"Did you bring it, by the way?" asks Julie Davis, glancing at Brigid McAuliffe. McAuliffe, sitting across from Davis on the Thin Man's patio, shakes her head no. "Oh, you suck!"
McAuliffe, who sings and plays accordion with Davis in Bela Karoli, recently borrowed her digital recorder. She's had it less than a week, but Davis is clearly eager to get it back — even though she's smiling. It's not that she doesn't trust McAuliffe. It's just that she uses the handheld device as a sketch pad when she's writing, and right now, she's got a bevy of new ideas floating around in her head that she doesn't want to lose.
"I'll be out driving around, or I'll be walking around, and I come up with melodies," she explains. "I like to sing them, and then I'll listen to them and sing lyrics over the top. Then I'll do a percussion part with my voice and sing over it to see if it fits."
Davis developed this method several years ago as she crisscrossed Denver on her way to tutoring appointments. Some of the songs that appear on Furnished Rooms, the act's full-length debut, were birthed on those drives. An invaluable tool, the recorder helped foster Davis's creativity while helping stave off the ennui of her seemingly endless commute.
"I was tired of driving sixty miles a day," she recalls. "I was aggravated. I was in the car all the time, and it started to get to me. The first year I was tutoring, I was driving all around. I was driving to the Tech Center and I was driving north. I had all these different routes through the city, and I felt really sickened by that. So I had my little recorder, and I would sing and do my percussion parts."
Back then, Davis was making music by herself under the name Bluebook, after a brief stint playing upright bass with Red Telegraph. Taking all the ideas she'd amassed during the day, she'd record them at home in her makeshift studio, which consisted of a single mike and a computer loaded with Cubase software and outfitted with a two-channel FireWire interface. "I don't know anything about engineering," Davis reveals. "I've just been making it all up. I didn't have any good microphones, and I didn't understand about pre-amps, and I didn't understand anything. Anything." Still, she managed to assemble a ten-song disc, which she released in spring 2006.
Growing up in Colorado Springs, Davis had taken an interest in music early on, singing in that city's children's chorale and also putting together impromptu variety shows for the family with her younger brother. "We had a lot of fun," she recalls. "We did a lot of singing and had a basket of instruments in the basement, all kinds of stuff — drums, keyboards, recorders and melodicas. A lot of them were toys."
But aside from singing jazz standards with a pianist friend, by college Davis was devoting herself to academia. She was studying religion and literature in grad school at Yale Divinity School when she met her future husband, David, while visiting family and wound up moving to Denver. After a year teaching eighth grade at Montclair Academy, though, she got the itch to start performing again.
So, armed with a binder full of songs such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Sentimental Journey," Davis began sitting in with other musicians, singing at various restaurants, coffee shops and friends' weddings. Then, fueled by a desire to take on a bigger role, she decided to take on the upright bass. After two years of playing for her husband and their downstairs neighbor, she purchased a P.A. and started booking shows. At first she stuck to the standards. But before long, she was performing her own material. Inspired by her husband, who by then had quit his telecommunications job to pursue his love of furniture-making, Davis left her full-time teaching gig and began tutoring, which gave her more time to devote to music.
By the time she released Bluebook, Davis was writing again in earnest. Of the songs penned during that period — they were originally slated to appear on a follow-up EP titled Commute — "Invertebrate" probably best reflects Davis's gridlocked exasperation: "We lay a track/It circles 'round and comes back/Single file, it stretches miles and miles and miles/We go west and east/Inch by inch we creep/On our white-lined way/We will stay."
Rather than sounding angsty, however, the tune is hushed, languid and ethereal — like most of the others that ended up on Rooms. "We are soft cells/We have metal shells," croons Davis in a delicate, silken voice that crawls across a plodding bass line and glitchy percussion. Those lines also serve as an apt metaphor for the music of Bela Karoli, the rechristened outfit that grew out of Davis's solo project.
Around the time that Davis was finishing up Commute, she went to a party at the home of Born in the Flood frontman Nathaniel Rateliffe and met Carrie Beeder, a Heritage High grad and talented violinist who was splitting her time between a chamber orchestra and a string quartet. The two hit it off and were soon playing together, backing Erin Roberts in Porlolo and collaborating with Rateliffe on the Wheel, his side project. McAuliffe, Davis's next-door neighbor and a Northglenn High School alum who was then a member of Pee Pee, was enlisted to help flesh out the act. While other musicians have sat in with the group, Davis, Beeder and McAuliffe are the heart of Bela Karoli, and their almost sister-like interplay results in exceptional music.
The trio quickly gained an enthusiastic following, and even though Commute had yet to be released, a new recording seemed in order. "I wanted to find somebody who could help me," says Davis. "So I talked to a lot of people: 'What should I do? Should I hire an engineer? Should I have somebody come here and try to produce it?' And then I met Randall Frazier, and he and I just decided that I would bring that to him."
Davis's comfort level was notably elevated when she discovered that she and Frazier used the same software. "So I brought him the whole thing," she recalls, "and I said, 'Here's what I have. What do you think?' He then spent, like, two minutes doing stuff — now I know he was really EQing it — and it sounded so much better."
Impressed with the substantial improvement that Frazier made to those raw tracks with just some minor tweaking, Davis decided to record with him at his Helmet Room Recordings studio. The pair spent the first six months laboriously recording the bass tracks, then brought in Beeder and McAuliffe to add their parts.
Mastered by Bob Ferbrache at his Absinthe Studio, the final product is startlingly good. Mating organic instrumentation — the interplay of Davis's upright bass, Beeder's expressive violin and McAuliffe's tasteful accordion accents — with mechanical percussion, the act effectively conjures Thom Yorke's dour, Eraser-era landscapes as seen through the lens of Beth Gibbons. Over the top, Davis and McAuliffe's vocals swirl together in smoke-like plumes, casting a pall that's bleak and unsettling, yet starkly beautiful and oddly soothing.
"I'm glad that people like it," says Davis, "but I'm always surprised, because it's really weird. I've always kind of felt scared to go out and play because I'm not sure where what we're doing fits. Like, I just don't know where it goes, and I'm always scared that people are going to be like, 'What the hell is this?'"
But Davis may be a little too close to have a good perspective on things. She admits that working with Frazier has made it challenging to hear her old home recordings. "I can't listen to it now. It sounds like this," she says, cupping her hands over her mouth and making garbled noises. "You should listen to it; it's funny. It sounds so weird to me now. It was fun, though."
So fun, in fact, that she's already looking forward to taking what she's learned and recording her next disc herself with Frazier's help — and her digital recorder, of course, if she ever gets it back.