The national TV buzz has ebbed, and weekly trips to L.A. are done, but the momentum (and life of dad and husband) goes on for singer-songwriter Joshua Davis.
This article is featured in the January 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
It was nearly a year after Joshua Davis sang on live television in front of 14 million Americans, fought NBC executives for the right to bring his own roots music to the stage, and surfed the wave of Hollywood stardom while trying to avoid the undertow sucking him and his family down. Now, he and his wife, Ann DelMariani, stand with cleaning supplies in the empty kitchen of their new home near Lake Leelanau, discussing whether or not to remove the living room carpet.
They had purchased their Northern Michigan home in March with the help of the payout from The Voice, the music reality show that turned Davis—already well known in this region—into a national star.
Now, with the glitz of Los Angeles and the competitive pressure of the show behind them, Davis and DelMariani faced more mundane challenges, like when to rent the moving truck, which walls to paint, and how to get internet access in notoriously low-bandwidth Leelanau County. Suddenly a text message alerts Davis that he has to go pick up their kids, Tahlia (who turns 11 at the end of this summer; she was 9 while on the show) and Theo (born December 22, 2014), from their babysitter in Traverse City.
For months after The Voice, Davis was approached, high-fived, hugged and asked for autographs and photographs whenever he went out in public. The attention was mostly welcome. Davis already had a large following throughout the mitten state from his years touring with the band Steppin’ In It. His brush with Hollywood fame sent his name recognition soaring. Davis was grateful to his fan base for fueling his run to the finals of the show in May 2015. The Voice is a social media–driven virtual popularity contest; its contestants advance based on how many Twitter votes they get or how many of their cover songs are purchased on iTunes.
Check out his new single Always Going to be Here.
After a subpar vote performance in Week 3 of the playoffs (April 20), Davis’s social media support group kicked into high gear to help him advance. Viewing parties were held in homes, theaters and taverns. Devoted friends and volunteers sent hundreds of emails and texts to “get out the vote for Joshua.” One of those supporters, Aubrey Parker in Frankfort, introduced family members living off-the-grid in rural Benzie County to Twitter. She also organized weekly viewing parties at Stormcloud Brewery in order to mobilize support. “Josh himself didn’t even have cable before he was on the show,” she points out. Dan and Anne Shoup, former Traverse City residents who currently live in Boulder, Colorado, monitored Davis’s following in the Twittersphere and all but became his online diplomats to the social media world. Higher Grounds Trading Company coffee roaster Chris Treter and former Steppin’ In It bandmate Dominic Davis were also instrumental in getting out the vote.
Needless to say, after Davis finished third on The Voice on May 19, 2015, he was in a charitable mood toward his fans, in Michigan and throughout #Davisnation—a phrase coined by supporter Anne Shoup.
“This has been a life-changing experience for my family and me,” Davis wrote on May 19 on his Facebook page. “I’ve learned so much, made lifelong friends and had the opportunity to bring roots music to a wider audience and it’s all because of your support.”
The spotlight is a little different for DelMariani, but she takes it in stride.
“The attention doesn’t bother Josh at all,” she says. “Everyone in the community feels like they took part in his success on the show, and they want to congratulate him. He’ll never run out of gratitude for that.”
But on a couple occasions since the show, the family was out for dinner and felt overwhelmed by the attention.
“You’ve got hungry kids, you’re in a hurry or your baby’s got a poopy diaper, and you’re just trying to get out of the restaurant,” she laughs. “It’s always really sweet, but it can be embarrassing. People are paying attention to us at that moment when we’re having this weird family moment where everything’s chaotic.”
The Davis-DelMariani family adopted an unofficial policy where he might willingly pose for a photo with a fan, but she and the kids are usually off limits.
“Sometimes people have asked to take our whole family picture since we were all involved in the show,” says DelMariani. “But that’s a little over the top for me.”
Those who regularly watched The Voice in the spring of 2015 remember that DelMariani and their children were a regular fixture on the show. Every week between mid-March and mid-May Davis’s family traveled from Michigan to Los Angeles to appear on national television with him. The camera frequently found their faces in the audience, and on at least one occasion, the judges on stage diverged from the script to acknowledge young Theo’s baby coos. He was days shy of 5 months old when the show reached its finale on May 19.
