“It's tough to remember where you were last night,” admits Denali's singer, Maura Davis, confirming the mental similarities between touring bands and alcoholics.
Davis started out as a classically trained vocalist in Lynchburg, Tenn., the proud home of Jerry Falwell. But a fateful Christmas family gathering lured the future opera singer away from her formalized training into an alternative band in Richmond.
“I was home for Christmas, and my brother had his four-track with him. I asked him to record some of my stuff.
“He really liked 'em, and he realized that his little sister had talent,” she chuckles in the tone of someone humble attempting to gloat.
Her brother was no stranger to indie rock. Keeley Davis had sung for Engine Down, another highly praised Richmond band whose albums spent several weeks in the Top 20 of CMJ's charts. After hearing his sister's Bjork-like vocal talent, however, he dropped everything to supply her with the icy guitar parts needed for Denali.
Denali quickly became the “buzz band” of Richmond, and Virginia's other cult icon, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, produced two tracks on their self-titled debut. Davis' classical training comes out on the album, which amplifies the beauty in the sound set forth by Portishead.
“When I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go with my voice, I listened to a lot of Bjork and Portishead and PJ Harvey. Ella Fitzgerald is a big inspiration for me,” says Davis, who used to front a jazz band.
“I think there's a hint of jazz in [Denali],” she suggests, adding in characteristic self-doubt, “maybe... I try.”
Davis was discouraged from jazz when her teacher said she was “too white.” It was these sorts of statements that made her ditch school.
“[The purpose of classical training] was basically to have everyone sound exactly the same, and you would basically become an opera singer,” she says. “I don't know... I couldn't get into it.
“I'm glad I learned what I learned. But we didn't really have any say so in what [we] wanted to sound like. When you have your recital... I just felt stupid standing there, singing and not moving. It's an awkward thing.”