Elise Davis Mingles Love Songs With Existentialism On ‘Anxious. Happy. Chill.’

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Elise Davis and her husband Jason Morant smoked a lot of weed on their honeymoon. Out in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, they set an intention to light up and just write. While Davis was crafting what would become her third studio record, Anxious. Happy. Chill., Morant was busy fine-tuning a new script. As creative, energized, and so in love as they felt, a strangeness filled the air. “It was weird because the pandemic was happening as we were watching it unfold on the news,” offers Davis.

Morant and Davis married on March 7, and nine days later, the world had already stopped. “Everyone jokes that it was at my wedding that it was our last time we knew life without masks,” Davis tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “By the time we were in the airport on our way back to Nashville, people were wearing them. It was so weird at first.” 

Despite strict lockdown restrictions, Davis had already solidified plans to head into the studio─and in taking the necessary precautions, including mask-wearing and social distancing, the creative process took a big left turn. “I had more than enough songs before the pandemic, but I just had others I wanted to finish writing so I had a bigger batch to pick from. We had to restructure how we were recording it,” she reflects. “We couldn’t have a band come in to rehearse and play the songs together. That’s how I usually like to do it─playing with the band and everyone talking, drinking, and hanging out. Obviously, that had to change. I didn’t think I didn’t want to do it, but I was leaning on my producer a lot to figure it out.”

Davis also found herself writing from a very different emotional place. On the 10-track project, out Friday (April 16), she swaps out her lone wolf persona she had long cultivated and exchanges for a lovesick songbird─but don’t worry, her style of love songs aren’t sappy or sticky-sweet. Rather, she’s simply a storyteller whose snapshot vignettes are raucous and a little unruly. “Love songs are one of the hardest things to write. It’s so hard not to feel cheesy. When you’re in love, it’s so easy when you’re describing the way you feel to sound generic,” she says. “You feel like you’re on top of the world and your heart could explode─all these lines in love songs. I never wanted to say those kinds of things.”

Pummeling album opener “Lady Bug” is a prime example, a firmly saccharine love song but doesn’t actually feel like it. “I’ve decided to commit to one person, and I’m not even thinking about other people anymore. I’m happy and content in that choice. But it sounds like a grungy rock song. I really enjoy combining those two things,” she offers.

Then, you have “Honeymoon Phase,” written near the beginning of her relationship with Morant, which smolders with a classic country-rock flame. Everyone tells me that someday this parts gonna end / They call it the honeymoon phase, she sings, even her phrasing nodding to a bygone era and style─almost like a Linda Ronstadt b-side.

“I was experiencing all these feelings I had never felt. I’d had so many bandmates over the years who’d been married for years and so many close friends who’d been in really long relationships,” she says, “and the way you get used to people talk about it like ‘oh, yeah, that changes after a year that wears off.’ I’d always been a skeptic, in general, of love and long-term successful monogamy. It’s so worth it even if it is the honeymoon phase and what everyone says is right. I’m still going to pursue this.”

But, does the honeymoon phase actually exist? “What I experienced in that first year we were together was I felt like I was on a drug when I wasn’t. I fell in love so hard that I physically felt I was on drugs. It was this overwhelming sense of being crazy in love. That is definitely not the same now but it doesn’t mean the love isn’t as strong. It just changes. Now, it’s so much deeper in all these other ways.”

With “Waves,” Davis employs water imagery to depict the sometimes uncontrollable ebb and flow of one’s love. Her love only comes in waves, she warbles. Co-written with Kent Blazy (Garth Brooks), it’s one of the oldest songs which made the record. Back in 2013, Davis actually won The Pub Deal, a partnership contest between American Songwriter and Martin Guitars, which granted her a $20,000 publishing contract, and a co-writing session with Blazy was one of many byproducts. “It really changed the course of my life. It was enough money to pay my rent and bills. I was a salaried songwriter for a few years, and I grew so much through it.”

Anxious. Happy. Chill., recorded at The Creative Workshop with producer Teddy Morgan, also reads as a statement of intent, particularly when it comes to arrangements and sliding musicality. “Going into the studio, one of the biggest changes for me is that I normally don’t play guitar on my records. I like to lean on all my amazingly talented guitar player friends and studio musicians in town,” she says. So, she picked up the guitar, and everything changed. “I could hear myself more in the recordings. It’s something I surprisingly really enjoyed and actually think from now on I’ll play guitar a lot more.”

The record also weaves together several moments of existential panic with a humorous, but always emotional, brush. She often wonders if the choices she’s made were the right ones / Worrying about her fine lines, instead of realizing she looks fine as fuck, she sings over bouncy drum play with “Thirty.”

“Of course, you notice things about your body─the fine lines. But what I love about getting older is that every year I feel even more of myself and more grounded in who I am and who I want to be. I feel my mind is expanding in a way that makes you look at life so differently,” she says. “This song was making fun of myself, and it really is silly to think 30 is so old. People are so hard on themselves about turning 30 and what that means when it’s a really cool decade, I think. I’m excited to keep experiencing my 30s.”

Clocking in at only two minutes, “Thirty” lands as more interlude than fully-fleshed song. “I was finger-picking the whole song at first even when I went into the studio,” she says. Then, she started playing “these chunky chords for fun” and speeding up tempo a bit. “My guitar wasn’t even perfectly in tune, so it really gives it a grungy feel. It was so private, and I was so comfortable, and it really felt like I was in my bedroom.”

Davis bookends with “Another Year,” a slow-burning rumination on not only growing older but really what the last 12 months have been like. “It’s weird now that we’re kind of getting out of it and how it’s been a full year. I’d spent the past 10 years of my life touring, and when I was back home, I was waiting tables, and both those things were instantly stripped away. I’d been reflecting a lot last year on my level of success in life and how I view myself in personal identity. I was going through all these little existential crises every day like ‘what do I have left?’ and ‘who am I?’ We were at home a lot and I was drinking a lot every day.” 

Davis takes a good hard look at her life in brand new ways. Anxious. Happy. Chill. captures all those little moments, erratically shifting from heart-pounding romance to quick and severe anxieties, and all the while, the musician stands firm, bracing for the hurricane that is life itself. I guess dying is as natural as being alive, she heaves on “Another Year,” right before the song explodes with clinks of glasses and busy noise you’d find down at the local pub. “Open up another beer,” a chorus of voices howl in unison — offering up a bit of hope of what will soon be normal again.

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