Mikaela Davis: Harping on a Pop Sensibility

The harp is an instrument most often associated with classical music; as a rule, its use in pop is generally limited to background orchestration in big productions. But clearly nobody explained that rule to Mikaela Davis: the pop vocalist not only plays the harp live onstage, but she writes songs on it.

Davis takes advantage of the instrument’s versatility to push the boundaries of pop convention. “People mostly notice when I am pitch bending,” she says, “making the harp sound more like a sitar.” While she sometimes plays solos, Davis views her role as a player similar to that of a rhythm guitarist. “I see the harp as another instrument in the band,” she says. “Not necessarily the focal point.”

Artists who rose to fame in the 1990s have made the biggest impression on Mikaela Davis. She names Ben Folds, Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith as some of her favorites. Davis’ latest (and fifth) single is a cover of “Half Right,” a song that originally appeared on Smith’s posthumous 1996 album New Moon. “Elliott got me interested in passing tones, more meaningful lyrics and fingerpicking ideas,” she says.

Davis readily admits that her chosen instrument is uncommon in a pop music context. But as soon as she discovered the harp during her third grade school year, she was hooked. She began taking lessons right away. “I had every intention of becoming a full-time performer on harp, but not like this,” she says. Her original goals were more traditional.

She began writing music when she was only 12, and went on to earn a bachelors degree in music performance. But Davis didn’t necessarily view songwriting as part of her career path. That changed after she graduated college. “I decided not to go on to grad school after hooking up with my booking agency,” she says.

Davis’ musical worldview became more expansive through playing the harp, and that sensibility informs her own contemplative and textured songwriting. “Because of playing the harp I discovered Alice Coltrane,” she says. “And that led me to Ravi Shankar and middle eastern music.” That influence shines through on “Pure Divine Love,” a track on her new album, Delivery.

But that worldly, sophisticated perspective is tempered by her pop sensibility, honed years ago listening to Ben Folds Five’s first album. “I would rollerblade around my mom’s neighborhood,” Davis says, “listening to it on repeat.”