Debbie Davis and Josh Paxton will debut the CD Thursday at Snug Harbor, far from her inner second-guesser.
On “Lulu’s Back in Town,” pianist Josh Paxton plays an acrobatic solo with the omni-directional energy of a four-year-old boy churning on ice cream and a juice box. When he finishes, singer Debbie Davis matches his intensity when she resumes the verse, then you can hear her briefly rein in the Fats Waller classic to set up a shared surge before the two blast it out to the song’s conclusion.
The performance first took place last March at the Performing Arts Center of the New Orleans Jazz Museum on the third floor of the Old U.S. Mint, and it’s captured on Vices and Virtues, the new live album from Debbie Davis and Josh Paxton. The CD also includes their versions of songs by Irving Berlin, Amy Winehouse, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and New Orleans’ Alex McMurray among others, and the project is roughly 20 years in the making as Davis and Paxton have collaborated when they could over the last two decades, though other gigs, growing families and time out of town periodically got in the way. Despite their background together, making Vices and Virtues became a learning experience that Davis didn’t expect.
The two will play a CD-release party Thursday night at Snug Harbor.
As is common for many New Orleans musicians, Paxton and Davis put together an income by performing as often as possible in a number of combinations. No one project pays the bills, no one project scratches all their musical itches. Last summer, Davis and Paxton thought that playing house concerts together would be a low cost, low stress way to get out of town, pick up some gigs and make some money. The plan worked, but they realized that they left money on the table because people at the shows wanted to buy a CD of the two of them, and even though they had CDs for sale, none presented the two in the duo format.
“We needed some product,” Davis says.
They had the idea of a live album because it solved the problem in the lowest-stress way possible. They’d performed together often enough that they could play all night together if necessary, and they certainly had 90 minutes’ worth of material hard-wired that they could do without serious homework. The live album also got Davis out of her head. As assertive and in command as Davis can seem in person and onstage, she admits that she’s prone to second guessing herself. “You take a good idea and overthink it until it’s a stupid idea,” she says.
Fairly quickly, the idea morphed from simply making merch to producing an album that represented a moment in time. They were no longer creating a souvenir but a document of their musical relationship circa 2017, and while that added an element of stress—they wanted a good document—it also took some pressure off. “The comforting thing about doing a live record was that all your expectations had to be about was about representing this moment in time,” Davis says. “It was a very zen process, which is something recording projects have never been for me.” The doubts about her own musical choices and the myriad alternative possibilities were quelled because the first choice—a live album—made them irrelevant. Unless she was going to cheat like Kiss and re-record parts of her live album in the studio, she had no choice but to go with the confident performances that came from a long-standing musical relationship.
It helped that Vices and Virtues was recorded in front of a live audience and not simply live in the studio. “I think I would have been harder on myself if there hadn’t been an audience there,” she says. Years of singing professionally have taught her to smile and soldier on, even if she makes a mistake, in part because most of the audience won’t hear it like she does.
“They only know about the mistakes if you tell them,” Davis says.
She realized that for the audience in the room and the one listening to the CD, the mistakes they hear—and there are only a few—are simply part of the music, and Davis found that notion liberating, so much so that at this point she can’t imagine recording again the conventional way. “To accept that what you perceive as a mistake is actually part of the art goes a long way toward sleeping well at night,” she says.
It helped that she and Paxton have played together for so long that the performance itself was too musically engaging for her to slip out of the moment. The sonic space and their musical relationship meant that while Davis and Paxton were onstage, she was too in the moment to doubt herself. “I’ll allow him to inform me in a way that I can’t with a band,” she says. “I think I’m a little more intuitive with Josh. It’s just me and him, so I’m really listening to him as much as I’m listening to myself. I’ll lead him and he’ll lead me, so in the end, we’re walking side by side.”
Davis hopes she has found something she can take forward into future recordings because her inner editor has been punishing. “I used to write a lot, and I have slowed down and almost stopped because if I go back to edit, I wind up undoing everything that was the original point of what I was doing,” she says. “Sometimes you need somebody to tell you you’re done and to step away before you ruin it. The deeper you get into a recording process, the harsher a critic you become.”