The Michigan native and Steppin’ In It member has a growing role as producer, working with Greensky Bluegrass, Jen Sygit, Eddie Vedder, Buddy Miller and even the Chicago Cubs. The Local Spins profile.
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What may come as a surprise to some is just how much music the Detroit-born-and-bred, Nashville-based Davis really, truly has his hands in these days.
Having worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Willie Nelson, Taj Mahal and Adele, Davis — when not on the road or co-parenting and/or writing and playing music with his wife and fellow musician Rachael Davis — has been keeping nothing short of busy in the studio, whether lending his skills as a bassist or taking lead on his ever-expanding role as a producer.
Lately, that role has become more and more that of a producer.
Davis, whose credits continue to pile up, most recently co-produced Greensky Bluegrass’ “All for Money” with Glenn Brown and also produced Lansing singer-songwriter Jen Sygit’s “It’s About Time” with an engineering assist from Ian Gorman at La Luna Recording and Sound in Kalamazoo.
Sygit, who was coming off a long break from recording, credited Davis with not only pushing her to take chances and step outside of her comfort zone on her latest LP, but in offering up “a wide array of musical knowledge and experience” that proved to be immeasurable in the process.
“My favorite albums tend to have a variety of styles, while maintaining a certain amount of continuity. This is my goal for my own records,” she said. “Dominic embodies this. He knows how to draw on different genres and still stay true to the artist’s signature sound.”
AN INTIMATE WORKING KNOWLEDGE OF ARTISTS
It’s that exact trait — along with the intimate knowledge of their work, something Davis also has in regard to Sygit’s canon, having played on her first four albums — that led jamgrass stalwarts Greensky Bluegrass to elect to work with Davis as well.
“Dominic has known Greensky literally since our inception,” said Greensky bassist Mike Devol. “We were all fans of his band, Steppin’ In It, during our formative years in Michigan, and still are, and it wasn’t long before we were spending a lot of time together. … He has seen us through it all. He knows our songs, he knows what we want to sound like, and he has watched us develop into the sound that is now ‘us.’”
Greensky has long partnered with Brown on its albums and made the call to bring Davis into the fold to work alongside the Lansing-based producer this time around.
“We trusted Dom to join us in creating an album that is, above all, very Greensky, not to steer us toward a sound that isn’t authentic to who we are as people or as musicians,” Devol said. “I think Dom knew when to let us follow our vision when perhaps a producer who’s less familiar with us would have gotten cold feet.
“We know how to do Greensky, and it was important for us to partner with a producer who knew when to push us and understood the balance that can be achieved when control is relinquished. … I think where Greensky’s abilities in terms of production came to their limit, Dom had the experience to take everything further.
“I was just stoked to have one of my very favorite bass players hanging around, but he has a knack for all of the rest of it as well. He’s a great arranger, band leader and multi-instrumentalist, and he is an encyclopedia of knowledge about gear, tones and recording techniques.”
THE LOCAL SPINS Q&A
Local Spins writer Ryan Boldrey recently had the opportunity to ask the very busy Davis about what he’s been up to and has on tap for the remainder of 2019. Here’s the Q&A.
Local Spins: In the past year, you toured the world with Jack White, did a reunion tour with Steppin’ In It and produced major artists such as Eddie Vedder and Greensky Bluegrass, while also playing bass on new albums by Jack White, Jen Sygit, Paul Thorn, Madeleine, Seth Bernard, Welles, Josie Dunne and Thom Donovan. Not to mention you are a full-time parent. How do you find the time?
Dominic: Last year was probably busier than anyone should be. Both the Greensky and Jen Sygit records were on the calendar before Jack had an idea of what his year was looking like so I just crammed it all in rather than canceling anything. I think by the time July rolled around I had worked all but 10 days in 2018. I feel very fortunate to get to do what I do and being busy comes with that territory. I’m also lucky that I live where I do because a lot of work that happens here in town is on more of a 9-to-5 schedule. That was really what prompted our move to Nashville. When I was living in Michigan and would come here to work, it struck me as such a family town. It seemed like musicians who are parents here could juggle work with a more stable home life and that appealed to me.
I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with producer Buddy Miller on music for ABC’s “Nashville” right after moving here. That’s a good example. We were very busy creating music for a weekly television show which is a lot of work, but also able to be home for dinner with the family every night. That means a lot to me. I also couldn’t do any of this without my wife Rachael. She’s an artist herself, but she knew last year was going to be a big one for me. She took on the brunt of the work at home and now that Jack’s album cycle is over, she can focus on playing and writing more solo and with her band The Sweet Water Warblers.
