If love is fertile ground for songwriting then Adelaide’s Emily Davis has inspiration at every turn.
For eight years the seasoned folk musician has moonlighted as a wedding celebrant. “I guess I’m just obsessed with love and I should just be cool with that,” she tells The Adelaide Review. “I sort of fell into it but after I did a couple weddings I thought, ‘this is an awesome job, I can’t believe more people aren’t doing this’. It’s a pretty special time to be witnessing between two people.”
Davis even had a short-lived stint as a wedding singer. “I was terrible at it,” she says, laughing. “I used to get so emotional when the brides would arrive and I would find it really hard to sing beautifully and sweetly while I was trying to hold back tears … so it’s probably a good career move that I transitioned out of that.”
Davis’s new album You, Me and the Velvet Sea is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an exploration of love in all its forms. Two years in the making, it was inspired by the breakdown of a long-term relationship and the transition into a new, unexpected chapter of her life.
“It wasn’t a hugely traumatic break-up but it was a new era for me because I’d spent most of my 20s in this relationship,” says Davis. “I just wanted to sink my teeth into what love really meant because when you think you know what it means then it all kind of comes crashing down.
“I can see how people can get quite bitter and cynical about the whole process; I got more curious than anything and realised that love is kind of the glue that keeps it all hanging together.”
It’s not all big, romantic love. The album touches on moments between friends, family, “even the love for a stranger that you can have in a weird moment you share,” says Davis. “All of the songs had that theme and in some ways they’re direct dedications to people.”
The lead single, Hold On, is a quietly pulsating “love letter” to Davis’s current partner. “It’s a strong, anthemic [song about] love and how transformative that process can be when you submit to it,” she says. It’s also inspired by a tale Davis heard about ancient mariners stuck out at sea.
“They had no food and their boats were leaky and they had no way of knowing where they were,” she says. “They ended up navigating their way home to their wives and families using constellations. I thought that was a really beautiful story. The third verse in the song is kind of all about that — what you’d do if you ever became separate or lost in that way, that you’d navigate your way back using only the stars.”
It’s subject matter that runs the risk of veering too far into sentimental, even saccharine territory; something Davis wanted to offset with “a bit more drive and a bit more grit” musically. “I was looking for quite a rocky sound … a bit of distortion on guitars, that energy of a really thudding bass and drum line,” she says. “It’s an album that’s about discovering yourself through love, so I didn’t want it to be too sappy. It was quite a fortifying experience for me and I wanted that to be reflected in the sound.”
Davis brought on band members Holly Thomas (drums), Annie Siegmann (bass), Tori Phillips (fiddle) and Emily Smith (guitars) to help her achieve that sound. “I wasn’t in a rush to record until I knew we had all the players in place,” she says. The result is a finely tuned ebb and flow of evocative folk, sea shanty storytelling and richer, bolder rock ‘n’ roll vibes.
References to the sea, in all its fury and stillness, are a constant presence on the album. Though Davis says it’s pure accident. “I didn’t notice until my bass player pointed it out to me. She said, ‘is this a concept album?’ and I was like, ‘no why do you say that?’ and she said ‘you pretty much mention something nautical or sea-like in every song’.
Davis’s connection to the sea tracks back to her childhood on Eyre Peninsula. “We were real beach kids,” she says. “The place I feel the most myself is when I’m in the water. As I’ve grown up it’s always been this constant for me — I dream about the ocean pretty much every night. I’ve seen psychologists about it; they don’t think there’s anything unusual there.
“I also thought the sea was a great metaphor in some ways for the things that love can be: serene and calm and beautiful and very tumultuous and able to do a bit of damage if you’re not prepared. But it’s always transforming and it shakes you up. There’s something very strong and powerful about it.”
Davis is something of an open book. She’s unguarded in conversation, on stage, even in the studio. Recording the album’s closing track, Heartache, triggered a particularly raw moment for her. “I couldn’t get through the song without bursting into tears in the second verse,” she says. “It happens very rarely but sometimes you’re really feeling something. In the end we kept the flawed track. There’s a moment in the second verse when I completely crack up. I thought, ‘if I sing it any other way it’ll sound really trite and emotionless and I don’t want to sing it like that.’ It’s really hard when you’re pouring your heart out like that and you kind of relive the moments when you’re singing about them but I feel like that’s something I try to do every time I sing.”
Expect the same raw emotion at her album launch this weekend. “I might have to bring a box of tissues,” she says, laughing.
Emily Davis will launch You, Me and the Velvet Sea on April 14 at Jive.