Interview: Bart Davenport
It’s rare that a musician can make his or her listeners truly melt by the simple act of performing. Especially in today’s music world of watered-down pop songs and overused riffs, the singer who croons out tunes dripping with sweetness and lyrics oozing with nostalgia is hard to be found. Yet if there ever were one to be that person, Bart Davenport is the man. And he is a brilliantly eclectic man at that; one whose music communicates with extreme precision his soft and quirky personality layered over an undeniably melodic sensibility.
Davenport, a native of the East Bay, has been involved in and at the core of the area’s music scene since day one. He was always interested in music, something he attributes to having musically-inclined parents, including a father who was a musician. At the age of six, he was given his first guitar, which he seriously started playing around eight. From then on, he was surrounded by a subculture of sound, which continued to shape him, knowing all too well that one day, he would be the one shaping it.
In elementary school, Davenport was blessed with a music instructor who taught jazz standards – many of which consisted of sophisticated melodies – to his students. Additionally, Davenport started a band with his best friend at the age of 11, and was in several more over the years. Meanwhile, he attended Cazadero Music Camp through his teen years and kept up the playing and singing while at Berkeley High.
“I’m very much a product of my environment,” he said, referencing music’s permanent place in his life as he grew up.
Davenport specifically remembers assignments in elementary school when he and his peers were asked to sketch pictures of themselves in their future careers. While others wanted to be nurses or police officers, Davenport always had a steady and unique vision.
“I wanted to be a singer,” he said. “I remember drawing myself as Paul McCartney. I definitely imagined nothing else for myself as an adult.”
Unfortunately, while the community of musicians around him was supportive of his artistic pursuits, no one warned him that he would also face more than his fair share of discouragement and rejection. There was also the hard-hitting truth that just because music is fun doesn’t mean it will pay the bills.
That’s not to say that a career as a musician has been an entirely uphill battle for Davenport either.
“It’s brought me a lot of great things,” he said. “It’s all thanks to being dedicated to something.”
Davenport spent the majority of the 90s performing in bands, almost always as the lead singer, although he plays guitar, bass and “an excellent tambourine,” as well as the harmonica, dulcimer and autoharp. In 1998, he decided to pursue the solo route, although it wasn’t for two more years before he began to really establish himself as such.
“I wanted to experience creative whims,” he said of the decision. “I’d gotten into a situation where I just didn’t feel like having to please everyone [and] I realized I wasn’t happy.”
Part of that unhappiness came from the expectations placed upon him as a lead singer and songwriter. He struggled with figuring out how to write music while simultaneously having to function as part of a democracy, meeting the expectations of other band members. While he initially had no problem attempting to fill such big shoes, Davenport realized that he wasn’t yet a fully mature songwriter, and therefore couldn’t do all that was expected of him.
“I wasn’t good yet…[I was] still learning to speak” he explained. “If you’re learning to write songs, you have to be able to try things. I needed to be able to go out on a limb…in order to learn the craft.”
And part of that trying new things meant learning to discover his voice and make mistakes that didn’t reflect on anyone else but himself. And so for the greater part of the decade, Davenport focused on growing himself and his own music.
The result of this period was the release of four solo albums. First was the self-titled released in 2002. A year later he released “Game Preserve,” followed in 2005 by “Maroon Cocoon.” Finally, in 2008, Davenport came out with “Palaces,” which is the album he still considers himself to be supporting.
“I never really feel finished promoting a solo album ‘til the next once comes out,” he shared.
But now that he’s had his run, Davenport the solo artist is much more comfortable in the role of Davenport the band member.
“I needed 10 years of being my own man,” he said.
Since getting back on the band wagon, Davenport has played with various groups, most notably as a frontman for Honeycut, which is known as much for its signature sound of 60s and 70s soul as it is for its prominent placement in an Apple commercial. And since playing music with a band, Davenport has taken it and run with it.
“I’m totally into collaborating…making something that’s bigger than us,” he said. “People working together on art…that’s a relationship.”
Another one of Davenport’s more recent collaborations is with two members of a New York group, the Phenomenal Handclap Band. The three individuals were approached by a record company that wanted them to record an album in the south of Spain under the name Incarnations. Once they agreed, the label flew them out and set them up in the studio to record nine songs.
“That’s when I’m like, OK, I am successful,” Davenport said. “It’s in those moments that I feel it’s all been worth it.”
In June, Davenport will fly out to Denver to make a stripped-down solo acoustic album for a German label out of Hamburg, working with the same producer who is known for his work with the Old 97s.
But that little solo adventure aside, he feels that his musical career is pointing him in the direction of working with bands, and he is committed at the very least to making two more records with bands before he can even consider chasing the solo route again.
While he has experienced both good and bad over the course of his musical career, it appears as thought Davenport has finally hit his groove, with no end in sight.