Danielle Davis was on a beach along Lake Michigan, basking under the sun during what felt like some of the darkest of days, contemplating the future.
And listening to Pink Floyd.
"If you can believe it, I had never heard Dark Side of the Moon all the way through," Davis tells Metro Times.
Davis was out for what felt like a very cautious road trip with her best friend Noor, departing Ann Arbor and heading to the state's west coast at the end of May 2020. "Dark Side really did it for me — that sort of escapism, if even for a little bit," Davis says. "Because the pandemic was still in its early stages then and George Floyd had just been killed, so it was all very intense."
Davis is otherwise known as Dani Darling, which is both her artistic moniker and the namesake for her band. And it was that moment, on a nearly deserted beach in the weary summer of '20, when inspiration struck: Davis wanted to make something grand. Something cosmic and entrancing. Something that felt like it could carry you away for a while, but still acknowledge the full gravity of our current situation. She wanted something that could be cathartic, fanciful, and rejuvenating all at once. And with a boost from both the Amplify Project and Grove Studios out of Ypsilanti, she was able to bring her vision to life.
Danielle before Dani
Davis was born and raised in Ann Arbor and found a relative amount of local fame from a very young age. She has two identical sisters, Jacquelyn and Nicole, and the Davis Triplets wound up making headlines in local newspapers as a singing trio. Their voices developed together through adolescence, advancing to a level where they were able to compete on Fox's The X-Factor about a decade ago. Though the sisters remained close, their days as a musical act eventually came to an end and Danielle started exploring other outlets like visual art and creative writing, before eventually returning to music. But she spent most of the 2010s focusing on raising her daughter, Eden, before finally releasing music as Dani Darling, in early 2018.
And Dani Darling certainly made an impression around the metro Detroit music scene, with her dreamy composites of neo-soul nocturnes, syrupy trip-hop, and tranquil indie-rock reveries. Her voice has incredible range, channeling something like a jazz chanteuse emanating whispery falsettos in a cosmic candlelit lounge.
On her latest EP, titled The Future, she's gone from quiet swoon to brassy dance party, with several moments of celebratory bombast and funky flare with more guitars, exuberant rhythms, horns, flutes, synths, and a purposefully "extra" energy.
"Well, if you didn't know I was 'extra' because I was doing lo-fi before, then now you know," she says.
The centerpiece song, "La Femme," is a tour-de-force fusion of jazz and funk that sets an irresistible groove, and it finds Davis sounding absolutely unleashed as a vocalist, audibly jubilant and fully utilizing her operatic range — it's the sound of someone completely immersed in the energies of the music, responding to it and conducting it at the same time. Meanwhile, the lead single, "The Down," which feels like an R&B slow jam mixed with Radioheadesque space rock, finds Davis singing of levitation, floating up away from the earth and nearly reaching escape velocity, but always readdressing the ground below: the down.
It's a noticeably big leap from "lo-fi" to "dance party." And the Amplify Project provided the boost.
A fellowship for 'The Future'
The Amplify Project is a partnership between Ypsilanti arts collective Grove Studios and Ann Arbor-based manufacturer Leon Speakers, aiming to literally "amplify" the voices and talents of Black artists based in Washtenaw County through a fellowship program. Last fall, Davis was one of three Amplify Fellows selected, securing her 40 hours of recording time inside Grove's facilities, with engineering and production for their creative project.
"The Fellowship giving me the opportunity to work with an engineer in a studio really made the difference," says Davis. "Because usually I've done everything in my bedroom. I also wanted to branch out and work with more musicians. So, I was working with [engineer] Taylor [Greenshields] and Joel [Harris], and we started having all these sessions [at Grove]."
The first session was held on the winter solstice, "and that was the day when there was the Great Conjunction," Davis says, referring to Jupiter and Saturn coming into alignment. Astrology is more than just a casual interest for her — she's studied it long enough to where she can read individual's birth charts for them. "This was seen as the official beginning of the Age of Aquarius," she says. "And so the first song we did was 'The Age.'" The nearly eight-minute ambient-jazz suite sees Davis performing a mixture of wordless incantations to a melody that sounds simultaneously elated and ominous, as the synths and horn section steadily warm up around her, until an entrancing groove really sets in. "We really got into the zone, that first night!" she says.
