Elise Davis isn’t sure what’s more surprising: that there are any lizards at all in Nashville, where the Arkansas singer-songwriter had moved, or that her cat, Enchilada, has just walked into her living room with one in its mouth—its life seemingly seeping out of its body.
“It’s weird because we have no lizards around,” Davis begins her explanation, midway through an interview. “I feel so gross and I feel so sorry for this lizard. There’s a lizard in my house and it’s half-dead right now.”
Davis, who’s describing the unexpected developments over the telephone, moves Enchilada to another room to give the lizard a chance to recover or die in peace. All the while, she apologizes, for throwing off the interview. “I’m so sorry,” she says several times. It may be her Southern upbringing shining through.
Elise Davis was brought up by a “prim and proper” mother, but by her early 20s, she deviated from at least one hallmark of what was expected from her in Little Rock, Arkansas, and that comprises a huge chunk of the themes from her atmospheric country and Americana songs.
“My mom had four children by the time she was my age. She got married when she was 22,” she says. “And that’s what most everyone did, or still does, where I come from. In Arkansas, people go to college and get married right afterward, usually. Babies start in your mid-20s. I grew up thinking and being told that was the way life should go. As I started to get older into my 20s, I realized that that was not going to be the path I wanted to take.
Davis has never been married, but the theme of marriage weighs heavily on her music. On the title track to her 2016 debut album, The Token, she imagines a life with a husband and son—which spirals out of control. In the video to “Hold Me Like a Gun,” which begins her latest LP, October’s Cactus, she pawns a wedding ring for a sidearm.
Three songs later, “Married Young” details a post-knot dissolution, while “33” looks at the pressure of women where she’s from to hurry if they reach the age unwed and without children. At her concerts, she says, she talks about how her mother offers to help her freeze her eggs.
“I’m apparently close to being barren, since I’m not married and I don’t have any kids,” she says. “Still, there’s a part of me that thinks about it and desires it, but is also angered by the pressure put on women. I have so many friends now who are 30, or getting into their 30s, and are getting totally freaked out, and depressed and obsessed with getting married. They feel like it’s something they have to do to meet this sociatal pressure we were always subjected to.”
“Married Young,” for example, she cowrote with Erin Enderlin, who married when she was 19. The song comes from their shared experience, including Davis not even being able to recognize the person she was when she was that age.
Davis combats those pressures with sexual liberation. In pretty much all of the songs on Cactus, she plays the lone wolf; unashamed with being alone and looking for the no-strings-attached hookup. Even the album’s title is a callback to the desert plant that can withstand intense heat, defend itself and thrive completely on its own.
She sings in a sex-positive way that levels the playing field between men and women, and her songs do it in an unassuming way. The alt-country balladry and roots-rock melodies could pass for songs of lost love. Davis cites Lucinda Williams as an influence in her songwriting.
Songs like “The Burn,” “Cactus” and “Don’t Bring Me Flowers” echo with a bold lustiness. “With a night like that, who needs a honeymoon?” she asks on the latter, the abum’s closer. Davis wrote the song with country star Maren Morris, and songwriter Frank Romano. She and Morris both began their careers in Nashville not as solo artists, but as songwriters with a publishing contract.
They had written together several times in the past, and the song came together after they met up at one of their publishing companies to write. The song came together in one day.
“I just love singing songs that have a feeling of sexual liberation about them,” she says. “Coming from the background that I did, with all the sterotypes: If you like casual flings, then you’re a slut. I vehemently hate that. We were talking about all that stuff, and that song came out of wanting to sing about something that was a casual, light fling.”
But standout penultimate track, “Moody Marylin,” has nothing to do with love or lust. The song is about depression, something Davis said she’s struggled with on and off since childhood. The song’s namesake was a nickname bestowed on her, without her permission. The contemplative verses first approach how her mother brushed her depression aside, and then Davis’ conversations with herself in her early 20s.
“The end is about accepting that part of yourself,” she says. “When I play that song live, I like to talk about depression a little before, and how that’s something most people experience, whether they talk about it or not. … It’s not necessarily hopeful, because it’s not like I’m saying ‘you can get rid of this for good.’ It’s more like me sharing that hopefully helps people feel less alone in their experiences.”
While Davis recorded The Token over a week in Maine, she decided to take more time with Cactus because she wanted a sound that was more refined and less raw than its predecessor. She found that with producer Jordan Lehning, who has worked with the likes of Rayland Baxter, Casey Musgraves and Caitlin Rose. She wanted more string arrangements and said he’s one of the “best string arrangers in town.”
The strings, along with pedal steel, give Cactus much of its atmospheric ambiance. As touch points, she used the heavy strings and glassy finish of Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness and the various guitar textures of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers.
She and Lehning spent six months molding the album to her final vision. After she finished mixing the album, however, Davis had something unexpected happen—she fell in love.
After nearly a decade of not being interested in serious relationships, she stumbled in to one by accident. The experience has already started shifting her perspective as she begins writing again.
“I’ve written a few love songs—true love songs,” she says. “But I don’t think I’ll ever write a happy love album. I still write a lot of dark songs all the time, too.”
Even if the relationship ends up not working out, she knows that she’ll have her mother’s support—even if she does keep reminding her to freeze her eggs.
“I do feel like her views on life have expanded over time,” she says. “She’s very accepting of my music. We’ll even smoke weed together and she’ll … in certain moments … talk about how that stuff’s not important.”
While at first it appeared the reptilian hero of this story had succumbed to his feline-induced injuries, Davis texted an hour afterward that it had regained its senses, and she had set it to roam free outside and make lizard babies. Or freeze its eggs.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.