Oh my, that voice.
The first time I saw Michael Daves perform – way back at MerleFest in 2006 – I was struck by his piercing tenor. Living in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and being a fan of bluegrass music, I am well familiar with high lonesome. Bill Monroe. Carter Stanley. Del McCoury. Bluegrass icons all whose voices define the bluegrass vocal sound and set the expectations for generations to come.
Having been a fan for ten years now, it is with absolutely conviction that I say Michael Daves meets the standards set by his genre’s forefathers, and in my mind he has become one of the finest bluegrass vocalists of his generation.
Daves, a Georgia native who now lives in New York City, recently released an ambitious double album, Orchids and Violence. On this project, Daves recorded an acoustic disc of mostly bluegrass standards and paired it with a second, electrified disc of the same songs. The approach to each disc was unique, with Daves joining some of his best bluegrass buds – Noam Pikelny, Sarah Jarosz, Mike Bub, and Chris Eldridge, among others – for the acoustic disc while tackling virtually every instrumental part himself on the electric disc.
Same songs, different approach, drastically different sounds.
The records are absolutely genius in concept. If you are looking for a double album that features both Bill Monroe and Mother Love Bone, this is the one for you.
I recently caught up with Michael Daves to chat about the new record and the rock star within.
BRO – You channeled a little Dave Grohl on the electrified disc, playing virtually all of the instruments. Any trepidation in that?
MD – Well, the idea of working on my own in the studio was to help contrast with the bluegrass side, which was about the live interaction of awesome musicians in a large, reverberant space. There was the question about whether I would play drums, as my drumming is pretty primitive, so I was a little worried that I might take down the ship with that. But I went with the idea that my lack of skill in this regard would help keep the aesthetic raw. For our live performances, I’ve been working with Kid Millions, and amazing drummer who definitely can keep it raw.
BRO – When you electrified those bluegrass tunes, did you have a preconceived notion of how you wanted each track to sound, or did you just let them unwind and see where they went?
MD – The electric music started with a batch of electric arrangements I had come up with seven or eight years ago, and then I worked up the remainder once we finished recording the bluegrass side and knew what that was going to sound like. The goal was really to have those electric versions not sound like we just added drums and amps to bluegrass. We wanted them to stand on their own without needing reference to the traditional versions. I definitely responded to the the sounds of the pedals I got for the recording. Things got really interesting in the mixing, where Vance Powell created a bunch of sounds and textures that both fit the aesthetic direction I had laid out and were new and surprising to me.
BRO – Bigger challenge – rocking out “Pretty Polly” or giving the bluegrass treatment to Mother Love Bone’s “Stargazer”?
MD – The bluegrass “Stargazer” was more challenging, mostly because I had not performed it much before recording it. It’s pretty common for rock songs to be born in the studio, but with bluegrass music you’re rarely singing a new song. It’s more likely to be something that’s been with you for years.
BRO – Tell me about recording in Brooklyn’s Old First Reformed Church. That had to sound amazing.
MD – I find that space really inspiring, sonically. There’s a huge difference between recording while wearing headphones in a quiet studio and recording in a live space that you can really interact with. The space becomes part of the band. The natural sound for acoustic music is so good in there that we could approach recording really minimally. We went live to four track tape.
BRO – Inside every bluegrass picker, is there a rock start waiting to get out? Or is it the other way around?
MD – Ha! Well, the original bluegrass players were rock stars before there was rock music, but it’s hard to really talk about being a bluegrass rock star these days when you’re playing such a well-trod form of music, even if you rock while doing it. Rock stars connect with people while blowing their minds with something outrageous and new, burning down conventions in the process like Jimi Hendrix . . . or Bill Monroe in 1946, for that matter. Bluegrass stars these days connect with people through carrying the tradition forward with vivaciousness and skill, like Del McCoury. They’re not working the same dynamic, and I’m not sure you can have it the same way.
Orchids and Violence, the new electrified/acoustified release from Michael Daves, is out now on Nonesuch Records.
And be sure to check out Michael’s rendition of “Pretty Polly” on this month’s Trail Mix.