Questions & Answers with community faces
Joshua Davis (44) was raised in the folk tradition: the music, the social movements, the land. Born in Marquette in the Upper Peninsula and raised in metro-Detroit, Davis graduated from Berkeley High School in 1995, but he had also spent two taking courses through the Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts (CASA), a consortium created to offer a larger variety of upper-level electives for several high schools in the area. He followed that up with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre from Michigan State University in 2001.
In 1997, Davis and college friends started Steppin’ In It, a folk and roots band which actively toured together for 15 years and has released four albums. Alongside came a solo career beginning in 2005, which now includes five award-winning solo albums, as well as a host of other records as a band member, producer, or instrumentalist for various groups.
In 2013, his family moved northward from East Lansing to Northern Michigan. It may have taken a few years, but Davis eventually came full circle with his music education: he has taught songwriting and guitar at MSU’s Community Music School and has led countless retreats, as well as master classes and workshops at events like Swannanoa Gathering, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Swallow Hill, and Town School of Folk Music. He co-founded On Stage 4 Kids, an arts education organization, which has among others, worked with students from Benzie County Central Schools. He is a current member of Michigan Council for Arts and Culture, and Davis began teaching at Interlochen Arts Academy in 2019.
Davis is perhaps best known for his 2015 run on NBC’s The Voice in front of 14 million Americans. He was a Season 8 finalist, coming in third place overall, in part thanks to his core base of fans made prior to the reality show, in addition to new fans gained during the airing; notably, “watch parties” took place across Michigan, including at Traverse City’s State Theater, Frankfort’s Stormcloud Brewing Company, and The Garden Theater in which friends and family helped to teach others all of the ways to “vote” for Davis to advance each week on the show. (The Voice is a social-media driven popularity contest in which contestants advance based on how many Twitter and Facebook votes they get, plus how many of their cover songs are purchased on iTunes.)
Meanwhile, May Erlewine (39) was born to a music family; her father, Michael Erlewine, was a member of the Michigan blues band The Prime Movers and her uncle is a luthier. She was educated at home in Big Rapids, and she wrote her first song at the age of 11. In her teenage years, Erlewine developed a passion for travel—she began hitching rides from one side of the country to the other, often by train, honing her skills and absorbing the kind of stories and landscapes that would inform her music. Some might remember the years when she toured and recorded under “Daisy May,” a nickname she has had since childhood; regardless of the stage name, Erlewine has released 14 award-winning solo albums since her first in 2003, in addition to working on collaborative albums with other musicians, such as The Sweet Water Warblers, The Motivations, and Shout Sister Shout (a band which includes Davis).
Dubbed “Michigan’s Songbird,” Erlewine has won accolades and approval from audiences in Michigan and around the country. She has performed in every kind of venue imaginable, from street corners to festival stages to the live airwaves of A Prairie Home Companion; she has been spotlighted in multiple musical media, including Rolling Stone. She moved to the Traverse City area in (2016). Locally, she has been a regular at venues like the Beulah Concert in the Park summer series, and she performed at the first Benzie County Water Festival in Frankfort back in 2011. To that end, Erlewine has been involved with many benefits and causes—she even played for former-Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) to protest sulfide mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and she counts climate activist Bill McKibben among her fans.
Erlewine views music as a “tool” to inspire courage in people and a “language” that can break down barriers and transform communities; she has at least two-dozen songs in which environmental conservation or social change is a mantra. But most of Erlewine’s song catalogue is filled with songs about love, loss, and the human condition—she shows us her heartbreak, but she also shows her empowered and emboldened spirit. Her songs show a very real connection and concern with everyday folk, and her voice on stage encourages connectedness and stresses the importance of community building as necessary work for all of us.
Both Davis and Erlewine are multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters who are comfortable working in supporting roles or out front—they both play guitar and piano; he can play mandolin; she can play violin. Moreover, the pair of musicians have been friends for close to two decades, and they have worked together musically more times than they can count: he has worked on albums of hers, she has worked on albums of his, and they have been in more than one band together over the years.
