Born in 1974 in New York, NY; daughter of Walter Davis, Jr. (a jazz pianist) and Anna Schonfield (a jazz singer). Addresses: Record company--Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.elektra.com. Agent--Brad Goodman, William Morris Agency, 1 William Morris Place, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Website--Alana Davis Official Website: http://www.alanadavis.com.
With the release of her debut album Blame It on Me in 1997, Alana Davis joined the ranks of female singer-songwriters who were all the rage in the late 1990s, including Ani DiFranco, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, and Fiona Apple. Billboard magazine described Davis's sound as "rhythmically rich" with "expressive, honeyed vocals." Her cover of DiFranco's "32 Flavors" became a favorite on alternative radio stations, and her album drew a range of listeners with its mix of pop, jazz, and folk sounds. The release of a second album in 2001 called Fortune Cookies proved that Davis had staying power. Straddling the line between popular and alternative rock, she offered music with more emotion and depth than the teen pop ballads in vogue at the time.
Born and raised in New York City's Greenwich Village, Davis grew up surrounded by music. Her African American father, Walter Davis, Jr., was a respected jazz pianist, and her Irish-Scottish mother, Anna Schonfield, was a jazz singer. A life in music seemed inevitable for Davis. "I don't think I could've avoided going into this direction," she told David Chiu of UniverCity magazine.
As a young adult Davis absorbed the R&B of Stevie Wonder, the jazz of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown, and the folk of female vocalist Joni Mitchell, all of whom she has credited as influences. She studied briefly at Mohawk Valley Community College in upstate New York where, with her love of animals, she considered becoming a veterinarian. In the meantime she learned to play guitar and started writing her own songs. Later she would joke that her only audience at the time was her dog, Homer. Fame was the last thing on her mind when a music-industry talent representative took an interest in her: "I wasn't looking for a record deal," Davis recalled to SonicNet.com. "I made a demo tape with a friend ... who sent it around to people, and somehow it fell into the hands of Elektra Records. It ended up being lucky." Recognizing Davis's potential, the Elektra agent called her in to develop her talent.
Davis then prepared for her debut, polishing her songs and composing new tunes on her guitar. She worked closely with her producer and partner, Ed Tuton, but ultimately her journey was a personal one. "Making [my first] record was a discovery process for me," she told Rolling Stone. "I went into it thinking I wanted to collaborate and find material, but somewhere along the line I realized that it was going to have to come from me." While she was creating Blame It on Me, Davis met one of her idols, R&B singer-songwriter Bill Withers, whose hits include "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine." Davis credits Withers for steering her down the right path. "He told me not to waste my chance," she told Rolling Stone. "To do something meaningful."
Blame It on Me was released in 1997 and was hailed by critics as a shining debut. Davis wrote or co-wrote most of the album's 12 tracks, often shaping her lyrics on themes of love. "Loving, probably more than anything, inspires me to write because love connects to everything," she told UniverCity. Yet the biggest hit on the album was Davis's reworking of Ani DiFranco's "32 Flavors," which got much more radio airplay than the original song. Although she was initially supportive of the cover version, DiFranco changed her tune when her fans resented Davis's success with the song. "It's only after [DiFranco's] fans started reacting that her feelings started to change, and that's too bad," Davis told SonicNet.com. "[The cover] has done only good things. I changed the lyrics and stuff but I didn't take any credit. She's laughing all the way to the bank."
After her debut release, Davis toured with the much-touted Lilith Fair and H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere). She performed live with Ben Harper, Blues Traveler, and Ziggy Marley, gaining a reputation as a dynamic live performer with crowd-drawing appeal. Although Davis had some popular singles, her album was not a runaway success. "When I came off the road [from touring for Blame], I was lost," she told Billboard magazine. "I kept waiting for the album to take off, but it never did. During such times, I have to remind myself not to get lost in the despair.... So, my inner voice gets louder and saves me."
A four-year recording hiatus followed Blame It on Me, leaving fans to wonder where Davis had gone. She spent the time soul-searching, writing introspective songs, and looking for the next step. She came out with a second album, Fortune Cookies, in October of 2001, which she described to Billboard as "simpler and more to the point, a bit more raw and urban." Fortune Cookies also grew out of her collaboration with producer Ed Tuton. "It's very natural working with him," Davis stated on the Elektra Records website. "He helped keep the songs pure. He has a wonderful way of helping me get to just what I'm thinking and feeling. That's important when you're working with songs that are very personal."
Looking for a fresh, spontaneous sound, Davis wrote some of the lyrics in the studio. With the song "When You Became King," she drew upon the influence of her longtime female singer-songwriter idol, Joni Mitchell. "It's a particular fingerpicking pattern that I learned to copy from [Mitchell's] records when I learned to play back in college," Davis said on her website. "It's so fun to do. I wrote it without ever really intending that it become a song. I was sort of exercising and playing. It had a nice feel to it."
Fortune Cookies came out during a different time for female vocalists, when the songs of teen pop sensations were gaining more radio airtime than those of groundbreaking, independent artists. Davis's record company, Elektra, marketed her as an authentic alternative to the overproduced, "manufactured" sounds glutting the market. Response to her cover of Third Eye Blind's "I Want You" was positive, and reviewers once again waxed lyrical about the songsmith's breathy voice and funky rhythms.
by Wendy Kagan
Alana Davis's Career
Wrote songs and played guitar as a young adult; landed record deal with Elektra Records; released debut album, Blame It on Me, 1997; released follow-up album, Fortune Cookies, 2001.
- Billboard, October 3, 2001, p. 14.
- "Alana Davis," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll (December 10, 2001).
- "Alana Davis," UniverCity, http://members/tripod/com/~alana_davis/interviews/university.html (December 10, 2001).
- "Alana Davis Biography," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=2879&cf=2879 (December 10, 2001).
- "Alana Davis Drawing H.O.R.D.E.s of New Admirers," SonicNet, http://partners.sonicnet.com/lp/elektra/singlestory.jhtml?id=500174 (December 10, 2001).
- Alana Davis Official Website, http://www.alanadavis.com (December 10, 2001).