Davina Sowers started playing the piano when she was a little girl. Unlike most, she kept going after the lessons ended. Like even fewer, she now makes her living pounding the keys.
“I wasn’t throwing down Fats Domino or anything like that, but I started taking piano at 6 and have just never quit,” Sowers said in a mid-February phone interview. “I’ve pretty much been playing my whole life. And now it is pretty much my whole life.”
Sowers is the Davina of Davina and the Vagabonds, the Minneapolis-based combo she has fronted since 2005. A rare, guitar-free ensemble, Davina and the Vagabonds is often tagged as a blues band. But it isn’t really a blues outfit in the contemporary use of that word. Nor is it a jazz band, even though it’s made up of horns, piano and drums.
“I think unique is a good word,” Sowers said when asked to label her band. “I think eclectic has been overused, but it fits for me, too. It’s hard for me, even though I’ve been doing this for a decade, to come up with one word for what we do. There’s New Orleans jazz in it, blues, pop, old school rock ‘n’ roll - the piano kind Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Fats Domino - and there’s Fats Waller. We make it our own so it has a specific sound to it. Weird, could that be the right word? No, it’s not weird. Let’s stick with unique.”
The pre-war 1920s through early 1940s sound comes from Sowers’ childhood right along with the piano. Her mother remarried when Sowers was young and her adoptive father, who was far older than her mother, was born in 1902.
“He was the one who kind of sparked my interest in that pre-war type of music,” she said. “I grew up with an Edison record player. I had a Reader’s Digest songbook. I grew up with that type of music. My mom was a folk singer. So I grew up listening to Judy Collins, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, just what you’d expect. Then I’d steal records from her, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the English blues stuff. I’ve just been a sponge since I was a kid. I was a little odd as a teenager. The only thing I had with normality was music. When I play that pre-war stuff. It’s my father shining down on me.”
On stage, Sowers is nothing if not enjoyable, as she sings (she’s frequently compared to Janis Joplin and Adele) and plays in her boisterous, engaging style. She plays the pre-war stuff and the rest of her distinctive mix of music with Daniel Eikmeier on trumpet and vocals; Ben Link on trombone, Connor McRae on drums, and Andrew Burns on bass and sousaphone.
They’ll play anywhere and everywhere at any time. Their current tour will take them to 13 states in three months – from the Northwest to the Southeast and back through the middle of the country. That’s business as usual for the Vagabonds.
“We’ve been on the road for as long as I can remember at this point,” Sowers said. “ I’ve moved two times in the past year, still in the same community, and I’ve been in the studio. So even when we’re not on the road, I’m not at home.”
That said, Sowers sometimes yearns for a little more time in her home base of Minneapolis.
“I’m a homebody and I’m a woman, so I may want nesting to a certain extent,” she said. “But I’m a business owner – the band is my business – and I’m passionate about my music, so I need to share that with people outside of my community. Sometimes do I just want to eat nachos and watch really bad TV for a week? Sure. Sometimes you need that. I get just enough that I can get back on my horse and get back on the highway.”
Minneapolis, though, was not always home for Sowers. She moved there from Key West, but she only spent a few years as a young adult in Florida. She grew up in central Pennsylvania in a small railroad town.
“I grew up in a really depressed coal-mining, railroad town that had this park where they’d bring in washed-up bands, like The Guess Who with one original member,” she said. “I saw The Mamas and the Papas with only one of them. I didn’t really see anyone. Now I’m afraid to go see Bob Dylan. I’m afraid I’m not going to like it. I want to keep the image of the people that way it has been for me.”
Sowers, who writes all of the band’s songs, says the new record is again made up entirely of originals. And again it’s impossible to pigeonhole beyond being Davina and The Vagabonds music.
“It’s called ‘Sunshine,’” she said. “There’s some pre-war, some New Orleans music. It sounds like us. I didn’t start doing country or rap or rock ‘n’ roll. Well, there’s some early rock ‘n’ roll in there. It’s just us, once again.”