do with everything else, just like my career and just like everything, I have to work really hard and make mistakes and learn myself. I was in rehab quite a number of times. I definitely had people that were telling me I had issues, but I think I just had to get there myself, just like everybody says. I didn’t believe any of them at the time, but it’s true. And then I started realizing I obviously suffer from some issues that I’m covering up, and not to place blame on other people, but there definitely was some issues with other people, as a child, that I couldn’t choose to do anything with. You’re stuck with it. So that was tough. And I still work through that.
When did music start to enter into the picture?
As a kid, my mom was a mofo. She was a folk singer. She sang and played guitar. Since I was six I was stealing her vinyl. I was super into folk and into classic rock, until I really started getting into blues – heavy English rock and roll like Led Zeppelin when I was 13 or 14, and the Beatles. It was just family stuff. And then Bauhaus. Sisters of Mercy. I listened to everything I could, because music was really just all I had to feel right.
Do you remember writing your first song?
I do. I remember as a kid writing songs. The best writing I started doing was here in Minneapolis for sure, hands down. I moved here when I was three months clean, and I just hit the ground running when it came to music. I think my best writing started to happen once [my] brain starts clearing a little bit. The first song I wrote here was called “Bee Sting.” I do it on the uke, but I first started it on the guitar in the basement. I lived in Frogtown, that’s the first place I lived at when I moved here. The lyrics are like “I’m sick of seeing the same old things.” It’s about taking a different road and kind of the reasons of making different decisions, and whether that road’s good or bad, at least it’s different and it’s taking you up and around it, and not the same path that you’re on. That’s sounds so lame, just explaining it to you, but it’s not a bad song. I think my writing did get a little bit better after a while. I still sing it to this day. It’s my second to last song almost every gig.
Tell me more about being a touring professional musician and the stigma around mental illness and addiction, and trying to balance this life with your real life.
I have a lot of responsibility on me as a bandleader. I think being a bandleader and being a musician are two separate things. I don’t go to a bar and want to drink, just because I see it. We’re in that atmosphere, but I’m seriously with a group of band geeks. I’m uber square. I collect Edwardian/Victorian jewelry. That’s my thing. I think a few times I’ve been offered drugs, and it was coke and I’m like, “Are you from the ‘80s?” Like, where’ve you been. Get your disco ball outta here. But it was just a few times. I don’t know if people just look at us and go, “they’re not going to partake.” We’re just all really geeky. I think just keeping busy is really helpful. I get really stressed. The business is really stressful. It’s really dog-eat-dog. It’s a man’s world. I have to keep it all together. I keep four people employed full-time. That is their job. I pay them every week, the same thing whether they work or not, and so that puts a lot of pressure on me. I’m the one that does all the road management and all of the flight buying. I’m a perfectionist. I’m really type A. Socially, I get anxiety, especially with the Vagabonds because there’s a fine line of friendship and I want to treat them right.
I have to be honest with you; people fold. When people are generally around you and aren’t really close knit and are maybe your employees, it’s really weird because I’m with them almost every day. But I’m not on that level with them. They kind of just fold and they kind of back off, and then you feel even more alone because you’re like, “I don’t have anybody.” But we get onstage, and that’s when I have them. That’s when we have each other, and that’s when it feels right. So that’s what makes everything kind of sane for me on the road. And just the music, period.
Find more of my conversation with Davina in the audio above, or find the O.K. Show in your favorite podcasting app. And hear Davina and the Vagabonds’ full in-studio performance, recorded this spring for The Local Show.