A Profile of Helga Davis

By and · Photography Michal Hancovský / Courtesy WQXR · Date 02/02/2016

It wasn’t Helga Davis’ idea to have a podcast named after herself. Nor was ending up on the radio in the first place. At WQXR, the most listened-to classical station in the United States, Davis is among a cohort of contributors—including violist Nadia Sirota, composer Nico Muhly, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—who conjure art both on and off the air. Early in her career, Davis, a vocalist who starred in the 25th-anniversary production of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s opera “Einstein on the Beach” and frequently collaborates with composers on new works, learned from a friend, Limor Tomer, to “just say yes.” When Tomer, a producer at WQXR, suggested that Davis join her at the station following her return from a production’s tour in Milan, Davis followed her friend’s old advice.

In 2008, she began as an overnight host. One of the first musicians Davis played was Henry Threadgill, last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music and her third guest on the podcast. “People called in asking: Who is that? And more importantly, Who is that, doing that? And it was too late, I was already here,” she said. “I had taken my shoes off and had become very, very comfortable behind this microphone.” After observing her as a commentator for The Greene Space’s annual new artist competition, Battle of the Boroughs, WQXR station producer Alex Ambrose told Davis she ought to host a podcast. Since her first episode with opera director Peter Sellars aired in November, she has spoken with nine other guests from across artistic disciplines, among them singer-songwriter Solange Knowles, the conductor Alan Gilbert, stage actress and playwright Sarah Jones, and the writer Hilton Als. Some of her podcast guests are friends and former colleagues. Others are acquaintances whom Davis met in the course of her artwork, had a powerful feeling about, and invited to share her space on the air.

On Inauguration Day, when we met Davis at WQXR’s studios on Varick Street, Davis awoke with her mother’s voice in her head: “ ‘Don’t let nobody steal your joy! Don’t let nobody steal your joy!’ ” She’d dressed in a silk green and black skirt by Marni, a sculptural blush-colored top by the designer-turned-costumer Angelo Figus, and a beloved old pair of black combat boots. Tall and slim—while in Milan, she briefly worked as a model—Davis maintains a gaze that is simultaneously friendly and makes looking elsewhere a feat of recklessness.

Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” Knee Play 2 with Helga Davis, at The Greene Space.

Now that she was the one being interviewed, we remarked, the tables seemed to have turned. “Not really,” she replied, “in part because I don’t do interviews. I have conversations.” To that end, the episodes are sparsely edited, variable in length, and conducted without a specific goal in mind. On the podcast, as in person, she occasionally pauses in the middle of her sentences—sometimes until you are convinced she has stopped talking—as if she were retrieving her deep voice with each new thought like water from a well. There are few sound effects because, as Davis says, the podcast isn’t being built to make us like it.

The show’s name required lengthy deliberation. Many meetings in, none of the proposals felt right. “I wasn’t getting the spidey sense inside,’” she recalled. “At the last meeting of what-are-we-gonna-call-the-show, someone said, ‘I guess at the end of the day we could just call it ‘Helga.’ I sat up in my seat, and it’s like, yeah, that’s what it is. Because that is what it is. It’s not some ego-based thing. First of all, if you just said Helga, no one is looking for me. No one is looking for the black girl in the room. And so, in the way, even in its name, it’s contrary. It belongs to the show.”

Her name is Helga because her mother, while immigrating through London, met a woman who was from Hamburg, Germany—“Helga, from Hamburg”—and chose her as her child’s namesake. Who the woman was, Davis doesn’t know. If there is an incongruity between her name and skin color, she has embraced it, just as she has the fruits of serendipity. She explains her musical trajectory in koan-like statements: when we asked her why she forwent conservatory training, she fixed us with a totemic stare and said, “Because.” Similarly, quitting the piano “wasn’t a decision. I wasn’t a pianist.” She doesn’t “do” her work—there is just her work “in this moment.” “Do you understand what I mean when I say I’m not doing anything?” she asked. “These are the people, these are the projects that are here.”

At the close of each episode, Davis asks listeners to let her know if and how they have been inspired by her conversations. The podcast wasn’t made to achieve a goal or drive home a point, but the emails she receives in response are evidence that something about her idiosyncratic approach is working. She flipped through a manila folder of loose lined paper, searching for what she had written about her motivations for the show. When she found the page she’d been after, she paused. “Looking for ways to contribute to the nurturing and healing of my person,” she slowly pronounced. “That’s not just my person—it’s us,” she added. “It’s ‘persons.’ ”

From childhood, Davis was told that music was not for her. Her parents, who are from Nevis and Montserrat, raised her in Harlem, in a Caribbean immigrant community that pressed upon future generations to bang gavels or administer vaccines—anything but “that.” “My mother said she wasn’t raising a child who was going to sing and dance for white people,” Davis said. “So I spent a lot of time trying not to do it…but it kept coming back.”

At home, she was only allowed to listen to music from her Pentecostal church, where she sang in the choir, as well as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Davis describes her choir presence as musically unremarkable. She was enthusiastic enough about the music, however, to learn everyone else’s parts, a habit she maintains while jamming on the subway. Her tune of choice these days is Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”; the day we spoke, she’d been singing the bass part.

