Holly Dicker meets one of electronic music's busiest—and best—live performers.
I first saw Davidson play at BAR in Rotterdam on a wet and windy night in February. It was already her tenth show of 2017, and her third visit to Holland in as many months. The venue, an intimate and unassuming club in the city centre, felt particularly suited to her darker techno side, which she unleashed about halfway through her set. I'd see her next at Dekmantel Festival, surrounded by swaying greenery and sweaty festival revellers, under the baking sun at the Greenhouse stage. It was here I saw her cheeky chanteuse personality properly shine. Several times she mounted the table her gear was on to talk or sing a few bars before climbing back down to tend to her arsenal of machines.
Davidson's live set is impressive. For one, it's physically demanding. It's all hardware-based, and she also sings. Holding a microphone in one hand and manipulating gear with the other takes practice—almost daily, like an athlete—in order to retain muscle strength. Her setup used to be much simpler, involving playback and far less gear. That was before she discovered sequencers, a "life changing" moment for her.
It's only been two years that Davidson's been playing like this, but you wouldn't know that from her shows. Given the proper setting, she's a confident performer with a charismatic stage presence. Her sets cover a kaleidoscope of styles. Chicago house and cold wave crash into sultry Italo and French nouveaux chic, with a sprinkling of spoken word or sung phrases in English and French. Then there are the blasts of pummelling techno. Putting a tag on the music is tricky. It's all over the place, in the best kind of way.
Davidson is now absorbed in club culture, but it hasn't always been this way. She comes from the Montreal DIY scene and is a classically trained violinist. She studied drama fleetingly in her teens—"I wanted to become an actress," she tells me—but her love of music prevailed. Nico and bands like Sonic Youth and Royal Trux steered her towards songwriting. She was already a big jazz and hip-hop fan, and also consumed lots of ambient, new age and soundtrack music. Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley, John Foxx and Harold Budd still influence her today.
When Davidson started making music it was in a "very intuitive way," playing with drum machines and experimenting with her voice. "But I did not know how to program, really, just using the presets and pedal effects and using my violin as a synthesiser," she said. This was all happening in the late-2000s at La Brique, a collectively run loft space and gig venue set up by Xarah Dion and others like Jesse Locke (of Dirty Beaches) and Asaël Robitaille (of Bataille Solaire). Davidson met her husband, Pierre Guerineau, at La Brique. He had a studio there, where they recorded the early Essaie Pas tapes.
La Brique closed in the fall of 2013. Losing the space was a sad moment for Davidson, but a lot of positives came out of it: "That's when Pierre and I stopped being so communal, and we started focusing on our relationship and our band." Davidson had another project at La Brique with Xarah Dion called Les Momies De Palerme. They became known for their immersive, avant-garde performances involving projections, props, costumes, haunted vocals and experimental synth jams. They put out a couple of records. Brûlez Ce Coeur, recorded at The Pines studio in 2008 and released a few years later on Constellation (home of Godspeed! You Black Emperor), remains their most accomplished and best.
The turning point for Davidson was when she met David Kristian. The veteran analogue musician introduced her to sequencing, and after that everything changed. "There was me before and me after," she said in a live Q&A in 2015. "He really pushed me into that direction, he was my mentor," she told me. Davidson and Kristian did have a disco project together called DKMD. In 2012 they released their first EP and performed at MUTEK. There's been a darker follow-up since, for the horror disco label Giallo Disco, together with a mock-Giallo slasher video. As it turns out, disco and Italo is what Davidson knows best. She loved Giorgio Moroder and Gino Soccio before anything else.
In DKMD, Davidson was the frontwoman, although Kristian was steering her towards gear behind the scenes. She now does both, and while she has started to create more instrumentals, vocal tracks still define what Davidson does. Her lyrics are extensions of her personal life, written from experiences or observations. In the beginning she called it "existential pop."
Davidson is often called a poet, though she wouldn't call herself that. She's been writing texts from an early age, and literature has been massively influential throughout her career. Charles Bukowski is among her favourite writers—an early Essaie Pas release features one of his poems. "It's the realness in him that I like so much," she said, a trait that she's since adopted herself.
