Elise Davis spent Nashville’s 2017 solar eclipse in a flamingo-hued dress, day-drinking and getting stoned with her bandmates. She was in the final mixing stages of her 2018 sophomore record Cactus, a manifesto on her life as a perpetually single about-to-be-thirty-something woman. While walking home, a familiar face pulled up along the road beside her and offered her a lift; she didn’t really know the guy, just that he was a good friend of one of her bandmates, but she went along for the ride. Less than three years later, she married the man who picked her up that evening, forever relinquishing her status as a hard-partying “Lone Wolf.”
“Isn’t it crazy how just one night can change your whole damn life?” she sings on “Flame Color,” a song commemorating that experience. It’s on her forthcoming record Anxious. Happy. Chill., out April 19 via Tone Tree, which touches on grounding her sometimes volatile emotions, entering her thirties with grace, and making a living as a musician. But for the most part, it’s about the monumental shift she felt as she fell in love and committed to someone else for the first time in her life. “There was a time I thought I knew exactly who I was inside/But I wasn’t right/Darkest of eyes/I watch them follow me and swallow me/It took me from a lonely life,” she muses on languid single “Yellow Bed,” an ode to blissful domestic intimacy.
“This was the first time in my life ever writing songs that were truly happy love songs – not like lustful, or like a crush excitement, like truly deep love songs for someone that I had agreed to spend the rest of my life with, which was a really huge and surprising thing for me,” Davis says. “But also, I’m still the same highly sensitive, off-and-on depressive anxious person that I was. This album is about love but it’s also about career worries and just accepting life for what it is – we’re all truly floating on a ball in space and nothing really matters anyway.” Thus, the title Anxious. Happy. Chill. felt like an appropriate and succinct way to sum up Davis’s state of mind. “It made me smile, it was direct, and something that I just felt fit this little batch of songs.”
Her latest single, “Summertime,” premiering today on Audiofemme, covers the “chill” prong of the album’s titular triumvirate, like a sunshine-soaked version of “My Favorite Things” – if Maria von Trapp had been a bit of a pothead. The song initially revolved around a guitar riff Davis had been playing around the house for weeks – but ironically, it’s billowy mellotron, soft snare brushes and sighing, cascading vocal overdubs that carry the song in its final state, giving it an especially dreamy vibe compared to the rest of the album.
That change came almost by accident – and speaks volumes to the process in which Davis recorded Anxious. Happy. Chill. Married on March 7th, 2020 at one of the last “normal” ceremonies Davis’s friends and family attended, she and her new husband watched the world change rapidly while on their honeymoon in the Arizona desert. Davis had scheduled studio time back in Nashville for April, before anyone was aware that a worldwide pandemic might impede the process.
“We had talked about having some different musicians and stuff come into the studio, and I do love to have a band in there where we try different things out – we play the songs through a few times, maybe record them live a couple times; we drink and we hang out and we eat dinner and we get back to it,” Davis says. “That whole part of it is fun to me… but that was obviously not something that we were gonna do anymore.” The session was limited to Davis and her producer Teddy Morgan, who was in a different room the entire time, “except for one day where we had a drummer come in, Fred Eltringham, who’s really great, long time drummer for Sheryl Crow. We wore masks, it was really strange.”
With just three players, it’s incredible how propulsive some of the songs on the album feel, like lead single “Ladybug” or “Thirty.” Davis has been pegged as an Americana artist, but wanted this album to lean into the “grungy, rough-around-the-edges gritty guitar stuff” of ’90s alt-greats like Liz Phair and Veruca Salt – no small feat, considering the skeleton crew that brought the album to life. But limiting the personnel pushed her in new directions; due to pandemic restraints and Morgan’s encouragement, she ended up playing a good deal of the guitar parts on her own (Morgan filled in the others).
“I’ve been a guitar player forever. I’m a solid rhythm player, but in the studio I wanna have the tastiest guitar players doing all this stuff, so I just never did it,” Davis says. Once she did, she realized that her attachment to the songs added a personal touch that made up for the perfection she sought on past projects. “There’s just something about the way that, when you play a song you wrote the way it’s in your head, affects the feel of it. It ended up being something I liked and will probably do more of next time around.”
But on “Summertime,” Morgan and Davis had an epiphany when the guitar track was muted. “Both of us looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh my God!’ even though it had been built on this guitar part that I loved so much. We took it away and the song felt so much more open and I instantly fell in love with it in an entirely different way.” As far as the lyrical content, “it’s very up front what it’s about,” Davis jokes, and the words came easily to her. The release dovetails nicely with the arrival of Daylight Savings Time, too. “When the sun is going down later and I can sit outside at night and just feel the world and have a garden again and all that, I just feel so much more connected with myself and so much more of a happier person,” Davis says.
Truly, the song is a balm after an apocalyptic winter, nothing if not soothing to the ears. But the act of writing pretty much anything at all has been vital to Davis’s mental health. She grew up in Arkansas, and began songwriting at the age of 12; her parents had refused to let her go to a Bush concert, and in a fit of anger she ran away, only to return and realize no one had noticed she was missing. That made her even more upset – but her guitar was waiting on her bed. “I locked myself in the bathroom and wrote this song about feeling really alone in a big house. Even though that was 20 years ago now, I’ll never forget that – it was like I had discovered this secret for myself,” Davis remembers. “I felt better afterward, and then it started to turn into like, right when I got home from school I would go up there and I would just write songs about whatever I was thinking or feeling. Now I’m 32, and it is truly a lifelong coping thing. Even if I write a song and it’s never gonna see the light of day, just the act of doing it, I think, is like an emotional release for my brain.”
Years ago, Davis had planned to make Little Rock her home base, but a security guard at a show she played in California told her she had to get out of Arkansas if she wanted to have a career. “We had this conversation that really stuck with me, and on that plane ride home from California, I decided I was gonna move to Nashville. I didn’t really have a plan, I didn’t know anyone there, had never been to Nashville before,” she says. But three weeks later she had an apartment and a waitressing job in Music City, and started playing shows soon after. “I look so fondly back on that time, cause it was so scary but so exciting.”
Within a year she was offered a publishing deal, essentially making songwriting her day job. “I was a salary-paid songwriter and I was going to Universal and Sony and all the different publishing companies. I’d have my schedule months out of songwriting appointments and I did that for about seven years as well as releasing my own records and touring,” Davis says, adding that she came to Nashville “the way a lot of young songwriters do, with stars in my eyes, knowing it was a place that would be good for me – and it really has been. I can’t imagine if I hadn’t done that, all the things I’ve learned and things I’ve been exposed to from moving here.”
Davis was grateful for the experience, but couldn’t ever really bend her talents to writing songs she didn’t relate to. “Maybe I’d have more money now, if I had tried a little harder to get other people to cut my songs, but that just doesn’t come naturally to me,” Davis says. “I always just really wanted to follow writing songs that felt fun and real for me, and I definitely was sent on a lot of co-writes over the years where it would be like, a producer guy who doesn’t really write songs and would just have a beat and was trying to do a bro country thing. Those, I’d just end up cutting them off early and seeing if they wanted to go grab a beer.”
She adds, “Most of the time, my ideas end up being so personal that I’m the main one that it would even make sense for me to sing,” noting that she did appreciate the fresh perspectives on songwriting ideas she couldn’t quite work out on her own. But ultimately, she decided to step away from her last publishing deal to focus on independent songwriting. “I think at the end of the day I actually prefer writing on my own more than with other people, except for a select couple that I’ve met from all the hundreds of people I’ve written with,” she says. “I still appreciate all the experiences that I’ve had, but it doesn’t compare to when I’ve smoked a joint and I’m sitting in my pajamas at 1am on my own bed. It’s not the same as when you go in to the [session].”
Elise Davis has always been comfortable saying what’s on her mind, but on Anxious.Happy.Chill. it seems she’s finally feeling comfortable with herself, despite incredible personal shifts. She’s gone from asking “With a night like that, who needs a honeymoon?” on bawdy Cactus ode to casual flings “Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” to making cosmic romantic gestures like “It may be true that all the light we see comes from stars that are dead or dying/Maybe they gave themselves for you and me to see how they shined while they were alive,” on a song that’s literally called “Honeymoon.” But what she’s saying, now or in the past, has always been authentically felt, and her unabashed honesty isn’t likely to change – it’s there in every note of the songs on Anxious.Happy.Chill., as well as the album’s collaged cover art, where Davis boldy positions herself alongside the things that matter most: tequila, weed, her sister’s dog, her cat Enchilada, her marriage, and her music.
Follow Elise Davis on Instagram for ongoing updates.