Davis and Erlewine were each the “musical ambassador/cultural emissary” for fundraising/awareness-building trips with On the Ground Global, a Traverse City-based nonprofit, in which Erlewine traveled to Mexico in (2009) and Ethiopia in (2011) to help build schools and safe drinking water wells for coffee farmers and Davis traveled to the West Bank in 2012 to plant trees with Palestinian olive farmers; likewise, both musicians made albums afterward that were based on their experiences, with half of the proceeds going toward these endeavors.
Additionally, during Season 8 of The Voice, the eventual winner of that season, upstate New York’s Sawyer Fredricks, recognized Davis from touring with Erlewine, one of Fredricks’ mother’s favorite musicians of all time; for the Mother’s Day episode, Fredricks convinced NBC executives to allow him to play Erlewine’s original, “Shine On,” rather than one of the 200-some pre-approved “top hits” songs—it marked the first time that an independent record had been permitted on the show, and it paved the way for Davis, just a few weeks later, to debut his original single “The Working Man’s Hymn” on the show, albeit with quite a lot of self-advocating by Davis.
Fast forward to the pandemic, with venues closed down and concerts canceled, both musicians had to find new ways to connect with their audiences. One novel way was via “Facebook live” concerts using their social media platforms: Erlewine would play on Monday nights from her living room, and Davis would play on Thursday nights from his basement studio. Always around an hour, more or less. On more than one occasion, the pair surprised viewers by playing together at Davis’ family home, after both their families had tested negative for COVID-19. Comments from fans watching in their own homes ranged from folks in Michigan all the way to Malaysia, Quebec, and Cuba.
Now, with live music happening again, The Betsie Current caught up with Davis and Erlewine as they were preparing for the busy summer season, including as part of The Garden Theater’s new summer concert series, taking place in downtown Frankfort.
The Betsie Current: What made you want to pursue music as a career?
Joshua Davis: It’s incredibly cheesy, but I remember seeing this guy play songs around a campfire when I was a little kid, and everyone was singing along. At that time I thought, That’s what I want to do.
May Erlewine: It felt like a tangible way I could be useful to my community—and also, music is a truly magical artform.
Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
Davis: I have the best job! As a songwriting instructor at Interlochen Arts Academy. It’s incredibly inspiring to work with such massively talented kids and wonderful faculty. Our school year at Interlochen just ended, which was very bittersweet as I said goodbye to a bunch of special students who have been with me for three years. Now I’m gearing up to head up three weeks of the rock and pop music program at Interlochen Arts Camp. That’s going to be a lot of work and a ton of fun. I’ll also be teaching private lessons online and offering occasional live streams from my home studio, as well as playing some special concerts and events this summer. I’m really fortunate to do what I love in so many different forms and to have some flexibility and time off during the summer, when my kids aren’t in school.
Erlewine: My work days are really varied, and actually that is a big part of creative work. It’s taken a long time to accept the flow of spontaneity and also to develop routines within the context of a transient lifestyle. My work is a mix of logistical organizing, creative writing, creative practice, community connections, and, of course, travel, performance, and recording.
Current: How did that change when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan in March 2020? How have things “gone back to normal,” and what kinds of things do you expect will be a “new normal” in the music industry?
Davis: Pre-pandemic, I was playing a lot more gigs and teaching less. This year was my first as a full-time, salaried faculty at Interlochen, although I’ve worked in the program for several years. This full-time gig could not have come at a better time. The pandemic was terrifying for me professionally. There was one day in March ’20 when more than half of our yearly income was canceled in a matter of hours. We had a new baby on the way, and everything was very uncertain. I performed these live streams first from my living room and then from the basement studio that we built during the early days of the pandemic. It was a fun project that kept me playing music, and people blew my mind with their support and encouragement. I wouldn’t have expected it to be such an important way of connecting for me and my family, but it really was, and I’ve heard it was really important for those tuning in, as well, especially during the lockdown. That’s something that’s held over a bit from those days—I still do live streams occasionally and enjoy watching them from other artists, as well. It’s a great way to support artists and have an intimate music experience from home, while you are making dinner or whatever. Interlochen was very careful about COVID. We were completely virtual at first and then began to gradually open up more. Even last year’s commencement was very pared down and limited. Most people still attended virtually, so this year’s in-person graduation ceremony was especially emotional and moving.