Guerineau and Davidson are also big Philip K. Dick fans. Their next record for DFA is a tribute to his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which drew upon his experiences with drug culture and rehabilitation. "It's so close to the reality we're living in now with the internet and surveillance and drugs," she said.
Adieux Au Dancefloor was semi-autobiographical, and while not directly drug-related, it dealt with the darker issues surrounding club culture. The seeds of the album were sewn in Berlin, where Davidson and Guerineau were based for a summer in the midst of a heavy tour. "Denial" was written after a spell of acute anxiety forced her to pull away from Berlin's infamous party scene. Instead of going out at night with friends, she'd go running through Hasenheide park, listening to hard techno and sweating—"The same thing I would do in a club," she laughed. It was during one these runs that "adieux au dancefloor" popped into her head.
It's an ironic title for one of her clubbiest records. Its meaning is double-edged. It's about letting go of the "negative energy" of club culture and touring and turning it into "something creative" through the powerful positives of dance music. Connectivity is one of these positives, as she told The FADER last year.
Making music is cathartic for Davidson. It's also her source of personal strength. "My music is very pain- and anger-driven but I try to make something nice out of it," she explained. "I like to make driving music to drive my life. I'm a fragile person, then I feel angry about it because I don't want to be like that. With my music I don't feel fragile at all. It's like the area where I feel I am in control and I can really express myself."
Davidson's music has a brooding quality, and her earlier work feels especially urgent. The first three albums were "made in a state of emergency," she once said. She confirmed that a lot of her old songs came out of difficult moments in her life. Perte D'Identité, Davidson's debut album, for example, was written when she was "really struggling" in her early 20s. "Maybe that's why some people find it dark," she said. "I consider it light and dark at the same time."
She's careful to juxtapose the "heavy stuff" with tongue-in-cheek humour, which gives those records their sense of drama. "Shaky Leg," from her first album, exemplifies the depths of Davidson's playfulness. There's a fun, lo-fi video that shows Davidson in hot pink spandex and ski boots, doing a fitness workout with an assortment of silly props.
SLEAZY is another outlet for Davidson's humour. It's a collaboration with Ginger Breaker, though both assume aliases for the project. Davidson is Stacy Boudreault and Breaker is Sam Paquette. They call their music "suburban techno." "It's fast, it's heavy, it's danceable, it's sexy, it's dirty, it's raw," she said. It's also deeply connected to Quebec subculture and the environment the collaboration grew out of. They sample people at gas stations or parties—without them knowing—and incorporate the recordings into the music.
SLEAZY is like a sonic document of the duo hanging out, drinking in dive bars and interacting with the people they meet. "It's like our trip, you know? It's our world, it's our way of being," she said. It's not about Davidson and Breaker's worlds coming together, but a whole new one forming. So far they've released one single—the slamming Que Calor—but there's an album due out soon.
Davidson has another show, Bullshit Threshold, which documents her life more intimately. It premiered at Phenomena festival in Montreal last year. She also performed it at Sónar this summer, to a far larger audience than perhaps it's designed for. Bullshit Threshold is a live A/V collaboration between Davidson, the photographer/art director John Londono and Hub Studio founder Gonzalo Soldi. The visuals map Davidson performing in real time, while the lyrics are deeply personal: "It's like having the chance to get into someone's diary," she said.
Bullshit Threshold might return in the future. For now, though, Davidson is busy wrapping up her tour for Adieux Au Dancefloor. She'll then start touring the new Essaie Pas record. But why agree to so many gigs? Is it for the money? She was totally broke this time last year, she confessed, but no. Is she worried about turning down gigs because she doesn't know when the offers might stop coming in? "No, I don't care about that," she says. "I like playing. I could stop any time now and take a few months off, if I wanted to. But there's a lot of cool gigs, good offers, you know? It's hard to say no."
There's another reason. "I like dancing, I like music. It's definitely a part of my life. I mean, I couldn't deny this. I'm a lady of the night."