Katy Davidson On Skulls Example, The First Dear Nora Album In 12 Years
Twelve years is just a blip in the grand scheme of humanity, but for any living person, that’s a pretty significant chunk of time. And for Dear Nora, a project that started in 1999 and went on to put out three proper albums and a ton of ephemera in just under a decade, 12 years might as well be a century. Not that Katy Davidson stopped making music after retiring the moniker — there’s a string of post-Dear Nora releases that attest to that — but to step away from a given name for so long means that coming back to it will inevitably feel like, to some extent, an event. Which is maybe why Skulls Example, the first Dear Nora album since 2006, is so fixated on time — both its permanence and transience.
When Davidson started Dear Nora in Portland as a trio, with Marianna Ritchey and Ryan Wise, it was a funnel for sentimental songs with sharp pop hooks. Their earliest releases, like first single “Make You Smile” and their timeless 2001 debut We’ll Have A Time, gave way to music that emphasized atmosphere and place. As the years passed, Dear Nora became less a proper band and more an outlet for Davidson’s songwriting, as a series of moves up and down and across the West Coast necessitated that Dear Nora move with them. Their next two albums, 2004’s Mountain Rock and 2006’s There Is No Home, became weirder and less concrete as a result.
It was last year’s reissue of Mountain Rock and the subsequent tour that encouraged Davidson to revive the Dear Nora name again. And their new Skulls Example sounds like a testament to the enduring legacy of the band and its immense potential for the future. The album marries the lineage of the project to this point, embracing both the crystallized hooks and the abstract wandering. It’s an album obsessed with progress and the ways it might not really be progress at all. It’s also, at times, very funny, presenting an absurdist perspective where technology and nature and society coexist and clash. Davidson’s wry observations have a way of worming their way into your psyche, until it’s impossible to, say, stand in a museum and not think of a line from the album’s title track, “I took a photo of a photo and I got in trouble,” without smiling to yourself.
But Davidson’s writing isn’t overwrought or heavy-handed; rather, the disconnects in everyday life are presented matter-of-factly, where of course a church is built on top of an ancient ruin and the freeway is both a road lined with possibilities and a manmade creation that obliterated something else before it. Skulls Example is about the persistence of human connection, the way that humanity tends to persevere despite all the opportunities we now have to shut everything out. Like our ancestors before us who managed to survive the ancient plains, we too will find new ways to adapt and begin anew.
I talked to Davidson about what it’s like to come back after such a long time and how the music industry and the world at large has changed in the interim. And you can listen to a new song, the album’s opening track “White Fur,” below.
STEREOGUM: What have you been up to since the last Dear Nora album came out?
KATY DAVIDSON: Well, I made a few other records. I kept writing songs. I made a Lloyd & Michael album with Marianna Ritchey, who started Dear Nora with me, so it was kinda sorta like Dear Nora. But we got a little bit older, started experimenting a little more instead of writing just straight-ahead pop songs. That came out in 2008, and then in 2011, I did a project called Key Losers. That came out on Phil Elverum’s label, and he recorded it, too.
So in terms of music-making, I kept going. But my output decreased a bit. I just started focusing on other things in life… It was after Key Losers when I took a real five- or six-year break. And what I did in that time was start getting my shit together a little bit. I experimented with a few different styles of day jobs — quote-unquote day jobs. I played as a session guitarist in YACHT and also in the Gossip for a while. And then I wanted to stay home and not be on tour as much, so I started working at an agency called Marmoset and now I’m a full-time commercial music producer.
STEREOGUM: When during the process of the Mountain Rock reissue did you realize that you wanted to start putting out new music under the name Dear Nora?
DAVIDSON: It sort of starts with why I wanted to stop using that name in the first place. There were a lot of different reasons. Mainly, it was because I started that band when I was 20 or 21, and you write songs in a way when you’re 21 that’s not always going to resonate with your older self. I certainly stand by a lot of that early music, and at the very least it’s entertaining to listen to at this point, but I think by the time I hit 30, I felt like a different person. I know it’s utterly symbolic to change a band name, but for some reason it meant a lot to me at the time. That’s why I stopped using the band name in the first place. It was to sort of graduate in a way. And I’m glad I did. And it was really symbolic more than anything else, because I clearly kept making music.
So why did I start using it again…? Well, I moved back to Portland from Los Angeles and I met up with a music journalist friend of mine named Casey Jarman — he lives in Portland, he’s worked for a lot of publications — and I was sitting down with him, and he was like, “You should use the name Dear Nora again.” I forget exactly how the conversation went, but it was something along those lines. He said, like, “Most people know that name, why not just go for it?” And it really opened my mind up to it.
I think the main thing for me was that I was getting ready to start sharing music again and wanting to perform and wanting to record and release things, and I think ultimately what it came down to was that enough time had passed and I had separated from all my other judgements about using that band name from before. Now, I was thinking about how I could reach the most people, and I think that the most people know this name. Even if my new music doesn’t sound exactly like that old stuff, who cares? If we’re gonna do this, let’s just reach the most people.
STEREOGUM: That’s sort of indicative of how the industry works nowadays, where a band name is more of a brand. That’s what you use, regardless of how much your sound changes over the years.
DAVIDSON: It’s interesting that it’s not so easy for people to follow along when bands change their name. But I guess the name is much more loaded than we all think. It’s just loaded in that it’s a symbol and you can connect to it and it makes it easy for everyone.
STEREOGUM: Some of it probably boils down to how people consume music now, where they follow artists on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music and you can’t have a bunch of different projects because no one’s going to follow you to the new one.
DAVIDSON: It’s almost to a comical point. Because if you go to the Dear Nora page on Spotify and you look at the related artists, neither Lloyd & Michael or Key Losers are listed there, which is just hilarious to me. It’s the exact same songwriter writing basically the exact same songs.
STEREOGUM: How do you feel like the music industry has changed since the last time you put out an album?
DAVIDSON: Well, it’s certainly changed a lot since the last Dear Nora recordings, the bulk of which only came out on compact disc. I think only two of them came out on vinyl back then. Clearly people don’t listen to compact discs anymore… Vinyl has been super interesting. It’s still going — people still like them and people still buy them. It’s amazingly reliable. I think the most obvious thing is that everyone streams everything now. Even more rampantly than when the Key Losers album came out… Between 2011 and now, there’s been more of a shift and more of an expectation that everything will be online and available to stream. I’d say that’s the biggest difference.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or just is?
DAVIDSON: I don’t think I’d ascribe good or bad to that… I will say that I think it’s interesting that people make quote-unquote albums still. Not everyone does, but a lot of people do. And even though I don’t think streaming is good or bad, I hope that everyone listens to the album. I made it as a collection. There are threads between all of the songs, they’re meant to go together. I doubt that most people will do that, and I don’t even necessarily know if that’s bad. It’s just not what I hope for. At least, I can say what I hope for: I hope that people listen to the album in a chronological way, all together, all the time. But it’s not gonna happen.
STEREOGUM: I do think there’s a difference between the kind of music that you’re putting out and stuff that gets eaten up by the algorithm.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, maybe there’s something to be said for who might be a Dear Nora listener. It’s not like Mountain Rock has singles — that album is meant to be listened to as a whole, in order, pretty much. So maybe people that get into this new one will do that exact thing. I hope so. They should buy the vinyl — it’s gonna look great, it’s gonna sound great, it’s gonna play in order.
STEREOGUM: In terms of sequencing, I wanted to talk a little bit about “White Fur.” It’s the first song on the album, and I feel like first songs are very important. What made you feel like this one would work best?
DAVIDSON: There’s a lot of reasons. When I listened to all of the songs that I had available to put on this album, there were very few that stood out as being remotely any kind of good option to be the first song. There were maybe only two that would work at all… And I’m not gonna say what the other one was, just to keep some kind of mystery, but it was a really difficult decision. I know it seems funny to be so hung up on sequencing, but I was joking with my friends that sequencing the songs tormented me more than making the album itself. I was having sleepless nights trying to figure out what order the songs should go in.
Finally, what it came down to was that it just feels like an opening song. I think those lyrics create an atmosphere that is a really good introduction to the other things I bring up on the album. The first line is: “This terrible, this wonderful far-out family will never get me.” I think there’s a lot of different meanings in there, and so it felt right as the first line of the album. I also reference the mountain twice in the lyrics, and I wanted to bring that back as a theme in homage to Mountain Rock, which is what helped compel the making of the new album. But also, symbolically, it felt right to bring up the mountain again: What are the rocks in our life? What do we feel like is solid? What never goes away? I’m so interested in lyrics these days that that alone was enough to convince me that it should be the first song.
I think that also, songwriting and arrangement-wise, it had a good vibe. The lyrics are quite sad, but it’s still an upbeat pop song. I want to shout out guitarist Tom Filardo — he played the solos on that song, and I feel like it completely takes it to the next level.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk a little bit about the people that you collaborated with on this album, because you have a mostly new band behind you.
