She’s got bright red lipstick. She’s got heavy-winged eyeliner. She’s got a ride-or-die career. She’s got 17 years of sobriety under her belt. She’s got a stellar track record (Rolling Stone just featured her song in its list of the “10 Best Country and Americana Songs to Listen to Now,” and the Current recently premiered her song “Little Miss Moonshine”). And now, the spicy frontwoman of Davina and the Vagabonds is celebrating the release of studio album Sugar Drops on August 5 at the Guthrie Theater.
Davina Sowers wears many hats, both literally and figuratively (her classic stage get-up features a dramatic hat or headscarf). As a trailblazing neo-soul Americana singer/songwriter and bandleader, she formed her Twin Cities-based band, Davina and the Vagabonds, in 2004. But Sowers has her own concept of time. “It’s all been one day to me,” she says. “It’s insanity running a band.”
Twin Citians might know Sowers best for her distinctive take on the Great American Songbook, her piano proficiency, and her regular performances at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. The quintet frequents festivals, too (after playing in the Monterrey Jazz Festival in 2013, they returned in 2014 on the main stage). Since their inception, the band has played in every U.S. state and on international stages from Romania to Israel. Her new album follows previous soulful releases Nicollet and Tenth (2016), Sunshine (2014), and Black Cloud (2011). In 2014, Sunshine put Sowers’ powerhouse vocals in the limelight when it hit number 13 on the Billboard Blues Chart. That accolade prompted the band’s feature on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland.
Sugar Drops was written “all over the map,” Sowers says. Each song is a drop of sugar, something deliciously honest about Sowers’ struggles with addiction and relationships. The album speaks to the desire for hope, healing from trauma, and finding fierceness. It “communicates the benefits of being an individual,” she says.
It also marks a new chapter: Sugar Drops is Sowers’ first album recorded with a studio band, rather than with the Vagabonds. It is her first album on a label—Nashville’s indie folk and Americana brand Red House Records (formerly based in St. Paul). It is also her first album to include guitar and strings.
“I was so nervous to meet musicians who don’t know where my heart is and have no clue who I am, but it turned out amazing,” Sowers says. “I just brought my music and it was freeing and liberating. The musicians I have on the album are heavy hitters.”
The result is more than a blues record. In her career, Sowers has drawn from the past 100 years of Americana (just listen to album standout “I Can’t Believe I Let You Go,” above), thanks in part to her music-filled upbringing in the railroad town of Altoona, Pennsylvania. She grew up with a folk-singing, vinyl-loving mother. She describes her young self as being the “weirdo” of her class.
“Music was my only stability growing up in such a weird, kind of backwards city. I was a sponge of all genres of music with my family upbringing, and it is just something that has stuck with me, and I just honestly believe that this is who I’m supposed to be,” she says. “Even as a kid, music was everything to me, to help cope and dream.”
Her influences range from Led Zeppelin to Simon & Garfunkel, Fats Waller, Wilco, and Ella Fitzgerald. Throughout her career, she’s been compared to Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin. Despite the parallels, Sowers’ sweet and sour vocals and piano melodies stand alone.
“She’s got it all,” says Lowell Pickett, co-owner of the Dakota, the music venue to which Davina attributes much of her growth. “She’s a great singer; she has a very distinctive, earthy, soulful vocal style; she’s a wonderful writer, great piano player. She’s a great band leader and she works hard.”
The Dakota will present Davina and the Vagabonds at the August 5 release party with the Guthrie.
“We felt that it should be an even bigger celebration, so we chose a bigger venue,” Pickett says. “It’s a concert with an artist who has garnered praise across Europe and the U.S., who lives here in the Twin Cities, and it’s a celebration of this project she’s just completed, which is already getting national praise.”
Husband Zack Lozier—who met Davina at Minneapolis nightclub Whiskey Junction in 2005—wears many hats, too. He’s the trumpet player for the Vagabonds, road manager, writer of horn lines, coordinator, and, as Davina calls him, her “forever person.” He was in the studio for Sugar Drops and helped arrange one of the songs.
When performing live, Lozier says, “We want to make sure we are an entertaining watch and an entertaining experience and you’re going to smile and stomp your feet, but you’re also going to hear musical decadence and musical surprises.” He adds, “We like to play old and mostly authentic but also tinges-of-the-modern-aesthetic music. It’s not 1920, but we love the music of 1920 and 1940 and 1960, and we also love the music of today.” (He, in particular, draws from ’90s jazz.)
The group is familiar with performing nationally and internationally—going on tour for nine months last year. But Minnesota, where Sowers moved about 18 years ago, remains their home base. Why? “I started my career here, and because of the very small community that I have in Minneapolis,” Davina says. “Whatever community I’ve had in my life, it was here.”
Davina and the Vagabonds’ album release concert will take place August 5 at the Guthrie Theater on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at 7:30 p.m. Attendees can expect a night of Davina’s mature, cheeky, old-school-mishmash lyricism. There will be an animation to accompany her song “Devil Horns,” created by a fan overseas. Tickets can be found here.
In addition to the release party, the band will play at upcoming tour dates that are booked nearly through 2020.