Vulnerability and carnal desire go head-to-head on Elise Davis’ The Token released September 9th via Make The Kill Records / Thirty Tigers.
Story and storyteller are one and the same. “I really can’t express my vulnerable feelings – especially towards men I've had feelings for over the years,” Elise confesses, “But, I have no trouble writing down painfully honest lyrics about it.”
The Token puts a microscope on the southern dynamic between the sexes, and the Little Rock, AR native’s inner turmoil, founded on her life’s trajectory against a more traditional path. Elation and ache play a tug-of-war.
Davis has a keen sense of a bad idea. Plenty of songs in this cannon pass off as mere lurid insight, but Elise’s observations give salacious lyrical points layered depth. One can tell she has spent endless hours observing interpersonal dynamics and honing the craft, both professionally and personally.
In 2012, Elise relocated to Nashville without a safety net. She landed in Music City after playing countless shows ranging from prominent support slots to gigs in hotel lobbies; she'd paid her dues before she'd even arrived. She knew that the pursuit of a song was her path.
After a short time in the new city, a friend mentioned a contest in American Songwriter Magazine – all she had to do was upload a few mp3s. “I submitted songs I’d been performing live for years,” Elise said. Shortly thereafter, she received an email explaining she’d reached the Top 100. Then another one saying I was in the top 25...then the top 5. “I have to admit, I ignored it. I didn't think it was real. They had to track me down to tell me I'd won.”
The contest awarded Elise a publishing deal and a crash course in the Nashville songwriting technique, and she spent the next two years arriving to scheduled co-writes with some two-hundred writers. This proved to be an invaluable education in the craftsmanship and collaboration. Through this process, Elise truly defining the individuals she wanted to work with to craft songs. In the end, there were only a handful of the two-hundred Davis felt a strong enough connection with to write the material that ended up on the album.
Additionally, the process of delivering songs with a broader message in hope of a Music Row cut brought Davis's artistic mission and method into sharper focus; her own songs with handful of confidantes were quietly getting more personal, more vivid, more yearning. A more introspective scope emerged, defined by rock-solid imagery and honest exploration of motives.
After a couple of lackluster recording sessions with a ticking clock in Nashville, Elise had a realization. Through her creative evolution, she knew she needed to take a step back from where she’d honed her craft.
In 2015, a newfound manager pointed her in the unlikely direction of Sam Kassirer – keyboardist in Josh Ritter's band and an accomplished producer known for work with the likes of Ritter, Lake Street Dive, Erin McKeown, Langhorne Slim, and others. The intersection of Davis's recent songwriting realizations and Kassirer's more textured approach to recording was a defining dynamic in the output, with Sam’s production techniques matched the open-hearted and clear-headed nature of Davis's songs while toeing a line between neo-country-soul and more indie realms.
Late night phone calls and escalating email threads put The Token into motion. Davis had always produced her own recordings by default; “I couldn't afford to do it any other way.” The arrival of a sounding board and collaborator of Kassirer's capacity proved to be a revelation.
Producer and artist decamped to Kassirer's Great Northern Sound Society studio in rural Maine in winter of 2015. “I'd never been to Maine before,” Davis admits. “getting outside of my day-to-day songwriting rituals allowed my songs to develop in a more authentic way. Nothing but snow and woods all around. Middle of nowhere. Phones didn't work...it allowed me the space to recognize Sam and I’s vision. Everything about the process was creative and real.”
The instrumental support was delivered by guitarist Josh Kaufman (Day of the Dead collaborator with Aaron and Brice Dessner of The National, Craig Finn, Bob Weir), bassist Bradley Cook (Shannon Van Etten, Indigo Girls), drummer Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver, Hiss Golden Messenger).
With the producer and instrumental support she needed, Elise’s southern sensibilities are pushed into the foreground by skeletal rhythmic backdrops and guitar textures. Southern twang was pushed to new heights by the band’s dynamics, and, while tracking live for the first time, Davis's songs blossomed. This sonic dynamic parallels the song’s message here, where Kassirer and the band’s more modern sensibilities underscore Elise’s Arkansas upbringing and inner dialog.
The opening title track – her steely, determined, plainspoken vocal against just electric guitar, bass, drums, and organ awash in spring reverb – is the mission statement for what follows and the Elise Davis of today.
A compelling, thematically unified work, The Token takes place in unremarkable corners, in kitchens and diners, on porches. Bacon, bourbon, and (ex-) boyfriend t-shirts are set-dressing for interwoven narratives outlining lust, loss, need, and envy in a distinct and unique fashion. “There's a right way to ask me for my love,” she pleads. “Don't you want it?”
The snarling, bluesy “Benefits” is ushered in by a fiercely distorted tremolo guitar as Davis observes true love just prior to celebrating her own no-strings-attached situation. “Pick up the phone / I don't feel bad about it,” she sings. “Not knocking love / I just haven't found it,” she adds, clearly unrepentant about biding her time while feeling a need to pursue a path that began in Little Rock.
Davis is as upfront about her desires as she is about her needs – and she's a survivor. Witness the tenderly wounded “I Go to Bars” or the hurting resignation of “Diamond Days,” where she wonders just what could have been: “I chose to take my time, she chose to take his name, someday I might wish I had done the same...but who am I kidding.” But Davis is no shrinking violet; she's fearless, even overtly predatory. On Penny, “don’t want you to take your eyes off me. Cause, honey, I’m a lot of things, but I ain’t naive.”
The Token is a rare piece of art born of risk and actually sounding like a risk that paid off. Elise Davis is putting her human condition in the forefront for all to hear; The Token delivers an unrelenting living contradiction, one born of her past while wrestling with the present.