Name: Mitch Davis
Occupation: Producer, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Recent release: Mitch Davis's debut album The Haunt is out via Arbutus.
Recommendations: Hmm. I promise I’m not pretentious but Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, no. 3 is one of my favourite songs. I listen to it on youtube and I have for years. I bought the whole record for an ex-girlfriend but I wish I owned it myself.
Also the next one to come to mind right now is the "Ladies Night" remix by Lil’ Kim. I might like any song with that lil 1/8th note tapping.
If you enjoyed this interview with Mitch Davis and would like to find out more, visit his Instagram profile.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Well, I’ve been playing instruments for longer than I have memories, kind of. My mom plays many instruments and we had plenty of them around the house to play with. I’m also the youngest of 4 kids so there was some precedent.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you’re listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
That’s really cool! I definitely share the visual aspect to a degree, but it’s more like ... situations and actions. I mostly just try to translate emotions into chords and sounds, which obviously seems cliché ... Just like, thoroughly explore a topic lyrically and musically, with the melodies and chords adding to the explanation rather than just existing.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Well, I’ve approached it in a bunch of different ways.
My first songs were all solo piano pieces I’d write with no real plan to release them. Then I rapped and produced for over 10 years, so mainly I just cared about lyrical clarity / poignancy and rhythmic structure.
But I always had it in the back of my mind that I needed to make an album where I played all the instruments and self recorded it. I guess so far, this project, The Haunt, is that. (laughs) I’d like to somehow bring everything together under one banner eventually.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
Well, I was raised in essentially the only black family in a tiny town in B.C. Canada. My siblings and I were sort of expected to be black but didn’t really know how. That itself and the black culture we had access too remotely via American media probably helped guide me towards my teenage hip-hop and r&b idols. I didn’t really listen to rock in a real way until I started playing in my friends’ bands in Edmonton.
That said, I’ve always felt eclectic in the sense that all inspired music is the same, and all uninspired music is boring as hell.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Authenticity and honesty, chordal emotional accuracy, and enough groove to make it fun ... not too stiff to be enjoyed casually.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I definitely felt like with this album I steered towards the latter. I absolutely want to knock out some more sonically experimental stuff. I think I just had to make an album with a basic set of instruments to get it out of my system though.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I’ve bought and sold so many things, for good or bad. I’ve had like 4 or 5 different MPCs and I feel like I always need one of those around, even though for this album I hardly used it. Mainly I like a good polysynth, my sax, a good external effects processor, etc.
As for strategy I think about that a lot. I’ve spent over a hundred hours mixing a single song many times and I’m painfully aware how that can suck the life from something flawed but good. I try to set “rules” now that involve how much I need to improvise, how many takes I’m allowed, and how much fun I need to be having while I record it. (laughs)
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
Well. It’s all different right now. But when I was recording The Haunt I was waking up around 10 or 11 and usually instantly obsessing over whichever song I was working on. Sometimes I did vocals or quiet instruments like classical guitar during the daylight hours. I’d often forget to eat or get dressed for a while if I was really going at it, so I guess I’d shower at like 5pm sometimes.
Then, as soon as I was allowed to make noise, around 7pm (when the business downstairs was closed), I’d patch my songs through my PA system and work at a louder level. I recorded until 5-7am almost every day. Usually mixing down like 5 different versions a night, noticing a stupid mistake each time and not letting myself go to bed until I corrected it. Basically living in a really unhealthy way and getting work finished really fast.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that’s particularly dear to you, please?
Well, let’s say the song “Hope That” on my record.
I had those chords written over 5 years ago and always knew they were important to me but never felt like I could do it justice in a recording, I guess. So when I finally finished a lyrical structure I was happy with, I felt so relieved. I had 3 versions of it, not knowing which one would make the album. I made a really smooth r&b version that might show up as a remix one day.
But anyway the final version ... I didn’t think I could get the feel perfect with real drums so I kept the machine, recorded the piano, then recorded the bass. Those stayed forever. I just kept adding instruments after that until it felt finished.
The vocals took me an insane amount of time because I wrote a song I wasn’t really capable of singing. I can perform it way better now than when I was actually writing it. You’d never know but the vocals are composed of probably 50 takes, all sung back to back until I lost my voice.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
Honestly, I’m way more fun and funny when I write music with other people in the room. When I write it alone I can’t help but be a bit of a downer. But, when I’m alone I also access a deeper level of introspection than is possible surrounded by others. I’d like to have both in my life permanently.
I’ve also come full circle on jamming. I used to hate it and think it was boring and unproductive, but I love the freedom of it now when everyone is in the right mood and you don’t get locked into too many repetitive patterns.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I don’t know how mine will relate necessarily.
I made an album about heartbreak. It’s been done many times and it is an extremely relatable sentiment, but it doesn’t speak to the world as a whole or current events en masse. I think music, whether political or not, has the ability to go beyond entertainment and can filter into public consciousness to effect change, but it’s not as obvious as like ... a speech.
Though politicians now are often deservedly untrusted, so maybe art’s effects have grown relatively. People still want to trust someone.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Well this album The Haunt is absolutely a processing of isolation, pain, and heartbreak. Or, in a way, a study of. I hope alongside regular listening, it helps people through those more difficult times whenever they arise.
I definitely have had my go-to songs for years when I don’t necessarily need something to make me feel better, but I need something to show me that I’m not alone in feeling that way to begin with. Solace in shared suffering.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
Well, those were basically the two pathways I had to choose from when I was 19.
I’m still a fan of science, or more specifically physics, in a big way. For me, the cross-pollination has been found in the repairing and building of the tools used to make music. I repair synths and other instruments and I built the recording gear that I made the album with.
There’s an entire side of music that’s super geeky and obsessive surrounding tones and recording / mixing. It can only be called science when it’s literal electrical engineering that informs and supports your creative process.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn’t or wouldn’t in more ‘mundane’ tasks?
I don’t think there are inherent differences in creative expression itself, but there are certain languages more suited to communicating feelings and ideas than others.
I love coffee (even if I can’t drink it because it gives me ridiculous anxiety), but I wouldn’t say its possible vocabulary is very vast. I’m certain some people have emotional experiences making and drinking it, but I’d assume it’s more a gradient of a single emotion rather than a careful and precise recipe of many.
Or maybe I don’t get it. I think with any artform you sacrifice specificity for beauty, or blend the two to taste.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I’m trying really hard not to sound too new-agey. It feels more like generational wisdom than modern science. We learn to be translators and can guide and shape music to our needs without fully understanding it. Or needing to for that matter.
I think it’s a way of distilling complexity into palatable, shareable forms.