Erlewine: The pandemic has greatly changed the way that I connect with those that enjoy my art and also changed the way that I work with my peers on projects. Not being able to physically “be” together, there were lots of ways we all tried to adapt to being together apart. This leaned heavily on virtual ways of connecting and working. Some of this was actually really functional and rewarding, but there is nothing like playing music in a room for/with other humans.
Current: You are both very environmentally, socially, and even politically active, not just in your personal lives, but you bring it into your music, as well—you have written songs dedicated to issues like stopping the sulfide mining in the Upper Peninsula; you have written entire albums dedicated to your experiences with people in other countries; you have done countless benefit concerts for various causes. What role do you think music, musicians, and songwriting play in the world? Why is this so important to you?
Davis: My music and my belief systems are tied intrinsically together. I believe that we are carrying on the lineage of Woody Guthrie in being a voice for folks that don’t have one. I think there is plenty to be said for entertainment, but I have a platform that I feel a responsibility to put to good use.
Erlewine: I look at music as a service-oriented job. It has the ability to communicate things that are hard to say; it can be a voice for those that feel unheard; it can bring together all kinds of different people in a unifying way; it helps humans to feel their feelings deeply. All of these things are very useful when you are looking to make change or raise awareness. It is an incredible tool and a meaningful way to impact our community.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?
Davis: I made my living as a performer for more than 20 years. That allowed me to travel extensively and to collaborate with many of my heroes, and it taught me so much. I had years when I played more than 200 gigs. It was hard on me, and although I miss it in some ways, I don’t in many others. I had dreamed of working at Interlochen from the moment I heard they were creating a songwriting program. I bugged them and wore them down until they had to hire me. I love teaching. My students teach me so much, too—they keep me up on what’s what. I’m starting to write again after a pretty long hiatus; I’ve been working on songs for my father, who passed away four years ago. They are hard to write and have been taking time. I am planning on a new EP relatively soon with these songs, and some other singles as well.
Erlewine: I continually push for growth and education as I move through life. I am greatly inspired and continue to dig deeply into what is next and what I’m learning about myself and my community through music and art. I think this pause was healthy for honing some parts of my craft, and I did take advantage of the time in productive ways. I’m working on two new recording projects right now that I am excited to put out into the world when they are ready. I just released “Tiny Beautiful Things” and am touring those songs this summer. It feels good to continue putting music out into the world; I lean into its power every day and am always humbled and amazed by it.
Current: We know that you guys have been friends for a long time; how do you think your friendship aids in the musical work/projects you have done together over the years?
Davis: May is a constant source of inspiration for me. Not only her music, but May as a human being. She’s one of my wife’s very best friends and has been there for us in so many ways. I love playing her songs any chance I get; although it’s been a while, I would jump if the chance came again.
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Davis: I have four kids, an almost-17-year-old daughter and three little boys, ages 7.5, 4.5 and almost 2. They are so much fun! Especially after so much limited exposure during the pandemic, they are so easily delighted by almost any novel experience. It’s wonderful to see the world through their eyes. We don’t have to do much to have an exciting time with these little ones, and my oldest is becoming so like an adult that it blows my mind. She’s so great to hang with. She and I like to geek out about good coffee together and talk about pop music. Also, my wife is truly my most favorite person to do pretty much anything with. I’m really lucky. With a big family—plus pandemic—it’s been hard for us to stay as politically and socially involved as we’d like to be, but we are slowly emerging from the COVID cocoon. We have a big half-birthday party planned for our middle boys coming up, which will be super fun. Also, because I’m working on being extra authentic lately, I’ll add that I play D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] virtually with some of my dearest high school friends.
Erlewine: I love to bike, paint, garden, run, hike, cook, and love enjoying fine coffee and foods. I am very excited about the Common Grounds Cooperative Building on 8th Street and have been a supportive influence for the listening room/arts center that are going in there. We are really looking forward to what this space will mean to our community and the growing arts scene in Traverse City.
