California Dreaming

Dear Nora's Katy Davidson is back and brighter than ever with Key Losers.

Katy Davidson spent her high-school years in rural Arizona playing Nirvana covers on her guitar. It never struck her that she could write her own songs until she saw her friends at Lewis & Clark College, Jake and Dave Longstreth (the latter would go on to form Dirty Projectors years later), writing songs of their own. "Then it just clicked," she says. "I was writing songs like crazy."

That doesn't mean she was writing good songs, Davidson says.

"I was such a product of the '90s," she says. "I was just trying to write songs like Weezer or Pavement or Guided By Voices." Davidson says she's not sure exactly when she stopped cribbing from Liz Phair (another early favorite), but the smart, quirky and atmospheric pop tunes committed on tape for her band Dear Nora's 2001 debut, We'll Have a Time, are evidence that living in the now-legendary Magic Marker house on Southeast 34th Avenue—which hosted some of the era's best pop groups for impromptu living-room shows—had an impact on her songwriting. "It opened up a whole world to me," she says via phone from Seattle (where she's on tour as a full-time member of YACHT).

For most of the aughts, though, Davidson was living in California—first San Francisco and then Los Angeles. "I'm obsessed with California," she says. Even now, after returning to Portland in 2009 and forming a new project, Key Losers, Davidson says she misses the state every day. So it's perhaps not surprising that she'd pen an entire album, California Lite, built around her experiences there.

That phrase, "California lite"—a term Davidson says was coined by Portland musician Tara Jane O'Neil, who occasionally plays with Davidson's soft-rock cover band, Feelin' Alright—"is kind of an attitude," Davidson says. "I think [O'Neil] is referencing a '70s L.A. vibe, like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell hanging out with Crosby in the hills." She thinks a minute. "It's just, like, lens flare. Just picture lens flare."

"Lens flare" is a surprisingly accurate visual metaphor for the sounds on the first Key Losers full-length. The disc is a curious combination of the experimental pop featured on the Losers' 2010 debut EP, Adjust, and a worry-free sort of jamming one associates more with yacht rock than YACHT.

Of course, the disc was recorded at the studio of Phil Elverum in not-exactly-sunny downtown Anacortes, Wash. So Davidson hand-selected musicians appearing on the disc—including some from uncharacteristically sunny bands like No Kids and Lake—because she thought they could pick up what she was laying down. "I said, 'Dudes, do not hold back,'" Davidson says now. "I was like, 'I want you to shred the nastiest solo or play the cheesiest sax line you can think of that still sounds good to you'...and people just went off."

While adding accents of smooth '70s electric jazz ("Metal Masks") and saxophone-fueled '80s pop ("Horizon Line") might sound like ironic artistic decisions, Davidson says it has more to do with her ever-expanding musical palette. "All through the '90s I just thought that stuff sounded cheesy, and now I don't think anything sounds cheesy anymore. I've removed that word from my language. I can say it—because I can hear how other people might hear it—but I only hear the musicianship and the songwriting."

That's exactly what makes California Lite such a cool—in every sense of the word—listen. From the wandering bass lines and free-jazz breakdown of "Limited Time" to the Graceland-inspired West African guitar licks and gospel-style vocal blasts on "Smoggy Mountain High," Davidson expands her sonic palette while retaining the tight, descriptive songwriting that makes her pop songs so special.

What's even better news for Davidson's local fans is that she says she's now a Portlander "for life," a fact she chalks up to her local friends, collaborators and the relaxed pace of life here. "It has been like a permanent vacation since I got back," she says happily. "But I still don't like the weather."

SEE IT: Key Losers plays Work/Sound on Monday, May 23, with Mount Eerie and Nicholas Krgovich. 8 pm. $9. All ages.

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