I can’t claim exhaustive expertise about harps in rock’n’roll. (And I mean harp harps, not harmonicas.) Basically all I know is 1) you don’t hear them very often; and 2) Joanna Newsom made a splash with the instrument back in the ’00s, which intimated that the harp was going to become the next hip thing but I guess it hasn’t. Now as much as I admire Newsom’s instrumental skills (not to mention her opinions about Spotify, which she has called “a villainous cabal”; you won’t find her music there), I have yet to acquire a taste either for her voice (it’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it things) or for her elusive songwriting tactics, and because she plays the harp and has that voice and writes those songs I’ve kind of intertwined all those things in my head to the extent that Mikaela Davis can come along, play the harp in an incisively crafted rock song and I almost can’t compute the circumstance. Doesn’t a harp have to involve all sorts of other idiosyncrasy?
Apparently not. After immediately making its presence known with a dreamy introduction that feels half sumptuous, half portentous (listen to the bottom of the mix), Davis’s harp insinuates itself into “Other Lover” so naturally that I find myself smiling a great big smile. Who knew a harp could work like this, could be the easy, arpeggioed backbone of a catchy, invigorating tune? There’s so much to admire here, beginning with the song’s basic structure, which draws us in through the ongoing push/pull of its half-time/double-time melodies—first two lines of the verse in half time, second two in double time, followed by a chorus in which the half-time/double-time change happens within each lyrical line.
Another sign of a well-built song: the second verse is put together against a subtly different backdrop than the first verse, underscored by a new harp technique, as Davis leaves off some of the arpeggios for a staccato plucking that calls more attention now to the bass line (which may not actually be a bass, but in any case delivers a heavier-sounding bottom this time). (Fun fact: the word arpeggio is derived from the Italian word for “play the harp.”) This is a sign of the canny production on display throughout. As merely one example, listen to the sounds accompanying the end of the chorus, on the repeated words “run away” (first heard around 0:54): we’re probably getting a harp’s natural glissando in there, but it sounds subtly augmented, and fully aligned with the lyrics. A more direct example of this is in the bridge, in which this wonderful swelling arises in the background starting around 2:34, which sounds mostly vocal, both involving the harp and imitating it.
Mikaela Davis is a Rochester, NY-based singer/songwriter. Classically trained, she spent four years playing in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra before going to study at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music. Halfway through college, she decided she’d rather write and perform her own songs than play in an orchestra. After graduating, she made an effort to forge her path in Brooklyn, but eventually landed back in her hometown, where she found her footing and her voice.
“Other Lover” is a song from Davis’s first full-length album, Discovery, released on Rounder Records in July, available here. She has two previous EPs and one single available via Bandcamp. MP3 via The Current.