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Mikaela Davis

Rochester musician and SUNY Potsdam student Mikaela Davis plays a semi-grand harp, one size down from a concert grand. When she first began to play as a child, she started on a smaller-style troubador harp. “I've always known I wanted to go to school for music,” she says. “I wanted to be a professional harpist in an orchestra and teach harp at a college—until my own music became my main focus.” (photo by Aaron Winters)

Let's play word association. “Harpist.” Go.

Did you respond with “pop-music newcomer”? You will.

Rochester-born Mikaela Davis knows how to show a harp who's boss.

Backed by a mix of guitar, keyboards, and her own lilting vocals, Mikaela has deftly plucked a classic instrument out of its past. Spun it into a modern sound. And wrapped it in sparkling lights, ready for download.

Her self-titled debut album came out in 2012, and she describes it as indie-pop. Just the same, she's hesitant to commit to a category.

“I don't like to put myself in a genre. The music we're doing now, it's nothing like my first album. We went something that's more psychedelic rock on the new EP,” Mikaela says.

Brian Moore, audio engineer and owner of Red Booth Recording, where Mikaela's self-titled debut album was recorded, mixed, and mastered, describes her vibe as “a melancholy lo-fi sound” with “an intricate balance of fluttering vocal folds and fingers on strings that blend effortlessly.”Whatever you call The Mikaela Sound, it's getting traction with audiences around the country. (Music video below.)

A senior music major at SUNY Potsdam's Crane School of Music, Mikaela and her band have had a busy year. An album. Cross-country gigs. A freshly minted EP just weeks away. And a winter-break tour that spans the Northeast.

And though she's a young woman, her career has been many years in the making.

“I've been singing since I could talk,” she says.

Harp lessons followed by third grade, when she began to study with Grace Wong, principal harpist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Later, Mikaela herself had a four-year run as harpist in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

After she entered college, Mikaela started the band that now backs her in the studio and on the road. Today, her bandmates are Alex Coté on drums and percussion, and Cian McCarthy on guitar, sitar, and keys.

“Alex and Cian both go to SUNY Purchase,” says Mikaela, who's been close friends with Alex since high school. “Alex told me, 'We need to have this guy in the band.' We needed a guitarist to step in. Cian lives in Syracuse. He drove up, we had one long band practice, and played a show the next day. He learned like 10 songs in one day.”

Ten songs he'd probably never heard before—because Mikaela writes her own stuff.

Mikaela's high-school friend, artist Melissa Crider, designed her first two CD jackets. “She bases her paintings off of music,” Mikaela says of Melissa. “She likes to paint what she hears.”“I started writing songs because my dad moved to California when I was in sixth grade, and it was my own kind of therapy,” she says. “The first song I ever wrote is called 'Come Home,' and it's about my dad.”

While she's been writing since she was a kid, Mikaela credits Alex with introducing her to a range of music that inspired her to grow into the songwriter she's become.

“When we were in high school, I went over to Alex's house one day and gave him my iPod and he switched out all my music,” Mikaela says. “I started listening to Elliott Smith, among others.”

She connected with Smith's music immediately, but it left her feeling intimidated about writing her own songs. At least for awhile. But Mikaela eventually found ample inspiration and confidence to get back into writing mode. The result: An album under her belt and another one on the way.

Last summer, the band went on tour as an opening act, and hit a broad swath of the southern U.S., including Nashville, New Orleans, Birmingham, and parts of Texas. A new road trip will kick off the New Year—and the new EP, “Fortune Teller.”

“Fortune Teller” is a collection of new material Mikaela has been playing with the band this past year. The songs “go together and have the same feeling to them,” she says.

Kinda like the band itself.

See more: On and YouTube

Say hi: on Facebook or Twitter

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Mikaela (photo by Jake Smisloff)If you live along the Thruway corridor in Upstate New York, you have your pick of Mikaela Davis shows to catch. The band kicks off a road trip to promote the “Fortune Teller” EP right after the New Year.

Friday Jan. 3, 2014 in Buffalo — 8 p.m. at the Tralf Music Hall

Saturday Jan. 4, 2014 in Syracuse — 9 p.m. at Funk'n Waffles

Sunday Jan. 5, 2014 in Rochester — 8 p.m. at The Bug Jar (tickets)

Get details or RSVP here.


Mikaela's video for "Dreaming," directed by Philip Night.