Bart Davenport is a man aiming for timeless things, a pop-rocker with his sights on benchmarks far more profound than today’s charts or what’s momentarily hip or fashionable. Throughout his varied, always ear-snagging career this California boy has shown a ceaseless drive towards music that resonates on a deeper level than momentary fads, delivering songs of love, confusion and contemplation in a voice sweet and true – one of those sure arrows like Pete Ham, Erik Carmen and fellow Cali crooners The Moore Brothers that fly right into the meat of a person. From his shimmying, Beatle booted role as lead singer in The Kinetics and The Loved Ones to his modern wrangling in Honeycut to his personal, shuffling, finger-snapping solo work, Davenport is a craftsman of the kind we don’t see much in the pop-rock realm much these days, a diviner of ditties that make you wish radio was the rich, wild tapestry it once was in the 60s and 70s when a ripe artist like this would be welcomed and rewarded for his tenacious pursuit of universally appealing, emotionally honest music.
While Davenport has a new album in its final stages for release later this year, DI spoke to him about his most recent album, Searching For Bart Davenport (pick it up here), a thoroughly winning one man and his dancing guitar tackling a dozen very well-chosen covers that range from Broadcast to Gil Scott-Heron to Caetano Veloso to Love and more, each warmly delivered, cherished jewels mined from rock’s vast mine. Nothing’s obvious in this set and subtle touches elevate the set and putting in the same rarified company as Tim Bluhm’s California Way and Patti Griffin’s Living With Ghosts, where the spare atmosphere only serves to accentuate all the base level positives of the creator.
Why do you think you’re a musician?
Probably only because I’m a product of my upbringing and environment. There were people throughout history looking to escape their backgrounds or upbringing like The Beatles; I’m not one of those people. My parents were very into rock music and other things when I was growing up, and I really feel my parents, my parents’ friends and the social scene around me as a child totally pushed me to decide at about 5-years-old that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
Did you pick up an instrument real young?
Yeah, I started playing guitar when I was 8.
That shows in your playing. Your guitar playing is very natural, something you’ve been doing for such a long time that it’s an extension of your body.
[Laughs] That’s nice, very nice. Having done it so long it’s just a natural thing for me. There were long periods where I was in bands where I didn’t play guitar. So, when I first started doing it in public again I was really nervous. I never used to drink when I was performing because I had no fear whatsoever of the audience. Without an instrument in my hands, if I was nervous for the first couple minutes I could shake it off with dancing and moving around, loosening up, getting comfortable. But, when you’re playing guitar and your hands start to shake a little bit because you’re nervous you might make a little mistake, miss a chord or throw off the rhythm, and that becomes dominoes. One mistake can make you really collapse and lose all your confidence. Even though I’d been playing a guitar for 20 years or something, I was suddenly nervous to do it in front of people. I’d done it at home alone or at parties passing a guitar around campfire style. So, there was a big hump to get over, and I’d like to thank the Jameson Whiskey Company for helping me with that.
They’ve been a boon to many of us [laughs]. Let’s talk about the covers record. The line that ends the liner notes intro is telling: “I forget where the songwriter ends and the singer begins. Or perhaps I’ve been trying to subconsciously to reveal my influences for a long, long time.” That’s cool because many artists try and disguise their roots and inspirations. It’s an assortment that speaks to a record collector’s unique view on the musical universe.
Thank you [laughs]. It’s a great opportunity to explore those things. I felt like the setlist was pretty MOJO friendly. That’s just an observation; I wasn’t planning it that way. I’ve been doing these live gigs by myself for a long time, particularly in Europe, but it was financial pragmatism that led me to touring alone. It’s just cheaper to fly one man from California to Europe than it is four people. That’s fine with me because I’ve always really enjoyed Don’t Look Back and the first Bert Jansch album. The idea of being a solo performer vaguely in the style of a folksinger appealed to me anyway. One of my favorite performers was Donovan. So, it’s a challenge I felt I was up to.
I’d produce these solo albums that are full of band arrangements and drums and all sorts of instruments…and then go out on tour and have to play these songs by myself. And some songs just can’t be done like that, so the setlist would be limited to ones I thought I could get across on guitar. When I did that it always felt good to augment the setlist with some covers. So, the cover tunes I’m doing on the record are things I’ve been playing for years but only at live gigs.
The album ties you into the tradition of the lone man with a guitar, particularly the Bert and Jackson C. Frank tunes (“Ramblin’s Gonna Be The Death of Me” and “Blues Run The Game” respectively), and even the Caetano Veloso tune (“Maria Bethania”) – always nice to hear someone pick up on his English compositions – but you throw curves here like including Broadcast (“Come On Let’s Go”).
It’s really eerie and weird what happened with that. Tapete Records (who released Searching For Bart Davenport) said they’d like me to go shoot some video of an acoustic, solo performance somewhere which they could use to promote the album. I asked, “What song should I do?” and they said, “Come On Let’s Go; it’s our favorite.” So, we went to shoot this video and we were going to do an homage to The Red Balloon, that French film from the late 50s. So, we shot all this footage for this song but the wire that controlled the balloon that’s supposed to be invisible was visible in many shots and they couldn’t edit it out.
So, the decision was made to go back and reshoot it with me just singing without the balloon. But in the week between shooting the first video and the new one, Trish [Keenan], the singer of Broadcast, died of pneumonia in London. It went from being this really lighthearted video shoot toying around with red balloons to a week later playing the song again in the same place, thinking about this amazing woman who sang the song originally and what a complete, unforeseen tragedy that she’d die like that. Broadcast is one of my favorite bands, and I wondered if we should choose another song [for the promo video].
It’s a strange experience to have your intentions pulled out from underneath you.
People can see the video now [included below interview] and you can probably tell by the look on my face that I’m not thinking of it any longer as a lighthearted experience.
It can’t be what it was given the shifted circumstances and the shock to the system.
Suddenly I felt it needed to be a mournful rendering of the song, a dedication instead of a breezy ditty. They were such a magnificent group. I feel as if they took the template of the The United States of America album and created a whole new thing out of it; taking advantage of modern recording technology but really mining the 60s aesthetics. I just loved their sound and style – stylistic and very intellectual too. I just started doing that song and others on this album because it was a nice way to start a show before I got into anything too personal.
You get to crawl into someone else’s skin for a minute instead of fully unveiling yourself right away.
Once I’ve performed a song enough times I forget about it being a cover. I’ve sung it my own way enough that muscle memory kicks in and it starts to feel like it’s mine. I need to take ownership of it if I’m gonna make a clear delivery. Critics that think I didn’t bring anything new to these songs, I hope they trust me when I say that I wouldn’t have put anything on this album that I hadn’t first taken complete ownership of the song in performance. I need to sing the words as if I did write them.
That comes through, and some of them are iconic. “Blues Run The Game” was almost a standard at one point in the folk world. When I hear you sing it I can tell you’ve lived this song now. You’ve lived a life of sin with room service a time or two [both of us laugh]. The gauge of whether a cover works or not is the degree one inhabits the material. I can’t pay you a better compliment than saying you really inhabit the pieces on Searching For….
I set the Jackson tune to the chord changes of a Moore Brothers song. In doing that, I definitely took that one to a new place. One could never accuse of me of not doing something new with it – the chords are from a completely different song called “Kid Ivy” by Greg Moore. That one’s a fusion of new and old, some words I can relate to from an era I really admire and respond to but paired with music of my peers, my own people.
One last question: What’s usually going through your head right before you go onstage?
Get in the zone. Get focused, be sincere, get ready to try and move some people…otherwise get the fuck off [laughs].