Last year, a reissue of Dear Nora’s second album, 2004’s Mountain Rock, brought to light the fact that, though the band’s principle songwriter Katy Davidson had set aside the moniker for nearly a decade, the songs were continuing to resonate. Davidson founded the band with Marianna Ritchey and Ryan Wise in Portland, OR, and Dear Nora existed in various iterations along the West Coast for the next nine or so years. I, for one, had barely started middle school when Mountain Rock came out; I was guided to the band in the early 2010s by an affinity for exactly the kind of witty and ragged-edged pop they execute so well (and an obsessive relationship with the early roster of the band’s label, Magic Marker).
But, as revisiting Mountain Rock would underscore for fans old and new, Davidson’s songs — though often jangly and addictive — are better, and frankly much weirder, than your standard vintage indie pop. That album — which uses a folk vernacular and nature imagery to process a spectrum of events, from a breakup to living in America at the start of the Iraq war — continues to feel wonderfully alive, even if the time and place are long-gone. Davidson toured with a full band behind its reissue, and rather than revisiting Dear Nora’s catalogue from a nostalgic perspective, they reanimated the songs such that Davidson rarely appeared to be performing a past self.
Their long-awaited forthcoming album, Skulls Example, which collects material written between 2009 and 2017, locates the project in Davidson’s present. There’s still Davidson’s voice, frank and friendly; there’s still the warm simplicity of a single electric guitar cloaked in reverb. But certain things have gotten much sharper: a tendency toward lightly warped song structures, a willingness to plainly evoke some of the more bizarre details of the contemporary everyday (including, but not limited to: simulations, PT Cruiser sponsorship, and lava). You may or may not be able to hear influences like Kanye’s Yeezus, Enya, early Sinead O’Connor, and Frank Ocean — but trust me, they’re somewhere in there. And, as Davidson stressed after our conversation veered off toward technocapitalism and life after climate collapse, while this material stumbles across big things, these songs are at their core pretty simple: observations, often gleeful, of the world they inhabit.
It’s been ten years since the last new Dear Nora release. What made you go for it now?
KATY DAVIDSON: I guess a bunch of time passed without me even really realizing it. I used to write 50 songs a year, and then it dwindled to 20, and now I write, like, three songs a year. I’d like to write more often than that, but I just got involved with other things and started dealing with other priorities — I got super focused on my other job, and bought a house.
But then when we went on tour last year, and the Mountain Rock reissue came out, I felt like, I need to do this, I have these songs, they’re ready, I need to release them! I need to get them out! I want to play! Touring in support of Mountain Rock was a kick in the pants.
Like Mountain Rock, Skulls Example has an intense sense of place.
Definitely. A friend of mine who’s a professor of Japanese history — in fact, he collaborated on some lyrics on this album — will call out which of my albums are about time, and which of my albums are about space. I love it. It maybe seems so obvious, but I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. Mountain Rock, There Is No Home, those are about space; the Lloyd and Michael album, that one’s about time.
That’s funny, because I would say this newest one is about both.
I think about time and space all the time. I’m obsessed with the seasons. I have this weird knack for remembering things chronologically. If someone says a month and a year I can tell them where I was, mostly because I was on tour and I remember what tour it was. I always like trying to guess what time it is. Those are silly examples, but I’m obsessed with environments. I think that goes along with my astrological sign, which is Libra. I’m kind of just tripping on time and space at all times.
Your songs pick up some of the incongruities that occur when you’re moving between places, the difficulty of toggling between different environments.
Totally. I’ve been obsessed with lava. I’ll go to these dried lava rock beds in Oregon and I’ll just think about standing on the lava and using my phone, taking a photo with my phone. Those feelings were really sticking out to me when I went to Mexico, which I wrote about on this album. I would do these little solo day trips and check out little towns, and just trip on the integration of the ruins into the contemporary city, and how ancient cultures are still at play, but they’ve been shaped or sculpted by time.
What has changed in your recording and songwriting processes?
I purposefully and very actively integrated an analog machine in the recording process. I didn’t have to; I could have just recorded an album using everything digital. But I love limitations. When I was recording the Dear Nora albums a decade or more before, analog recording didn’t feel like a limitation, it just felt like what I had. Now that ten years have passed and we all can just record albums on our computers, I was like, There are too many choices, it’s taking me forever to make an album!