Local Spins: You’ve been playing bass for years, and in addition to your well-known work with Steppin’ In It and Jack White, have played with the likes of The North Mississippi All Stars, Dwight Yoakam and Beck along with so many others. What prompted you to focus more on the production aspect of music?
Dominic: I had always self-produced records for bands I was in, but it was my late bandmate Ikey Owens (keyboardist, Jack White) who saw what I could do in the studio and convinced me to produce more. He produced a lot of records and was just starting to walk me through the process when he passed. He showed me the ropes with logistic and the business side of things — putting together budgets, combing through demos, pre-production and writing, that sort of thing. He had done the same shift from the stage to studio himself a few years earlier to focus on producing.
Local Spins: With Jack White concentrating on his work with The Raconteurs this year, you’ve told us that you plan on spending a lot more time focusing on your ever-evolving role as a producer. What projects do you have your hands in this year and what has you most excited?
Dominic: I’m currently working on a giant bass sample pack for Splice which is one of the largest endeavors I’ve ever taken on. They’re one of the largest sample libraries around and I’m compiling a huge library of my playing for other producers, songwriters and beat makers to use themselves. It’s been interesting being in the studio alone, which is not something I’ve done much of.
I’ve also been working on a “45” project for the Chicago Cubs with The Grateful Dead, which is a lot of fun to say! It’s much like the ones I had done for The Tigers and Cubs in the past. Perhaps I’m most excited to be working next with Tania Elizabeth from The Avett Brothers on her new record. She’s an incredible singer/violinist and her material is so strong. I love music. Always have. It’s a great feeling to get connected to songs when they’re in their stages of infancy and really watch them develop.
Local Spins: That sounds both awesome and exciting all around. Is there a particular style that you bring to the studio that you feel differentiates you from other producers out there? And, in addition to Ikey, who have been the producers/engineers that have shown you the ropes and mentored you along the way?
Dominic: I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some of the best producers out there. Watching folks like Jack White, Buddy Miller or T Bone Burnett work in the studio is about as good as it gets. Working with them I’m always trying to soak up anything I can. A big thing I’ve learned from Jack is to work in the present, to commit to sounds while tracking — echoes, tape delays, reverb — to get things sounding good from the start and shape your tones from the get-go. If what you’re working on inspires you while you’re working on it the ball will keep rolling down the hill.
There’s a tendency nowadays to work fast and “fix” things later … A common phrase in a modern studio is “we’ll fix it in post” which I don’t really subscribe to. It’s funny, people ask me a lot about Jack’s sound or Buddy’s sound and there’s no easy way to get there. There isn’t some magic compressor or an EQ setting that’s going to get you there. At its heart, music is pretty mysterious, so you’ve just got to open up and trust the process. I think that’s where I come in. If someone is comfortable and things are sounding good, that’s the right environment for an artist to open up and connect with their material. That’s something listeners can hear and connect with themselves.
Local Spins: Do you feel that having such a long and diverse background as a recording artist has made the transition to the other side of the board an easy one, and maybe even given you a different perspective than other producers who rely solely on their production or engineering experience?
Dominic: I do think that all of my experiences in the studio help on both sides of the board. One big thing I’ve learned here involves taking on roles in the studio and which hat to wear. I could be at a session with Ian Fitchuk and a few other producers who are all there as session musicians. They aren’t there to produce and don’t. I think that’s important. Just because you produce or arrange, or engineer doesn’t mean you need to do those things at every session. I think something like that only comes after doing so many sessions and being really comfortable in the studio.
Local Spins: Shifting gears to the performance side of things, you’ll be at Camp Greensky this June doing a set with your wife Rachael and Steppin’ In It has some things up their sleeves on the heels of last year’s 20th anniversary reunion run. Can you talk a little about anything else you may have coming up? As well, when can we expect to see you and Jack back out on the road?
Dominic: After last year’s craziness I’m really trying to spend as much time with my family as I can. We’ll be in and around Michigan quite a bit this summer. Steppin’ In It has a few shows. We’re opening the Beer Garden at Bell’s and playing a Detroit area show and have a big show scheduled at Interlochen. As for Jack’s next plans, I think it will be a while. We usually don’t tour without an album cycle and we’re pretty far from that. Rachael is going to be touring heavy in 2020 so let’s hope it isn’t until after that.
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC