Davina Sowers started playing the piano when she was a little girl. Unlike most, she kept going after the lessons ended. Like even fewer, she now makes her living pounding the keys.
"I wasn't throwing down Fats Domino or anything like that, but I started taking piano at 6 and have just never quit," says the Davina of Davina & the Vagabonds. "I've pretty much been playing my whole life. And now it is pretty much my whole life."
Sowers has been fronting her Minneapolis-based combo since 2005. A rare, guitar-free ensemble, Davina & the Vagabonds is often tagged as a blues band. But it isn't really a blues outfit in the contemporary use of that word. Nor is it a jazz band, even though it's made up of horns, piano and drums.
"I think 'unique' is a good word," Sowers says when asked to label her band. "I think eclectic has been overused, but it fits for me, too. It's hard for me, even though I've been doing this for a decade, to come up with one word for what we do ... 'Weird,' could that be the right word? No, it's not weird. Let's stick with unique."
Sowers' old-school second-hand influences date back to her childhood. Her mother was a '70s-style folk singer who remarried a much older man.
"He was the one who kind of sparked my interest in that pre-war type of music," she says of her stepfather, whom she refers to as her father. "I grew up with an Edison record player. I had a Reader's Digest songbook. My mom was a folk singer, so I grew up listening to Judy Collins, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, just what you'd expect. I've just been a sponge since I was a kid.
"I was a little odd as a teenager," adds Sowers. "The only thing I had with normality was music. When I play that pre-war stuff, it's my father shining down on me."
Onstage, Sowers employs a dramatic vocal style that's frequently compared to Janis Joplin and Adele. Her band's current tour covers 13 states in three months. That's business as usual for the appropriately named Vagabonds.
That said, Sowers sometimes yearns for a little more time in her home base of Minneapolis.
"I'm a homebody and I'm a woman, so I may want nesting to a certain extent," she says. "But I'm a business owner — the band is my business — and I'm passionate about my music, so I need to share that with people outside of my community.
One upcoming highlight will be a return appearance at September's Monterey (Calif.) Jazz Festival. "They invited us back this year for the main stage. It's a great honor."
Prior to that, Davina & the Vagabonds will release album No. 5. It's their first since 2011's Black Cloud, which included a few songs that ventured into rootsy '70s pop terrain.
Sowers, who writes all of the band's songs, says the new album will once again be difficult to pigeonhole.
"It's called Sunshine," she says. "There's some pre-war, some New Orleans music. It sounds like us. I didn't start doing country or rap or rock 'n roll — well, there's some early rock 'n roll in there. It's just us, once again."