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story.lead_photo.caption Little Rock native Elise Davis celebrates the release of her new album The Token with a show Saturday at the Rev Room.

There was Elise Davis, 12-going-on-13 and running away from her Little Rock home.

Mom and Dad -- Robin and Stephen -- had forbidden her from seeing English grunge-lite rockers Bush at Riverfest, so she hit the road. That would show her parents.

Elise Davis

Opening act: The Wildflowers

9 p.m. Saturday, Rev Room, 300 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock

Admission: $15-$17

(501) 823-0090

About an hour later, after wandering around and realizing no search party had materialized, Davis skulked back home to discover that her parents hadn't even noticed she was gone. The nerve!

So she rushed to her room, grabbed the guitar she'd been trying to learn how to play and, using the only three chords she knew, banged out her first original song, "Big House."

Fast forward and Davis, now 27 and a Nashville resident of five years, chuckles at the memory of her songwriting genesis and her everything's-so-unfair preteen drama during an interview at the Ottenheimer Market Hall in Little Rock's River Market.

Wearing jean shorts and a yellow T-shirt from Brainfreeze, her favorite Nashville comic book store, blond hair up and nails painted white, Davis says the song was "all about how alone and miserable I was in this world. I'll never forget that experience. It was just like journaling. I was such an angsty little teenager and I was able to get [my emotions] out and I just kept on doing it."

It's a good thing she persisted. Her new album, The Token, drops on Friday and she plays a record release show Saturday at the Rev Room in Little Rock with her pals The Wildflowers -- Bonnie Montgomery, Amy Garland Angel and Mandy McBryde -- opening.

This is not her first rodeo. Davis, who attended Episcopal Collegiate School, went to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, graduating with a degree in English and creative writing, was in a band, the Sandbox Lizards, at just 15. By 17 she was recording solo material -- seven albums in all -- and releasing it as cheaply as possible in pure indie fashion

With The Token, however, she had an actual recording budget and a label, Thirty Tigers, that took her and Boston-based producer Sam Kassirer way up to the remote Great North Sound Society Studio in Parsonsfield, Maine, for 10 days of recording with a group of East Coast musicians. She said she looks at this album as her true debut.

"We closed ourselves off from the world and ... made music. It was one of the most fun things I've ever done," says Davis, whose arms are splattered intermittently with tattoos ranging from a songbird, to a knife and heart from the cover of Lucinda Williams' Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. There's even an image of a blue chair that represents Blue Chair Studio in Austin, where she recorded some of her previous work.

The sessions for The Token found her shedding her earlier sound for something a bit more mature and moody but still infinitely catchy and accessible. It's an album teeming with straightforward, honest emotions that would sound perfectly fine next to, say, Amanda Shires, Margo Price or Davis' hero, Williams, and picks at themes of expectations, sex and figuring out which life path is the right one -- nuclear family and a house with a white picket fence or something a little closer to the edge?

"She's growing, musically," says Little Rock musician Garland Angel of The Wildflowers, who has been friends with Davis for about 10 years and performed with her in the Honky Tonk Angels and the Red River Gals. "She's never been afraid to be herself and she doesn't put on a front. ... She's fearless when it comes to writing songs."

The Token's title track, with its bleary, last-call vibe, lays the foundation for the 13 tracks that follow. "It's OK to be broken/and maybe knowing that's the token," Davis sings before a jagged and bluesy guitar solo takes over.

"I think that song is the mission statement of the record," Davis says. "I am a woman from the South in my late 20s and I am not married and I don't have children, and I don't even know if I want to do those things. ... But the overall message of the album, basically, is that no matter what path you choose in life, there's gonna be good and bad, whether you go a conventional route or don't."

A wobbly guitar anchors the sultry, groovy "Benefits," which is a refreshingly straightforward take on a friends-with-benefits relationship.

"I speak a lot about sexuality on this record," Davis says, "because I really feel that, especially in the United States, it's a very sex-negative culture. You're made to feel bad about your sexuality when truly that's one of the most natural things we were made to do."

"Pretty Girl," inspired by someone Davis observed at a party, is a clever sketch of a woman wanting to warn a potential rival that the romance she's watching from the outside and yearning for isn't all that great -- in fact, it's kind of a disaster.

"Make the Kill" is a head-bobbing crowd-pleaser that Davis resurrected from an earlier EP and the power-pop jangle of "Finally" is a radio-friendly nugget. The album closes with the pensive, somber and fantastically titled "I Go to Bars and Get Drunk" (co-written, along with "Pretty Girl," by Conway's Erin Enderlin, who Davis met in Nashville).

"She hasn't tried to conform, ever, to some cookie-cutter mold," Garland Angel says. "She's continued just to play what she likes and feels and knows."

After Saturday's Little Rock gig and a show in Nashville on Sunday, Davis and her band will start The Token's tour cycle in earnest. There are already stops set for New York and she'll perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 9.

"I am so proud of this record," she says as the late-lunchtime crowd begins to thin out at the River Market. "I feel like it really represents who I was and who I am. It really represents this time of my life and I stand behind all the messages I'm conveying."

Style on 09/06/2016

Print Headline: Elise Davis running away from the norm on Token

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