Tanya Davis Keeps Going

Many musicians are described as wordsmiths, but few truly place enough emphasis on lyrics to be called poets.

Haligonian Tanya Davis is one of the few who’ve earned it. Her website calls her words-first creative method “poemusic.” Combining her spoken word poetry with music has allowed her to travel beyond the expectations that keep most Canadian poets slaves to literary magazines and chapbooks, by creating writing that works in performance. In concert, Davis has a warm and captivating presence, painting homey, yet meaningful, images such as a summer festival seen in the flight path of a lightning bug.

On her third album, Clocks and Hearts Keep Going, Davis teamed up with Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Jim Bryson as producer. Bryson is himself a musician known for wrapping his words in the warmth of simple guitar-playing, with a keen ear for turns of phrase. Where he most differs from Davis is in his vocal technique, which gives his lyrics a raw feeling of emotion. The album shows the effects of this collaboration, with more emphasis on the project as music than ever before. Bryson is credited with playing no less than eight instruments, and Davis herself plays guitars, bass and banjo on the album, while a variety of other players round out the sound with percussion, horns and a Schoenhut toy piano.

The lyrics are sung more often than spoken, though maintaining the cadence and presence of each line in the manner of spoken word. While her range is quite limited, Davis’ voice is endearing and adds a sweet charm to the words she sings. On the mournful “Fauna,” slight echo and extended syllables lend imagination to her wish to be a wolf, while on “Eulogy for You and Me,” an upbeat rhythmic number that contains the album’s title, Davis alternates between spoken verses and background-supported singing on the repeated chorus.

The songs on this album dig a little deeper thematically than either of Davis’ past records, but she doesn’t go too broad. A song like “Don’t Bury Me,” in which Davis plans out her own funeral, even with the accompanying Hammond organ, is anything but a dirge: “Throw me to the wind / That’s where I want to be.” She keeps the perspective close, the images small enough to fit within moments. Her strength is in capturing the mundane, and showing it in a friendly light of familiarity.

Though she’s young, Davis shows the wisdom and qualities of an old-soul. In true Canadian fashion, she shuns pretensions of glamour, and instead focuses on an aesthetic of simple authenticity. It’s this ability to reach the heart of the matter that made the short film Davis created in collaboration with Andrea Dorfman go viral this fall. Currently at about 2.7 million hits, “How to Be Alone” is advice, in the form of a list, on how to spend time alone without feeling lonely. By breaking nearly every rule that the hegemonic culture preaches for success, this simple video has obviously touched a nerve.

Even with its greater focus on music, the greatest strength of Clocks and Hearts Keep Going is its poetry. A soundtrack to otherwise silent moments, it pairs well with the promise of a morning coffee, with the distraction of dust motes in an afternoon sunbeam, or a late night in the backyard. Tanya Davis’ poemusic rewards careful listening, and like the other activities she suggests in her popular video, is perhaps best listened to alone.

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