Katy Davidson Reconstructs Dear Nora With a Roster of Arizona Expats

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Katy Davidson
Chris Lael Larson
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Singer/songwriter Katy Davidson is mostly associated with the Pacific Northwest, where she established her indie rock band Dear Nora and played with YACHT and the Gossip. But before all that, her music took root in Arizona, where she grew up. Just outside of Cave Creek, she got her start playing along with Liz Phair and Pearl Jam CDs.

Davidson started Dear Nora in Portland, Oregon, in 1999, but her 2004 album Mountain Rock, reissued with bonus material on vinyl on January 13 by Orindal Records, is her “Arizona album.” Recorded mostly in Catalina, north of Tucson, in the winter of 2003, a desert feel permeates the album. It’s open and lonesome, noisy and sweet, its songs inspired by the vast mountain ranges of southern Arizona and, in the case of the beatific “Oxygen & The Mellow Stuff,” stoned adventures onto desert hiking trails.

It’s fitting that when Davidson decided to convene a band to tour in support of the Mountain Rock reissue, things got very Arizonan, very fast. She enlisted some of Arizona’s brightest musical exports to the Northwest: singer/songwriter Stephen Steinbrink, Zach Burba of indie pop band iji, and Gregory Campanile, known for his writing, solo work, and as a member of Reindeer Tiger Team and Bieula. They got their start in the thriving Phoenix DIY community.

“I immediately put together my dream band,” Davidson says.

She met each individually, their paths intersecting at Phoenix venues like Modified Arts and the Trunk Space, and on the road, as they toured the same circuit of all-ages arts spaces and house shows. Among those communities, the music of Dear Nora is treasured. It was a direct influence on Steinbrink and Burba. Los Angeles duo Girlpool named a song “Dear Nora.” Last year, California pop punk band Joyce Manor cited Dear Nora as a major influence on its album Cody. Though she retired the name in 2008, the renewed interest made a return to the project feel natural.

“I’d taken a break from playing my own music in any kind of touring capacity in the last five years or so,” Davidson says. “I thought, ‘Enough of that. I really want to play my music for people, in front of people.’ I didn’t really know what shape or form that would take at the time, but all these things started coalescing, and quickly [I realized] Dear Nora — why not?”

Though each maintains its own feel, a similar thread runs through the band members’ individual efforts. On his 2016 solo album, Anagrams, Steinbrink creates melodic compositions that evoke the natural expanse of the desert. Similarly, iji’s 2016 album, Bubbles, released by Team Love Records, the label founded by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and solo fame, feels spacious.

“There’s an idea of vastness, suburban or natural vastness in the desert, I think, that’s deeply [ingrained] in various ways in our songs,” Steinbrink says.

Though none of the members of Dear Nora currently live in Phoenix, Burba says that the creative spirit cultivated here — chiefly at the Trunk Space — remains intact.

“[The Trunk Space] would book a lot of interesting music, and would let you do anything,” Burba says. “I’ve met people doing really incredible things, but it’s not based in the same artistic push that people from Phoenix have.”

On the Mountain Rock song “Hung Up,” Davidson sings, “I gotta crazy idea for a new art project/that I will never do/I’m hung up on what’s new.” In Phoenix, creating freely in spaces like the Trunk Space, Burba, Steinbrink, and Campanile tapped into the same spirit that drove Davidson’s free-ranging work in Portland.

Phoenix provided “a specific kind of artistic education,” Steinbrink says, one of “being given permission — without realizing you’re being given permission — to do whatever you want.”

Dear Nora is scheduled to perform Monday, January 23, at the Trunk Space.

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