Davis’ current home is five blocks from her childhood church, which she takes as a sign that her life has come full circle. She is also one block from the studio where she took her first music lessons with pianist Arnetta Jones, whom she calls her “spiritual mother.” Born in 1905 in Virginia, Jones wanted to be a doctor like her father, but as an African American woman the path was difficult. She chose to play the piano instead, receiving a graduate degree in piano performance from Juilliard, and moved to Harlem to teach “you Negro children.” Though Davis calls herself a mediocre pianist, Jones told her she possessed some talent she could not teach. Later, Davis’ voice teacher Maria Zhorella Fedorova—they met in the elevator of Davis’ old building —told her that “one day, your voice will save your life.”

As a musician, Davis has made a career of following her curiosity. Her performance credits include an early stint with Greg Tate’s band Women in Love in the 1990s, new operas by Shara Nova and Paola Prestini, and a production by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke. (In Milan, while on tour with Robert Wilson’s production of “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” Davis joined a nameless cover band that performed at bars and casinos—again, just saying yes. She sang Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, and the Beatles, but drew the line at performing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”) She has starred in two productions by Robert Wilson, whom she considers one of her mentors. Wilson, who trained as an architect and grew up in the South in the 1950s, was the first director to look at Davis and “not be confused,” she said. “All the things that were contradictions for other people were jewels for him.”

Her mother’s words about “singing and dancing” for white people have continued to echo inside Davis’ head. But, so have the encouraging voices of her teachers. “I got two very big clues from the world [that] just said, ‘OK, I will continue on in this way and see where it goes.’ ”

The podcast, she says, is an extension of what she had been doing already: being open to what materializes in the moment. “Helga” resists conventions of the podcast and the interview. It dispenses with biographical preface and chronology, instead drifting along to personal subjects—anxiety, physical injury, moments of alienation—that feel so personal in part because many of Davis’ subjects are not known for speaking openly on intimate matters. The discussions can be dizzying if the listener lacks context: a reviewer on iTunes wrote that while she enjoyed the podcast, the conversations were so “inside baseball” that she could not figure out what instrument violinist Jennifer Koh played. As in the episode with Solange, the podcast proceeds without musical excerpts—which on the one hand presumes the listener is in the know, and on the other encourages her to seek the music out on her own.

Davis’ guests “get up every morning and sit and look at a page, whether it’s a music score, an orchestra, or a character,” she said. “They come to that place, and somehow that coming to a place is something we all can do.” Often that place prompts conversation about what it means to be black artists in a hostile world. Midway through Davis’ interview with Solange, Solange describes comments by two white, male New York Times writers that questioned her criticism of white R&B music critics, implying that she “shouldn’t bite the hands that feed me”: namely, the predominately white hands present at many of her concerts. With Hilton Als, Davis reflects on the legacy of slavery in their lives as black people: feeling that one does not deserve to aspire, that one is “taking up too much space” as an artist, that one is “not being oppressed enough.”

With her conversation partners and with us, Davis navigates these topics with calmness and surety. In the episode with Shara Nova, Nova, Davis’ friend and collaborator, speaks of her belief in needing to be uncomfortable to make art. This resonated with Davis. “All of this is uncomfortable,” she told us. “That doesn’t mean it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing.” In her podcast, Davis invites listeners to eavesdrop on these musings, be they difficult, warm, or profound, with the hope that they will recognize themselves.

Davis begins her mornings with a ritual. She sits with her tea candle, turning over her thoughts, and watches the sunrise. When she walks to the subway, she performs her “morning ministry,” making eye contact with and saying hello to every person she meets. Some pass her by without hearing, some stare bewildered. Her radio presence is, in a way, a continuation of that practice. She finds it exciting “to just be able to sit across from someone, and look at them, and be nervous, and wring my hands, and look into their eyes, and ask the question, ‘Who are you?’ In discovering who that person is, naturally I discover something about myself, too.”

“The Body in Question” with Helga Davis on vocals and Greg Tate’s band Women In Love.

Lately, she’s been listening to the quartet version of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” which to her resembles a community. The violinist, who plays open fourths throughout, is “the steady rock around which and on which the rest of the community builds itself.” With Inauguration Day on our minds, we asked Davis how, as musicians, we might respond. She underlined our multiple identities. “Musician is one part of who you are,” she said. “And so, you have to do that, because that’s what you’re called to do. But you also go outside your apartment every day, and you pass the same people, homeless people with the cup every day. Or you’re in a community, where you’re not far away from a shelter where there are kids. Where you could take your instruments and go practice there. Let’s make all the bets off, and get out of the idea that your music only belongs to the concert hall, or wherever. You’re hyped about Mozart? Go find somebody else and get them hyped about Mozart. And that’s what you do.”

She eyed us with amused scorn, and though her voice departed from its measured cadences, as happens when she is excited, cosmic wisdom remained its tenor. “You’re looking for someone to give you permission to do what you’re doing,” she said. Others’ naysaying, the baggage they lug to their criticisms, “has nothing to do with you.” For Davis, all there is to do is the work itself.

Which isn’t easy, but, as she says, she’s not here to be comfortable. “It’s a muscle, so I have to come to this every day,” she said. “But I get more and more clear, every day.” ¶