“I literally had an infant baby, and I was waking up in the middle of the night on Sunday to go to the airport, and getting back on Wednesday after dinner,” DelMariani remembers. “Tahlia would go to school on Thursday and Friday, then we’d do laundry and do it all again. I was hardly sleeping. In the meantime, Josh was going through the most intense, most stressful thing in the world … It was like a political campaign, like campaigning for Josh.”
Tahlia and Theo handled the experience well, says DelMariani, but there were times when Los Angeles seemed especially foreign. She jokingly wonders what percentage of people in Hollywood have babies.
“Babies are a total novelty there, especially babies on the show. Everyone was great to us, but they would ask things like, ‘when you get (Theo) on stage, can you make him not (cry)? Can you turn the off switch?’ It was totally innocent, like the sound guy who was miking me and asked, ‘He’s not gonna do that when you’re out there, right?’ As if I have complete control.”
DelMariani remembers a few “seriously dicey” moments when Theo was crying. She would time her nursing to calm him while Davis was on the air. Her use of the “white noise” application on her iPhone drew funny looks backstage. “I told people, ‘I gotta do it or the baby’s gonna scream.’”
Fighting for his own music
Joshua Davis’s experience on The Voice and the national exposure he gained from it, could have played out very differently. He was almost voted off the show on April 20 after his performance of the James Bay tune “Hold Back the River” fell flat, in his words. Davis’s growing fan base on Twitter saved him the following night after he played a defiant “I Won’t Back Down,” by Tom Petty. Davis chose those lyrics intentionally. But the experience lit a fire. He had been forced by the show’s producers to perform the Bay song and, Davis says, “I knew it wasn’t going to go well. I was trying, but the range was too much for me.”
Over the next few weeks, Davis fought with the NBC producers for the right to perform his own original music. His coach on the show, Adam Levine, seemed open to it after hearing Davis play his own songs in Levine’s RV on the set. But the NBC executives wouldn’t be wooed easily, and the battle with them appeared to be unwinnable. The show wanted its contestants to play what it considered to be “original songs” but not songs written by the performers, themselves. The Voice preferred debut songs that were written by other people but weren’t yet famous. In short, the network wanted to choose the song. It wanted to control the contestants. Davis almost walked off the show.
Most musicians competing on The Voice are in their early 20s or teens, and have very little songwriting or recording experience. Their careers are in their infancy. Sawyer Fredericks, the phenom from upstate New York whose huge Twitter following propelled him to victory that season, was only 15 at the time, with a baby-face that looked as though he was in Little League.
Davis, on the other hand, had recorded eight albums before The Voice (his ninth Always Going To Be Here/Let Me In came out in 2016; he had crisscrossed Michigan and much of the Midwest while the lead singer of Steppin’ In It; he had performed in such far-flung locales as Cuba and the Palestinian West Bank, and of course, he had a wife and two young children. Davis knew his music, and he knew what he wanted to perform on the show.
“I’m a songwriter,” Davis told Audrey, his contact at NBC. “‘I want to do one of my own songs.’ They said, ‘Nope, you’re going to do one of these songs.’ I said ‘That’s not the case,’ and I dug in my heels. I was more forceful than I’d ever been professionally in my life. There were bouts of yelling going on. It was really intense.”
Davis was in the wardrobe room backstage trying on different outfits. He remembered he was getting out of a pair of pants while on the phone. “These people who work for the show are amazing,” Davis says. “Audrey went to the network and was fighting for me to play my own music. At first she came back and said, ‘We can’t do it.’ I told her, I wouldn’t do it. Or if I did do it, it would be hell for me and I’d make it hell for everyone else too!” Davis ultimately won his battle. Nevertheless, since that season, The Voice no longer lets its contestants play any original songs.
Winning the right to play my own music—for me that was my big win on the show,” Davis says.
Davis became something of a mentor to the other—much younger—contestants, and not just for his stubborn advocacy in the face of the NBC giant. “I was like ‘Daddy Josh,’” he laughs. “There’s a lot of really young kids on the show, and some who were totally out of their element. I was too, but I’d been playing for 15 years. Others hadn’t played a single show.”
Davis helped the younger contestants with technical aspects. One day on stage, contestant Koryn Hawthorne removed her headset, turned to him and said she couldn’t hear herself on the monitor. “You’ve got to ask (the sound guy) for more vocals in the monitor,” he told her. “You can do that?” she asked.
“I sat down with her and said, ‘You gotta know that they’re working for you. You gotta ask them.’” Sawyer Fredericks, who won the competition, also reached out to Davis. Fredericks’s mother had long been a fan of the music of Seth Bernard and May Erlewine—Northern Michigan musicians who launched the Earthwork music collaborative, and who are close friends of Davis and DelMariani. “When we first met, [Sawyer] asked if I was the Josh Davis who plays on the Seth and May album,” Davis says. “We hit it off real well. I feel like that relationship was great for both of us.” You could even say Davis was protective of Fredericks, DelMariani says.
After Joshua Davis won the right to perform his own song on The Voice he turned to “The Workingman’s Hymn” on May 18, the night before the show’s season finale. The song boasts a Midwestern folk-rock feel that’s reminiscent of John Mellencamp. But its lyrics suggest an appeal to activism, as though they came from the lips of Pete Seeger or Bruce Springsteen.
The first verse goes like this: “Some people hunger for the greenback bill / Some folks hunger for the top of the hill / Some people just tryin’ to get a decent meal / Well I know that we can turn it around / Some people sleepin’ in a fine feather bed / Some folks are dreamin’ of an old homestead / Some just need a place to lay their head / Well I know that we can turn it around.”
Davis first released “The Workingman’s Hymn” on his 2011 album Magnolia Belles. He actually wrote the song three years earlier to protest the policies of then President George W. Bush. Since then, that inspiring ballad has popped up in the strangest of settings, reflecting the price of Davis’s newfound fame, and also has been his go-to song for political action.
In February 2012, Davis joined the “Run Across Palestine”—a fundraising, solidarity project of the Traverse City–based nonprofit On the Ground, which has held ultra-marathons in three developing countries to support farming communities. Davis was asked, almost last minute, to join the trip as a musical and cultural ambassador by the event’s organizer Chris Treter. Davis said yes.
That journey featured six athletes running 129 miles in five days across the politically tense, militarily occupied West Bank of Palestine and staying each night with olive-farming communities. Also on the trip were a photographer, a filmmaker and myself. We made a documentary about the Run Across Palestine called The People and the Olive. Davis’s participation was extraordinary, and for him especially difficult, because he is Jewish and was taught as a boy to be patriotic to the state of Israel. On the trip, Davis watched the Israeli military project aggression against Palestinian olive-farming communities. He also had to fend off harsh questions from family back home about why he would support Palestinians.
The night before the Run Across Palestine began, Davis performed “The Workingman’s Hymn” in a school courtyard on the edge of a cave in the village of Tuwani in the Hebron Hills. Yousseff, an old man with leathery skin, strummed a pear-shaped oud alongside Davis as a couple hundred Palestinian olive farmers watched. They understood hardly a word, but nonetheless emitted raucous cheers when the song concluded.
“It was such an intense scene to be received in such a generous way,” says Davis, who played music late into the night with Youssef and the boys of the village. “Everything about that first night was so foreign, but warm and inviting.”
DelMariani called the Run Across Palestine and The Voice the two most influential, and perhaps unlikely, experiences of her husband’s career.
Fast-forward to October 2015, nearly 6 months after the conclusion of The Voice. Davis learned that “The Workingman’s Hymn” was being used as a campaign theme song by Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush (ironically, the brother of the president who inspired the protest song)—most likely because a Bush staffer had heard it on the show. A National Public Radio story about Bush’s floundering campaign even used audio of the former Florida governor taking the stage in New Hampshire with Davis crooning the song in the background. Initially flummoxed, then horrified, Davis had his attorney send a cease and desist letter to the Bush campaign, which stopped using it.
“If Bush would look into the song a little bit and realize what it’s actually about, he wouldn’t want to use that song,” says Davis. “It makes him look ridiculous.”
But Davis would redeem the song on his own terms. On March 4, 2016, when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Traverse City, just four days before his surprise victory in the Michigan primary, Davis was the lone musical act to open for the Vermont Senator. “The Workingman’s Hymn” was among the three songs he played.
It was DelMariani’s idea for her husband to play for Bernie after she saw the news of his appearance late the previous evening on social media.
“It was really last minute. I said to Josh, ‘Bernie’s coming. You should offer to support him.’”
Davis called his manager, who had connections to the Sanders campaign in Vermont through the band Phish. He got a call almost immediately from the Secret Service, who was managing security for the Sanders appearance at Streeters nightclub, near the Traverse City airport.
Joshua Davis no longer (or rarely) plays free concerts to intimate crowds in such cozy Traverse City establishments as The Workshop or Rare Bird. After The Voice, those days are long gone. Sold-out shows at Kirkbride Hall in the Grand Traverse Commons or the Interlochen Arts Academy greet him now.
Because he now fills a bigger house, he plays less frequently here in Northern Michigan. And that means more long-distance tours to far-flung parts of the country. In January Davis played an East Coast tour that stretched from Maine to Pennsylvania. In February he was on the West Coast, gigging from Seattle to San Diego. A tour of the Southeast followed in May. In the summer and fall of 2016 he played in Montana, Colorado, the prairie states, and all over the Upper Midwest.
“I hadn’t been on a two-week tour in years and years—not since the Steppin’ In It days,” Davis laughed.
His music is different. Perhaps his voice is more in sync with his songs—a symbiosis that didn’t occur to him before The Voice. In April 2016 Davis released a new album, called Always Going To Be Here/Let Me In. In August he worked with Steve Berlin, producer and musician for Los Lobos, to record another full-length album, which will be released by the spring of 2017.
“Before I was on the show I didn’t think of myself as much as a singer,” says Davis. “My voice was more of a utility to get the words out. But the vocal coach on the show taught me to look at my voice as an instrument, and work on changing the way I sing. Now I’m more comfortable writing songs for my voice. I know the spots where my voice sounds good, and I’ve expanded those spots.”
“I even had to change a lot of keys of the songs I’d written before because I realized that my voice doesn’t sound great down there or it needs to be up higher.”
DelMariani says The Voice has made Davis a more versatile performer who understands the music industry much more.
“You’re more open to different styles of music and the different ways that people can approach music as a career. It’s made you more open and humble.”
These days, when Davis plays venues, both foreign and familiar, he hopes that he won’t be identified exclusively with the television show.
“If a venue wants to bill [a concert] as ‘a finalist from The Voice,’ then we won’t stop them, but in general we don’t want to push that,” he says.
Davis estimated that during his East and West Coast trips, about half of the fans who approached him had known of his music before The Voice—through Steppin’ In It or Earthwork—and half knew him from the show.
“One of the things I was worried about was that people who knew me from the show would just be interested in tunes from The Voice and not want me to play anything else,” says Davis. “But people will come up to me and say, ‘We had no idea. We’re bigger fans now than we were when we saw you on television.’
“That’s a really big win for me. The show was a great experience, and we did the best we could in the parameters we had. I was grateful that it galvanized a lot of people behind what we do in Michigan, but it’s also just this little window into what I do. So to go out and play shows and be received by people who didn’t know me before was great.”
Davis continues to be recognized like a rock star. Even at the annual festivals and concerts where he has played for years and seems part of the woodwork, a buzz now fills the air when he takes the stage.
Exactly four months after his journey on The Voice concluded, Davis played a primetime evening set at the annual Earthwork Harvest Gathering. The music festival is held on Seth Bernard’s family’s farm near Lake City every fall after the busy musical touring season concludes. Harvest used to be just for musicians and their families, but still now, with no more than 3,200 attendees, the event remains an intimate affair.
That evening, before Davis strummed a chord, Bernard interviewed him on stage about his music, about The Voice, about staying true to his artistic mission, about how the Earthwork community can support Davis, even about the color of his eyes. “Contacts, I wear contacts,” Davis fended off the compliment from his friend.
“It’s great to have you back on the farm, Josh,” Seth offered. “You’re a great friend, and a wonderful musician. Your songs come from the heart. You’re part of this thread of songsters (who sing) songs that came from the people, belong to the people and hopefully will keep us going from the ground up. Thank you for carrying the torch out to the West Coast and bringing it back to Michigan, brighter.”
Later that evening, after Davis played songs more than familiar to almost everyone in attendance, he and DelMariani and the kids retired to their camper to sleep through a chilly Michigan fall night, just as they do every year at Harvest.
All photos by Michael Poehlman.
Jacob Wheeler is the communications director at GroundWork Center for Resilient Communities and is editor and publisher of the Glen Arbor Sun.