by Alexa Peters
Most of us live our lives unaware of our reliance on sound. Birdsongs mark the seasons, a whistle signifies a boiling kettle, a spoken “hello” invites us to connect with one another, and we think very little of it.
But for Brittany Davis, a blind, BIPOC, and nonbinary Seattle musician, sound is life itself. Sound is freedom and self-expression in a world that often confines and silences disabled people.
“I process everything I need to do through sound. It’s also one of the biggest things about me. It gives me a sense of self,” Davis said. “Sound is light. I always say I don’t like to be in the dark. Well, the darkness for me is silence.”
Unsurprisingly, Davis’ relationship to sound gives their approach to music-making a staggering degree of acuity, gratitude, and heart. So much so, it’s hard to believe their new EP, I Choose To Live, released on March 11, is the 27-year-old’s debut. Released by Loosegroove Records, the label of Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, I Choose to Live is an impressive introduction to a deeply skilled and original musical mind keen to speak their piece about the issues affecting marginalized communities today.
I Choose to Live features Davis’ captivating and unique sonic precision, as well as their vulnerable and honest takes on a variety of issues, spoken freely after a lifetime of feeling voiceless and projected upon as a disabled person.
“My hopes and dreams are to create space for people and awareness for folks with disabilities especially, and for folks that have invisible disabilities — autism, spectrum disorders — things that have to do with sensory processing and sensory modulation. All of those different things are real, and people don’t understand how that feels,” said Davis.
Growing up with their grandmother in Kansas City, Davis attended public school until fifth grade and then a school for the blind from fifth to ninth grade. Being totally blind, Davis often felt degraded by those around them, including other kids who were partially blind and could get around more independently.
“There are different levels of blindness. People who cannot see anything ask for help from a person who can see a little bit, and [they] will say you should be learning how to do it yourself, and then the person who can’t see feels degraded and the person with the ability or the privilege of sight can wear a grin. You know?” said Davis.
As a disabled person, Davis is constantly navigating a social hierarchy predicated on ableism and body privilege. But through honing their relationship to sound — like learning how to “hear walls,” filling up their space with the right white noise for their mood, or playing music — Davis finds more freedom, solace, and love for themself.
“People [ask me], ‘How do you hear a wall?’ You can hear a sound shadow. Next time you want to know how to hear a wall, just close your eyes and stand next to a wall. Don’t touch it, don’t look at it, just stand next to it with your ear facing it and see if you don’t feel a difference,” said Davis.
In addition to being an outlet and a source of self-expression, music-making is something Davis can do on their own — a rarity in Davis’ life.
“If I go to a new place right now, I can’t even go to the restroom by myself,” said Davis. “I can go out with my cane, but here’s the thing. If I put on my clothes, put on my shoes and my jacket, put on my scarf and hat and gloves, grab my cane, and walk out the door, what has to happen next is I must know — not just kind of know, not just have kind of a vague idea — I must know where I am going.”
Music, thus, has always been a safe and accessible place for Davis to wander, dream, and explore. Likewise, some of Davis’ fondest childhood memories involve mimicking birdsongs on the piano as early as age 3, listening to their granny’s “old-school” vinyl, and performing in countless church talent shows and contests.
At 15, Davis moved to Seattle with their mother and younger brother, and throughout the years, they have lived throughout the South End. Davis didn’t come to Seattle knowing much about the music scene, but over time, they befriended local music community mainstays, like Afropunk musician and activist Om Johari and La Tanya Horace of the collective Sistas Rock the Arts. Through them, Davis began to attend regular jam sessions and perform, and eventually, they were introduced to Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard.
“I had no idea who Pearl Jam was or what they did, but I [knew a girl in school who] was obsessed with them,” said Davis. “I just recently started listening to some of their songs and some of their cadences, and I’m picking up on some of that rock stuff. I’m picking up the vibe.”
Davis and Gossard became fast friends. Davis says Gossard, like the others who helped bring this EP to life, is one of the missing “puzzle pieces” helping Davis to become more fully who they are. Gossard, who affectionately calls Davis “Brit,” says working with the artist and putting out their debut EP is “an honor.”
“Brittany’s depth of feeling and musicality is arresting. I often witness Brit hearing a track once and playing a perfect take on the fly,” said Gossard. “Brit can really do it all. Engineer, produce, write, play sessions, but all of it with such a fine-tuned musical perception that is always finding that sweet spot. Their harmonic knowledge and how they use it is astounding.”
Sure enough, Davis’ six-song EP is astounding, pulling together the rhythmic punch of jazz and rap, the intensity of rock, and the vocal inflections and instrumentation of R&B into a sound that is brilliantly Brittany Davis.
The opening track, “I Choose to Live,” has all the trappings of a rock anthem, except the hubris.
“When I started to write it, I was like, ‘It can’t be an anthem,’” said Davis. “It can’t be an anthem, because when we do anthems, we put ourselves as the forefront of the song, in a way. We make it more about our perseverance and not the perseverance of the people, which is why I wrote the song the way I wrote it.”
In the guitar-driven track, Davis focuses less on their own struggle, instead taking pains to tell the stories of many marginalized people. Davis opens up all the wounds humanity faces today — from systemic racism to the political house of cards in the United States — only to soothe with the uplifting, mantra-like chorus: “I choose to live.”
That isn’t to say the album doesn’t explore Davis’ pain, though. In another song, “Loud Loud World,” Davis explores what it’s like to be told how and what to be as a disabled, BIPOC, and, particularly, as a nonbinary person who has “no idea how to convey visual messages to people who can see.”
“In my day-to-day life, people are like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t wear that. That doesn’t make you look good,’ and then the next person will say, ‘That looks amazing.’ Like, ‘Dang, she looks stupid in that video,’ and then another person might say, ‘That video is the best video you ever did.’ So, having these cognitively dissonant messages coming at me from every angle all the time and not able to check things myself against my own [visual] perception because I’ve never seen another person [is challenging],” they said.
Throughout the record, Davis wields a deft ability to zoom their camera lens out and in — giving unabashed and wise advice at the spiritual, relational, and personal level with grace and humility. Even when asked what they hope to personally gain from releasing this EP, Davis shares their hopes and gratitude for the community that has rallied around them.
“With my success, I want to give back, but not only do I want to give back, I want to stand back and watch. … I don’t want to be the star in the scenario all the time, you know what I mean?” said Davis. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always felt like a puzzle piece. I never felt like a whole thing. Here in Seattle, I feel I found a lot of my pieces that go to my puzzle. It’s Om Johari, it’s like La Tanya, it’s Stone Gossard, it’s all of these cats. I want them to know that they are a part of it, and I want all of the houses that fed me to be fed. That’s how I live.”
Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.
📸 Featured Image: Brittany Davis onstage with Stone Gossard. (Photo: Niffer Calderwood, courtesy of Brittany Davis)
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