When SPIN’s outdoor Stubb’s BBQ showcase at South by Southwest was evacuated due to lightning storms last month, a couple of hundred hardy souls packed into the venue’s small indoor room to wait out the miserable weather in hopes that the music wasn’t done for the night. Once settled, they were treated to an inspiring performance by the Brittany Davis Quartet that rendered jaws agape with its intuitive virtuosity across deeply felt rock, funk, and R&B-inspired material.
“I know we’ve got lightning coming from the sky, but we’re about to bring lightning from these fingertips!,” Davis promised while flashing a huge grin, asserting total command of both band and audience while effortlessly shifting from soul-piercing ballads (“Momma’s Gotta Go”) to head-nodding anthems of empowerment (recent single “So Fly”), brand new songs (“Lashes,” the righteous “Goons”), and even a slow-burn, half-speed cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” A European booking agent in the room was so impressed that he immediately began scheming how to get the Seattle-based Davis and company across the Atlantic for their maiden tour outside the U.S.
As it turns out, Davis, who uses they/them pronouns, has been dazzling people in this fashion more or less since the beginning, while overcoming enormous personal challenges along the way. They were born blind in 1994 in Kansas City, Mo., and were just three years old when their mother was sent to prison for a decade for murder, leaving them to be raised by their maternal grandmother. Davis has a form of synesthesia, where they can experience multiple senses at once. Although for some this might seem like a kind of blessing or superpower, for Davis, it only magnified the struggle to translate the sounds in their young head into something people could actually hear for themselves.
“When I was little, I heard music in everything,” Davis tells SPIN over Zoom after apologizing for the constant loud noises coming from their cell phone (“Forgive me – everything in my life talks,” they say with a huge smile, in a voice as naturally harmonious as their songs). “Music was like a language. There was no quintessential moment where I knew it was magic — it just was. It always was. It’s like breathing. But I didn’t really have anybody to share it with, or the means to share it with people the way that I wanted to. I definitely played in churches sometimes, or maybe if a friend came to the house, they’d be like, ‘OK Brittany, play us a song.’ I felt like a one-trick pony, and I didn’t know how to express my desire and pain through my music. It was almost like a second skin.”
An early breakthrough came through the assistance of a teacher at a Kansas City piano academy, where at the behest of their grandmother, Davis spent four years as a student between the ages of seven and 11. Even though they “can’t stand to practice,” Davis was encouraged to play loops or fragments of their fledgling ideas, which the instructor then helped turn into actual songs. “Bless his soul – he gave me my first recording experience,” Davis says of this material, which is now sadly lost to the ages.
Shortly thereafter, Davis’ life was plunged back into tragedy when, at age 12, their father was murdered. “My mother was still incarcerated at the time, so imagine the impact of what that meant for 12-year-old me,” they say. “My father was my lucky star. I believed he was really God’s conduit for my gift – I’m the vessel, but he was the conduit to show me what was possible.”
Davis’ mother was eventually released from prison, and in search of a fresh start, moved Davis and one of their three brothers from Kansas City to Seattle, where their late father’s sister resided. Although a leading light from the city’s celebrated music scene would eventually figure prominently in Davis’ life, initially, they didn’t even think about what their new hometown might have to offer from a cultural standpoint: “I was just on this adventure, like, ‘Seattle! Let’s go!’ It was as if I found a golden ticket but didn’t know about the contest.”
Davis continued working on music with the help of a basic synthesizer with a built-in sequencer, in spite of ongoing difficulties with their day-to-day well-being. “Definitely I experienced a lot of displacement,” they admit. “I say ‘homelessness’ very loosely, because we didn’t live on the street. But we lived in hotels sometimes. I’d take taxis to school because we didn’t have transportation. I had clothes and food, but just not a steady residence. I moved almost 60 times during the term of my high school career.”
Stability may have proven elusive for a while, but Davis was also beginning to make inroads in the Seattle music community. They played regular gigs at an African restaurant called Rumba Notes and made appearances at local festivals such as Sundiata, Juneteenth, and Folklife, but the big break came just before the pandemic in 2019.
That year, Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard heard from longtime Seattle friend Om Johari that there was a young musician in town who he positively had to meet. Before long, Davis was at Gossard’s Studio Litho recording new ideas of their own and was quickly invited to Pearl Jam’s warehouse to contribute to material from Gossard’s nascent side project, Painted Shield. Gossard also signed Davis to his revived imprint Loosegroove, for which they’ve released the 2022 EP I Choose To Live and are working on a debut full-length that should be out before the end of the year.
“It has been such an amazing experience to be involved with Brittany,” Gossard tells SPIN. “Their capabilities as a musician, improviser, storyteller, producer, and straight-up keyboard hero are as profound as any that I’ve ever experienced. It is beyond an honor to be connected to their blossoming career.”
Davis now finds themself with the good fortune of being in two different bands at once, a situation made even more fruitful now that Painted Shield finally played live for the first time during three March shows at Seattle’s Clock-Out Lounge. Among Davis’ upcoming gigs are solo performances on April 30 and May 28 at Seattle’s Rabbit Box, an appearance to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Seattle Sounders soccer game on May 17, and two June shows with the Quartet (bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, drummer D’vonne Lewis, and guitarist Jason Cameron) as part of the city’s annual Pride celebration.
“When it comes to sitting in front of a keyboard, I will always come through expressively,” Davis says. “If I’m in a rock band, I’ll rock just as hard as any other rocker. If I’m rapping, I’ll rap just as well. I always acknowledge the language being spoken sonically, and that’s one of the gifts I have. To be honest, with Painted Shield, I don’t know how people see me in that band. They probably think, ‘Whoa! That’s a wild card (laughs)! Whoa, Stone! Who is that?’”
While it’s true that a non-binary, sightless, millennial African-American musician may seem like an odd match with four veteran rockers in their 40s and 50s, Gossard can’t say enough about what Davis has brought to songs such as “Til God Turns the Lights on” and “Fallin’ Out the Sky” for Painted Shield, which also features vocalist Mason Jennings, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and bassist Jeff Fielder.
“Britt’s work with Painted Shield is just scratching the surface of what they are capable of, but if I were to list the two biggest aspects of how they’ve impacted the band, it would be their incredible vocal harmonies and their wicked ear, which allows them to layer color and other musical ideas to existing tracks,” Gossard says. “It’s a high priority for me to have more songwriting from Britt on our next album, and to give them more freedom to create outside the lines. I can’t wait to hear it.”
And while Davis is confidently looking forward, enough time has now passed from their tumultuous early years to allow them to trace the evolution of music’s role in their life. They’re now even more committed to what they believe is their God-given purpose: to ignite the spirits, souls, and hearts of people through sonic translation.
“Music has definitely evolved, in the way that I express it and how it expresses me,” Davis says. “That language has broadened. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m sad,’ but it’s another to say, ‘I’m grieved.’ It’s being able to digest the amalgamation of the emotion that can form through being in contact with music. I’m entrenched in Seattle music now, and I’m working with historical figures who have been a part of historical movements. All of that changes how you walk. It’s not the same as wishing and hoping. No, it’s happening, and the people I’m touching are real. The lives I’m impacting are real. The love being given is real. The journey is no longer in my head, and that’s humbling because you realize that even if it’s all gone tomorrow, the music will always be there.”