Current: How have you seen Northern Michigan change since you first landed here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Davis: My wife and I fell in love with Leelanau and Benzie counties way back in the early 2000s, when I used to play shows up here on weekends in the summer. We knew back then that we’d wind up here eventually. We moved to Traverse City from Lansing in 2013 and then to Lake Leelanau in 2015. The biggest change I’ve seen since then is the huge increase in housing cost/value. We feel fortunate to have bought a house when we did. There is no way in the world that we could buy or rent here if we were looking now. It’s really sad that almost no one who works in our area can afford to buy or rent here anymore. Childcare is at a major deficit around these parts, as well, lately. I hope for a solution to the housing and childcare crises. We’ve had privilege and good fortune in these areas—Leelanau Children’s Center is a dream for our kids as preschoolers. We also really long for more cultural diversity in the region.
Erlewine: As the world changes, I think this region is becoming more and more desirable. I’m both excited to see the community growing and a little protective of this precious place. It’s really thrilling to see more young artists finding respite here, and I’m looking forward to nourishing that scene and creating opportunities for our children together here.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Northern Michigan? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Davis: It’s a challenge—as a touring musician—to live so far from cities or major airports, and sometimes we wish we lived in a more diverse, less rural, and less culturally isolated region. But there are so many really great people doing amazing things up here. My job at Interlochen is a unicorn of a job that I am so incredibly grateful for. My colleagues are amazing human beings, and my students are incredibly talented, unique, and special young people. I feel really proud of the work we are doing there.
Erlewine: It is a hard choice as a creative to live in a smaller town/rural area. There are lots of options in bigger cities that are very immediately at your fingertips that are harder to find here. It is a smaller community, which can both lead to deep connections and also limitations. I also really struggle with the racism and privilege and lack of diversity in this area. When I look to the rewards, there are many, including a very loving community, beautiful landscape, and fresh water. I also know that the work here towards racial justice, equity, and equality is important, and my role as an artist here can play a part in supporting a future of more awareness around these issues.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area? What else does Northern Michigan need?
Davis: Middle Eastern food.
Erlewine: Creating more affordable, healthy housing options. More supportive options for low-income families, more community gardens, more city-wide composting systems, more therapists, more ramen shops.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities here in Benzie County? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots? What does your perfect summer day look like in Benzie County, if you were to visit us? How would you spend it?
Davis: My kids are crazy about the Cherry Bowl Drive-in! I want to film a music video there. We are water worshipers—we love Lake Michigan. Lazy beach days. Rock hunting. Dune climbing. Floating the river. I still have a soft spot in my heart for The Cabbage Shed; that was our [Steppin’ In It’s] first venue up here.
Erlewine: I would take a hike in the woods and spend the day at the beach with fresh strawberries! I love every minute I explore there and feel a lot of warmth and welcoming spirit within the community. I also really love Spirit of the Woods in nearby Brethren and the Brown Town Hall concerts in Manistee.
Joshua Davis will be performing at The Garden Theater in Frankfort on Wednesday, June 15, at 8 p.m. May Erlewine will perform Wednesday, July 27, at 8 p.m. Both shows are $25 each; call 231-352-7561 to inquire about purchasing tickets. May Erlewine will be opening for Sheryl Crow at the Traverse City Cherry Festival on July 2. Learn more about each artist by following “Joshua Davis” and “May Erlewine” on Facebook; or @joshuadavismusic and @may_erlewine on Instagram. Check out JoshuaDavisMusic.com and MayErlewine.com online for more information.
Featured Photo Caption: Joshua Davis (top) will perform at The Garden Theater in Frankfort on Wednesday, June 15, at 8 p.m. May Erlewine (bottom) will open for Sheryl Crow at the Traverse City Cherry Festival on Saturday, July 2; she performs at The Garden Theater in Frankfort on Wednesday, July 27, at 8 p.m. Photos courtesy of Joshua Davis and May Erlewine, respectively.