M897 Artist Spotlight: March 2014
Learning with Joshua Davis
"everybody's hero" asks the tough questions
Story by LCC Radio Staff Reporter Karen Hopper
Seth Bernard and May Erlewine were the M897 artist, May told me that Joshua
Davis is one of her heroes in Michigan music. I’d always figured we’d name him
the M897 artist at some point, but at that moment, I knew that it needed to be a
priority. No musician I’ve spoken with over the past year has had a bad word to
say about him, and many offer up his name, unprompted, as somebody they respect
While we’re naming him the M897 artist as a solo artist, his success is closely tied to the seminal Lansing band, Steppin’ In It, of which Davis is and remains the frontman. The days when Steppin’ In It had a standing gig at The Green Door are over for now (Elden Kelly and the Next Step have the slot, and that band features many members of Steppin’ In It), but the band still exists; they’re just playing fewer shows, and trying to “make them count” when they do.
Davis, newly of Traverse City, is humble about the admiration he receives, blaming it on his age. “I think I’m older than a lot of my peers! A lot of people in May’s generation see Steppin’ In It as breaking a lot of ground. We were pushing it and making a living.”
Community-building is a huge priority for Davis, who now works with organizations like SEEDS, and his 2013 album, A Miracle of Birds, was the result of his collaboration with an organization called On the Ground (more on that later).
He describes his focus on community as a natural component to his folk music roots. Davis says he grew up going to music festivals in Michigan, “where the people I was looking up to were playing folk festivals, and I’d go back there with my guitar, and they’d be teaching me what they do.” With folk, he explains, there’s “the idea that the music won’t survive if it’s not taught to the next generation.”
And that lead him to teaching. As he learned, so he taught . . . eventually winding up with teaching gigs at places like MSU Community Music School and Blackbird Arts in Traverse City, as well as schools across Northern Michigan through his presentations with SEEDS Quest for Place program, which combines history, place, and creative expression by exposing kids to recordings of Michigan folk songs--sea chanties, lumberjack tunes, mining songs, Detroit blues, etc.
It’s a significant part of what’s next for him. In late April and early May, the Quest for Place kids will put on a multi-media show of their own tunes (written with the help of facilitators like Davis) and interpretations of those recordings. And more broadly, teaching and presenting is an integral part of his experience as a folk musician--he’s done a TedX talk in Muskegon and spoken at universities and community centers.
“I still love performing, but teaching and working with kids has become something that I love just as much,” says Davis.
Sometimes the line between Joshua Davis, solo artist and Joshua Davis, band member can seem pretty thin. You’ll find him on albums with many different Michigan artists, and that’s in part due to his relationship with Earthworks Music, a music collective that focuses on building community and helping each other grow as musicians.
“There’s a lot to being a working, professional artist of any kind. It’s not something where you’re going to make a lot of money or have a consistent schedule . . . or walk away from. So we’ve built a support system around the state where we can share information and everyone is on everybody else's’ recordings and we support organizations. You gotta give back.”
In 2012 when On the Ground, an organization dedicated to sustainable farming in several countries, asked Davis to travel to Palestine, he was initially hesitant.
As a Jew, “I was raised in a household very much in support of the state of Israel, and Jews tend to shut down and not want to talk about it—it’s the safe place we can all go if something terrible happened, a place of protection.”
So the idea of going to Palestine, which is thought by some to be a hotbed of anti-Jewish sentiment, was daunting.
In the end, he decided to go.
“The trip was really difficult, and I thought I’d come back with more of a concrete idea of what is right or wrong, but I came back with more questions.
“But for me, it’s the basic Jewish ethics; freedom from oppression, justice, liberty . . . it’s hard to see oppression being turned around, the Israelis repressing other people. But there’s lots of politics, lots of factions. I don’t know what’s best, but all I can do it tell people about my experiences.”
The result is his 2013 album, A Miracle of Birds.
“It was scary—I didn’t want to make an album that was going to demonize Israel or lighten the oppression that the Palestinian people are going through. But in the end, it came back to just writing personal songs, songs about me and what I was going through there. Here’s my experiences—you figure out what to think about it.”
The reaction, he says, has largely been positive. You can click over to the “listen” tab to hear for yourself that that’s due in no small part to his musicianship.