Shenandoah Davis 

Singer studies opera, embraces indie

"I think it's a harder conversation to have with friends and family than to just come out."

After an article published about Seattle-based singer/songwriter Shenandoah Davis stated that she was a lesbian, Davis had to explain to her loved ones that she has dated girls and she likes them. A lot. But not solely.

The confusion likely came about because Davis' 2008 solo debut full-length We; Camera is distributed on San Francisco's Queer Control Records. QCR, a nonprofit organization, is known for supporting new LGBT artists--though not exclusively--offering them everything from yearlong residencies to distribution support to help get their careers off the ground.

About a year ago, after We; Camera had been out for a few months, Davis e-mailed QCR to see if they would be interested in distributing it for her. She promptly forgot about it.

"But then they e-mailed me back and we had a great conversation. We didn't know exactly how it was going to work out, but we knew we wanted to work together," Davis said. "At that point, they only had four other bands on their roster, all Riot Grrrl hardcore and they didn't have any other one-person acts." QCR didn't know where Davis would fit in, but didn't let that stand in the way and began distributing We; Camera. It's a relationship that has worked well for Davis, who is looking forward to QCR becoming more involved when she starts recording her follow-up album this spring.

Davis' seemingly, but not at all random connection with QCR is as dichotomous as her musical career. For someone who was homeschooled by her mother in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, her quiet, layered indie-folk music doesn't seem such a stretch, nor does her affinity for her adopted hometown of Seattle. But that kind of music is somewhat of an odd choice for a woman who graduated from college in Colorado with a bachelor's degree in opera performance. As a classically trained musician, it's not strange that she would join the ranks of Seattle's popular orchestral pop group, Grand Hallway. What is different is that Davis plays accordion and vibraphone with the group. The shift from pursuing a classical music career came as kind of a surprise, even for Davis.

"I [visited] Portland [Ore.] before my senior year in college, and I already knew that I didn't ever really want to have a career as an opera singer," Davis said.

She understood that opera is an extremely competitive field regardless of the level at which a performer enters, and she just didn't feel passionate enough about it to prosper.

"I'm a really hard worker," Davis said. "I've sucked up a lot of things I didn't enjoy just for the purpose of succeeding at them or completing them. I really didn't want being an opera performer to become one of those things that I would get tired of but would keep doing because I hadn't succeeded at it yet."

Though she may have renounced a career that would have seen her standing in a recital hall singing in German or Italian, that operatic training is nonetheless still there. And it's clear to anyone with half an ear that she's had it. When she reaches a high register, instead of going all whispery or conversely, yelling, she floats into it comfortably. The powerful vocal projection of an opera singer is there, but it's reigned in and softened as Davis wraps it around lyrics like those in the title track from We; Camera: "We spent the night on the railroad tracks / exchanging names / we had it all / we were the same" followed by old-fashioned player-piano plinking.

It's been two years since she tickled her way through her debut, and though she's working on a follow-up, she's not in a huge hurry.

"I feel all right about the length of time it's been since the last album," Davis said. "Recording that album was one of the first things I ever did. The first thing I did was call my friend who had recorded some friends and said I don't know what I'm doing but I have these things and they might be songs and they might sound good or maybe they won't. Please help me figure out if they're good or if they're bad and I should just forget about it."

Up to that point, all she'd done musically was sing opera, and she'd never written her own piano music before. All of her studying had been classical. She certainly hadn't performed alone and certainly not in bars or clubs.

"The record release show for that album was only the third or fourth show I ever did by myself," Davis said.

It didn't take long before she embraced the less competitive and less lucrative world of DIY indie music. Hauling a keyboard around the world, she played a few months in Europe last summer and in Japan during Christmas. And while piano is definitely Davis' instrument of choice, even that is subject to change.

"I'm much better at the piano than anything else. I picked up the accordion since moving to Seattle. I play guitar but that is only in my house by myself. I picked up the banjo a couple of months ago but that is also a alone-in-my-bedroom instrument. I'm hoping to spend more time improving upon that one. I'd like to have an instrument I can travel with that is not the piano. When I was touring in Japan and Europe, I had this 5-foot-tall cloth carrying case that was already 15 pounds, with my keyboard, clothes and CDs in it that I had to lug around everywhere. I was thinking, 'Why can't I play violin or flute or a medium-sized drum?'"

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