I got a four-track again, and we tracked a lot of the instruments through it. It was specifically for sound, and also to move things forward — by limiting myself to a certain number of tracks. It was also sort of in homage to what Dear Nora was. I got out my old master tapes and just recorded over them. I’d be recording some of the songs on this album and then a song from There Is No Home would bleed through. But I did integrate analog and digital quite a bit on this one. It’s lo-fi, but it’s not all the way lo-fi.
In terms of songwriting, my approach has clearly evolved in some ways, but I think there’s a lot of the same threads running through these songs as you can hear on the rarities comp, of songs I wrote in 2000. I’m much more lyrically focused now, though. Like, much more.
“I didn’t set out to write some super futuristic concept album; I’m still only trying to write about what I see and what I feel.”
How does your listening inform what you’re doing?
Songs with bad lyrics make me feel really depressed. I’m most interested in simplicity of chords: Don’t worry about the chords, just make a three-chord song. You don’t have to make up a chord change no one’s ever heard of. It’s funny, I never listened very much to “punk” music. But there is something there: Say something important, and make the music simple.
A lot of the themes on Skulls Example could be dealt with in a big way, things you might want to build a big structure for talking about. But there’s something about starting with three chords and just telling a story.
I don’t really want to talk about big concepts. I just want to talk about what I see. Because everything’s so trippy. Don’t you agree? If you just look around, everyone should be tripping, in a completely separate way, at all times. That’s incredibly reductive, but that’s how I feel on a daily basis. This reality is insane. How is my brain processing this right now? So I’m not trying to write about climate change; I’m not going to say the words “climate change.” But I’m going to talk about impressions and ephemera of a day at the river, or something.
[At this point in the conversation, “In the Waiting Line” by Zero7 comes on in the wine bar where we are chatting, a detail that goes unspoken but seems significant nonetheless.]
Even though I’m writing about society and technology, I’m also just writing about really simple, basic human emotions, like love. I didn’t set out to write some super futuristic concept album; I’m still only trying to write about what I see and what I feel. What’s included in that is relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but the deepness of friendship. Who is my family? Who am I closest to? Who am I going to call if there’s an emergency? The song “New To Me” is one of my favorite songs on the new album. It’s so simple. I don’t mention iPhones. It’s just about a beautiful weekend.
Does writing music help you see or process the world?
For sure. And I want to bring up humor. There’s so many things to not laugh at right now. But I think we need to recognize the absurd, and acknowledge it, and just say some of these things that we have to deal with on a daily basis or encounter — they’re basically insane.
Where did the title Skulls Example come from?
I have a holiday party almost every year. It’s a pretty well-curated group of friends; I know shit’s going to go down. Like, oh, this person’s going to interact with this person, and that’s going to be nuts. We do a gift exchange, and it’s always about who can out-weird each other. Someone one year brought a book of magic, someone had the idea to name ourselves for the next year, and everyone did it: we picked two words at random from the book with our eyes closed. So that was my name. I never forgot it. Since that time — 2014, 2015 — I’ve been thinking so much more about death. And being comfortable with being ready to die; I used to be scared to fly and I’m not scared anymore. It’s just about letting go. The title is obviously literal: just get comfortable with your skeleton. You’re going to die, it’s not even bad.
And I also love the concept of being in a very close community with friends and choosing your name: you don’t have to have the name you were born with. You can choose it in the sanctuary of your apartment with your closest friends, with candles burning. I found it so beautiful. It’s about identity: who you are, who you identify with, and life. You’re all going to die, get used to it. There’s going to be fucking darkness. Get used to it.
Mountain Rock is also about death, and on many scales; death can be cultural, or communal.
Yeah, and it’s not just about life forms dying. It’s about ways of thinking dying. One of the last songs on Mountain Rock is “Suicide Song.” Some 15-year-olds who find my music on the internet don’t necessarily know this, but I didn’t write it because I was really depressed. I wrote it because a change is occurring, some new thing is coming [and] the old thing is dying. It’s a feeling, it’s a transition.
Which goes back to the places you’re drawn to — wanting to see the old and new in concert.
Ultimately, I’m obsessed with transitions. I think that shows up when I’m writing about time or space. I’m obsessed with the magic hour. The world feels different. It’s a million times more beautiful for thirty minutes. Everyone notices, and then suddenly it’s dark.