Ten days later, Davis proposed an all-night lock-in recording session for New Year's Eve — socially distanced, of course. "We were playing for seven hours straight, that night, but it didn't feel like it," she says. "We must have played 30 different songs. The hard part was actually after the session, going back and listening and figuring out how we were going to turn this into an album because there was so much music in there — there's probably 18 albums' worth just from that one night. It was a long, chaotic creative process."
It was an eruptive jam session, generating more than enough ideas, and the question quickly became: Which ones to explore? Throughout the following winter months, Davis worked closely with Greenshields, who served as both percussionist and producer. They decided which songs to focus on, then had everyone involved in that exhilarating lock-in session return to Grove to flesh out their parts.
A grounded escapism
"When it came time to record, I knew I wanted to do my version of Dark Side of the Moon," says Davis. "This would be my crazy trip, off into a different genre, a different vibe. But the other album I had in mind while making this was Marvin Gaye's What's Going On." Nowhere is this more evident than the opening track, "The Sublime," which explores resilience, then frustration, then dismay, sampling clips from news networks reporting on the pandemic and demonstrations against police brutality. Throughout it all, Davis' voice grows weary, until the end, when it sounds wholly renewed: extolling the importance of staying connected with the earth as it changes, and connecting with anyone out there that's listening.
"I knew [The Future] wasn't going to be an all-out political statement, I just wanted people to be able to hear it and know that it came out of the pandemic," she says. "I wanted to reference what our world was like when we needed this escape — to reference what it was that we needed to take a break from without going too deep into it."
Davis adds, "And I think it took me a while to figure out that I don't have to try so hard to put messaging into my music: It's already out there. People already hear it and see it and feel it without me trying so hard to say it in a song. Yes, I have this healing energy about my music; yes, it's a very magi-energy. But I think I made The Future as an album that I would want to hear — as something for myself first."
After becoming an Amplify Fellow, Davis says she deliberated a while on what kind of album to make — the implication being that concerted gestures to elevate Black voices should result in statements that render something profound, if not overtly political in its commentary. "My way of dealing with [social justice issues] is to be present, be in the mix if I can, and to offer my gifts or my strengths to my community and other communities in the world," she says. "I'm not sure I'll be on a soapbox...because I don't know if I need to be, anymore."
She adds, "I don't have to be overtly political because the message of the lyrics are reaching people, and that's a realization I had to come to with this album. I wanted to start out with Dark Side meets Marvin Gaye meets James Brown, with a Diana Ross spin on it. But then it turned into total Dani Darling. That's what I rely on at this point — that if my heart is right in what I feel and think, then it all comes out."
And Davis realizes the spotlight is on her, but the moniker of Dani Darling also is also the name of the band. "So, when you're amplifying Black voices, you're amplifying all the voices — I'm the Black artist, but there are so many different instrumentalists involved (with The Future) so you're lifting everybody up. Grove Studios focused on Black artists, but they knew what they were doing because everyone involved still got to have a say and still put their energy into it."
Davis says that the title was partly inspired by the seven-hour recording odyssey on New Year's Eve. "It's actually my favorite 'holiday,'" she says. "When you go to a New Year's party, you're celebrating the future, which is a reason we get so dressed up and we get emotional. It's a collective feeling. You're all counting down, waiting on that future, and it's coming at you!" This phrase comprises the chorus of the title track, "the future's coming at us," over a lively, complex mixture of jazz and disco that feels like a fusion of Donna Summer and Kamasi Washington.
The future isn't just the subject of her new release, it's also something on the minds of lots of local artists, because it's finally safer to facilitate live shows. Davis recently performed a "Kickback Concert" at The Ark, raising funds for charity, part of the Amplify Fellowship; she selected Safehouse Center in Ann Arbor, supporting its mission to build communities free of domestic violence and sexual assault. "Safehouse helped me deal with being a survivor, and it felt really rewarding to [perform my music] to support them," she says. "It felt full circle. It also felt cathartic, because I started doing music again after I finished therapy at the Safehouse."
Davis says that over the last year she's realized that "how our looking toward the future, collectively, is something we should think about more, especially during these times. We've got to come out of this! Come out of the pandemic, come out of social unrest, come out of all the problems in our country — and the best way to do that is to not stay defeated, not stay in the escapism for too long, but to at some point start thinking hard about the future."
Dani Darling performs at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 24 at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival; 601 Lans Way, Ann Arbor; RSVP at a2sf.org.