Tanya Davis said she’d be wearing a black dress, but when she shows up to the interview, she’s wearing a dark blue T-shirt with faded, rolled-up jeans.
“I chameleon between a lot of different things,” she says, jumping out of her seat and pointing to what she describes as a butch outfit. “Yesterday, I wore a short skirt and a tank top and pulled my hair back.”
Davis just released her sophomore album, Gorgeous Morning, and is touring it across central Canada until July 12. The album, recorded in Halifax with musical engineer Charles Austin, shows a change in the artist known primarily as a spoken word poet, to songwriter and musician.
Seven out of nine songs on Davis’ first album Make A List — which she recorded in three weeks after moving to Halifax in 2006 — were poems with musical background. On her latest album — which she started recording this past fall — only two of 11 songs are spoken word and they all have instrumentation.
“This was a much bigger project for me,” she says, explaining that she switched from acoustic to electrical guitar and invited more musical guests to add variety to the album. “I like to feel fluid and the record is as all over the place as I am,” she says.
Davis may look like the average girl with her shoulder length shaggy brown hair, thin-frame glasses and slightly buck teeth, but as the simple tattoo on her forearm hints at, there’s nothing average about her.
Born in Summerside, PEI, Davis describes her teenage self as “really catholic” and “homophobic.”
“I was really girly and feminine,” she says. “I had no sense of style that was personally informed.” When she was 20, she dropped out of the English program at Saint Mary’s University and moved to Ottawa to take Health Science at the University of Ottawa. She was living on her own and quickly became part of the queer scene.
“When I came out, I came out,” she says, with emphasis. “I became a tomboy and a baby dyke and died my hair many colors and wore bizarre things.”
She also went from being a devout catholic to leaving the church.
“I started hanging out with feminists and activists and saw there was a world I didn’t know about,” she says.
After “hitting the rave scene hard” in her second semester, Davis dropped out of school and hitchhiked with a friend to Vancouver. It was there she discovered spoken word in 2000 during a show with poets Kinnie Star and Shane Koyczan. Davis, who had always been a writer, decided to write and perform a poem and quickly realized she had a personal style.
“I just developed it from hanging out in silence,” she says of her unique pronunciation. “When I presented my spoken word piece for the first time, that’s what came out and that’s how it’s been since then.”
After living in Vancouver for four years, performing and doing community work, she moved to Charlottetown, PEI to live with her best friend — musician Catherine McLellan. After winning third place nationally in the CBC poetry face-off in 2005, she decided to move to Halifax the next year to pursue life as an artist. Davis knew nobody, and spent her days in coffee shops working on her first album. At night she went to shows, meeting artists and musicians from the Halifax community.
She performed exclusively as a spoken word artist, and was nominated for four Nova Scotia awards in 2006 and four nominations for the PEI music awards in 2007 for Make A List. Halifax alternative weekly, The Coast, awarded her best author/poet in 2007 based on a readers’ survey, and that’s a title she stands by.
“I still cling to the fact that I’m a poet because lyrics and words are important to me,” she says. “I write songs as a vehicle to express language and I’ve been a writer from the get go.”
But the new album reflects her evolution as an artist, exploring a variety of musical styles and topics. Her sound falls somewhere between alternative folk and pop, and songs like ‘Baby Lion’, ‘Trusty Umbrella’ and ‘Firebug’ start off slowly and ascend into catchy pop tunes. Lyrically, the album seems to be a celebration of Davis’ changing identity. She sings about whatever she wants, from her dead cat Henry, to building a fortress to keep out love-promising knights and princesses. The theme is best summed up by the chorus of the opening song, ‘Thesaurus’, as she croons, “All the things you hoped I would be/ they’re not for me/ no they’re not all for me/ and you could save yourself the disappointment please.”
Her audiences range from young hipsters to older folk music fans to literary crowds, but in every performance Davis tries to be herself.
“People like how I’m so honest and talk about things that would make them uncomfortable or vulnerable,” she says. “I don’t have walls up in my performance and I can’t help it.”
Same goes for her outfits. “There’s something about the whole ritual of performing that I love,” she says. “I wear cute skirts or funny sneakers depending how I’m feeling. One time I dressed up all in white and told people I was a snowflake. Sometimes I’ll just wear headbands.”
For Davis, her fluid fashion sense is reflected in her music. “It would be weird if you saw me walking on the street in three different outfits and then heard me play the same music all the time,” she says. “I’m content with what I’m doing and how I am but I think life is too interesting to exist in one place or category.”
Jun 19: 8:00 PM, North Street Church (CD release), Halifax, NS
Jun 21-22: 8:00 PM, Kings Playhouse – Vinyl Café, Georgetown, PE
Jun 26: 8:00 PM, Blacksheep Inn, Wakefield, QC
Jun 29: 7:00 PM, Toronto Pride – Paul Kane Parkette, Toronto, ON
Jul 1: 8:00 PM, Art Bar – Poetry reading, Toronto, ON
Jul 2: 12:00 PM, Moonshine Café, Oakville, ON
Jul 3: 9:00 PM, Cameron House, Toronto, ON
Jul 6: 8:00 PM, Le Cagibi, Montreal, QC
Jul 12: 8:00 PM, Struts Gallery, Sackville, NB