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April 1, 2004

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From Arias to Rock ?°»n’ Roll
Denali’s Maura Daivs bids opera adieu

Denali’s first two albums showcase Maura Davis’ aching falsetto, which ranges from a plaintive whisper to an all-out wail. Davis studied opera for many years, so it’s a good bet her ability to hit the high notes owes something to this training.

The 23-year-old stuck with classical music through her freshman year at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. She dropped out of college after her junior year to go on the road with the newly formed Denali, which takes its name from a desolate mountain range in Alaska.

Reached by phone en route to Atlanta after performing several shows in Texas, Davis discusses her ambivalence about becoming a diva. “I just decided it wasn’t the route that I really wanted to take,” the Lynchburg, Va., native says. “I didn’t really like the fact that I was being taught to sing a certain way. I couldn’t really add my own ideas about how I should sound. I just wanted to have complete control over my voice; so yeah, I decided to do the rock thing.”

Davis’ taste in music is quite varied, though. While citing the indie-rock trinity of Radiohead, Bjork and Jeff Buckley, the singer expresses admiration for Ella Fitzgerald, who she listened to while performing in a jazz band during college. “She’s a humongous influence on me [and] on my voice,” Davis says.

Davis also lists Portishead among her influences, so she has no reservations about comparisons the press has made between Denali and the British trip-hop band. “It’s really flattering,” she says. “I think that’s probably the closest thing that we can be compared to just because it’s dark music [with] female vocals. I don’t really think we sound like them a lot, but it’s totally awesome that people compare us to them. How often do you get to be compared to one of your favorite bands? It doesn’t ever get old.”

Davis’ biggest inspiration, however, is less heralded and certainly closer to home. Keeley Davis, Maura’s brother, formed the band Engine Down in 1996, and he helped the singer get Denali off the ground four years later. “We’re really, really close,” Davis says, “so it was so much fun to be in a band with him. I hope we get to do it again someday.”

In spite of the differences between their bands, Davis says she has much in common with Keeley, who is four years older. “I think Keeley and I have a similar style of writing lyrics,” she says, “just because I’ve listened to him [and] all his bands through high school and college. I basically studied the way that he did music. Not that I was trying to copy him, but just being surrounded by his music all the time definitely had an effect on me.”

These days, Davis’ confessional songs and unorthodox style make her very much a diva, but one who has little in common with, say, a mezzo-soprano. The Instinct (2003)—the band’s cathartic second album on the Wilmington-based Jade Tree label—is inspired, in part, by some relationship woes. Yet Davis says the turmoil helped her compose the album’s nine songs.

“It’s hard to write, I think, when you don’t have problems or drama in your life,” Davis says. “Writing about it is a really good outlet for it. I’m so lucky that I get to write about it in music and have people listen to it.”

How does The Instinct differ from Denali’s 2002 self-titled debut? Davis says the band simply had more confidence the second time around. “Everyone was more [secure] about their place in Denali, and what they were bringing to the band,” she says. “I definitely got more personal in the lyrics, and I conjured up the courage to put myself out there a little bit more. [On] the first record?°¦I was really scared?°¦to let people know my feelings and stuff like that.”

Tim Owen, one of Jade Tree’s owners, decided to check out Denali several years ago in Philadelphia after hearing a demo. Impressed, he brought his business partner Darren Walters the next time the band passed through town. The label signed Denali within a few months.

“They just put on an amazing show [and] had a great crowd reaction,” recalls Owen, 32. “They had a four-song CD demo that they had made, and that night I think they sold like 150 copies and there was [only] like 300 people there. Those kinds of numbers are pretty impressive, even if it’s a band that has multiple albums out.

“There was this fervor about them. There was this underground kind of hype even though they weren’t signed. They can hit the younger kids as well as the older. I think they have a lot of potential.”

— Denali, Brand New and Piebold perform Apr. 17 at the Baycenter, 13 Dickenson St., Dewey Beach. Tickets run $12.50, and doors open 6 p.m. (227-3888,

Out & About

Eric Fine