DAVIDSON: Bringing this up is incredibly important to me because I feel like these contributions were so incredibly vital. First personal mention is Zach Burba, from Seattle — his band is called iji. He’s always been a bud of mine, and we’re two Arizonans relocated to the Pacific Northwest — actually, a lot of us are from Arizona, oddly enough — and he just did amazing work on this album. He played basically all of the bass and almost all of the synths. He really added a lot of magic to the album. The drums are played by Gregory Campanile. He’s a friend from Portland and he’s an incredible drummer. Super smart, never does anything too obvious. And then I had Jessica Jones play guitar on a few songs. She’s amazing too — she used to have an old band called We Quit and now she has a band called Jessica Dennison + Jones. She’s just super good with her vibed out, vintage tones. Those are the main people that played on the album.
And then there’s two other main collaborators that play with us live, Stephen Steinbrink and Nicholas Krgovich. They both toured with us last year. They’re not on the album, but they’re definitely there in spirit.
The one other main contribution I want to talk about is my friend who is a poet and a musician named Cynthia Nelson, who collaborated with me on a few of the lyrics for a few of the songs. She totally helped me get those songs to the next level. I absolutely love her poetry and her lyrics so much. We worked together — we e-mailed each other ideas and then I would shape them up into lyrics. It was highly collaborative and it made for better songs, more interesting lyrics.
STEREOGUM: The songs on the album are funny in a way that I wasn’t really expecting. There are a lot of disconnects that we experience everyday but don’t really think about. I was watching the teaser video you posted for the album, and there’s this one shot of a Starbucks in a beautiful vista. I feel like the album is a lot about playing with contrasts like that, like how we all look at our phones but exist in a beautiful place that we take for granted.
DAVIDSON: I think you really just summed it up. I hope that people watch the teaser video. I made it myself, I shot it on my iPhone and I edited it myself. I think it’s a really nice visual accompaniment to what I have going on here. The main thing that I want to convey is the concept of magic and how the earth feels magic. And technology feels magic. Yet, at the same time, so much is going wrong. And it’s really about those two atmospheres coexisting. Magical horribleness.
STEREOGUM: How do you think daily life has changed because of technology?
DAVIDSON: All you gotta do is enter a room and look at every single person hunched over a device. People’s posture has literally changed. So there’s that — ever-present face-in-screen. And yet people still come together. House shows still happen, people still laugh and interact. I don’t know. Visually, things have changed. You look around and everyone’s got their nose in their phone. But I don’t really mean to make it sound depressing. Kind of like I was saying about streaming, I don’t think it’s good or bad. It just sorta is.
STEREOGUM: In a more general sense, what’s the album about to you?
DAVIDSON: It’s about humans and it’s about the earth. It’s about magic and connections and destruction. Those are the main things that come to mind, thinking about the lyrics. And it’s about love. The rocks, like I was saying: the things that never, ever go away, like love. That’s what it’s about to me. It’s an examination of human beings as animals on this planet and it’s not really a judging examination, just observations. I hope that some people find parts of it funny. Parts of it are meant to be funny. It’s not that we should be laughing about all the horrible things that are happening right now — of course not — but there’s definitely humor and absurdity that I’m trying to convey on the album.
STEREOGUM: Since completing it, have you been writing songs a lot more?
DAVIDSON: I have good momentum. I was working so hard on the album the whole second half of 2017, so yeah… I have been writing, I’m working on a lot of ideas. I have all these songs I didn’t use on this album and they’re good and I could use them on the next album, but I kind of don’t want to. I want to hold off and just put them in the hard drive and forget about them. If anything, I’ll just put out another three-disc rarities comp in, like, 2020. I want to write a collection of completely brand-new music and try to release it before seven years passes again. Momentum is definitely there, so… high hopes for continuing to release music in the not-too-distant future.
05/25 Portland, OR @ Turn Turn Turn, Early Show (All Ages) / Late Show (21+) *
05/26 Seattle, WA @ Timbre Room, Early Show (All Ages) *
05/27 Olympia, WA @ Le Voyeur, Early Show (All Ages) *
05/29 Oakland, CA @ Starline Social Club (21+) * ^
05/30 Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater (21+) * ~
05/31 Phoenix, AZ @ Trunk Space (All Ages) *
06/01 Palm Springs, CA @ Ace Hotel / Amigo Room (21+)
06/02 San Francisco, CA @ Make Out Room, Early Show (21+) *
06/08 Boston, MA @ Lilypad (All Ages)
06/09 Brooklyn, NY @ Knitting Factory / Northside Festival (All Ages)
06/10 Philadelphia, PA @ Space 1026 (All Ages)
* w/ Nicholas Krgovich
^ w/ Stephen Steinbrink
~ w/ Hand Habits