12 Years Later, Dear Nora Looks Back on the Beauty and Terror of 'Mountain Rock'
"Overall this album is about bliss and terror, and how interactions with wilderness and humanity can provoke those emotions." Cult favorite Katy Davidson returns with a revival of her post-9/11 masterpiece.
More than a decade after Katy Davidson released DIY project Mountain Rock as Dear Nora, the little-known but influential album feels only more relevant. Penned in the throes of the Dubya presidency as a means of processing the 9/11 terror attacks and nascent Iraq War, the record is a testament to the fear and empowerment of uncertainty—an earnest, understated examination of change and existential free-fall. Now, 12 years later, the record is enjoying a reissue on Orindal Records, and its return couldn't be more appropriate.
"Overall this album is about bliss and terror, and how interactions with wilderness and humanity can provoke those emotions," Davidson explained in a statement about the re-release.
Davidson launched the project in 1999, releasing a handful of albums inspired by the flux of being a twentysomething in a gentrifying, post-9/11 United States. Alongside Marianna Ritchey and Ryan Wise, Davidson and Dear Nora earned something of a cult following, touring the US, Japan, Sweden, and Australia. In 2008, Davidson retired the title to pursue a growing interest in other projects, such as releasing music under the alternate name of Key Losers and joining the touring bands of Gossip and YACHT. But after a five-year hiatus from touring, Davidson began to miss performing—specifically as Dear Nora. Now based in Portland, she reached out to three friends (and fellow Arizonans) to form a full-band revival: Zach Burba of iji, Gregory Campanile of I've Been Franklin, and Stephen Steinbrink.
"I think we all responded 'yes' within 20 minutes," Steinbrink said on a recent morning following one of the group's reunion tour stops in LA.
Burba and he have been fans of Dear Nora since they were teens. Campanile met Davidson upon settling in Portland. The four were in the midst of plotting a west coast tour for early 2017 when Owen Ashworth of Advance Base approached Davidson with an interest in reissuing Mountain Rock through his label, Orindal. And thus a fully-formed Dear Nora revival came underway.
Even through years of inactivity, fans of Davidson's original moniker (a tribute to Lewis and Clark College professor Nora Beck) never stopped citing its legacy: three full-length records, an EP, and a spanning compilation of unreleased deep cuts titled Three States.
A song called "Dear Nora" appeared on Girlpool's When The World Was Big. Joyce Manor frontman Barry Johnson also cited the band as an influence on Cody, which leaks through the bare-boned acoustics of "Do You Really Not Want To Get Better?" or "Fake I.D."'s final lines, where Johnson pleads, "Don't be shy because my friend Brandon died / And I feel sad / I miss him, he was rad." Davidson's work tends to find association with a type of emotional disclosure that needs little explanation, since the feelings come so candidly packaged.
Mountain Rock draws on this very sincerity without ever getting caught in the kind of reflection that calls for self-pity. Davidson recorded most of the album in a quonset hut (which she describes as "a concrete slab with a curved metal roof over it" in the album's liner notes) in her native rural Arizona. Acoustic arrangements resemble the desert, functioning as vast spaces each containing potential to be filled by a melody, a sense of hope or isolation—sometimes all three. On the title track, Davidson finds that with nothing standing between her and the open land of Catalina, Arizona, the possibility for a connection emerges:
Cold tonight, and I'm alone in Catalina,
Overwhelmed with the sound of a mountain rock
Even Mountain Rock's lightest numbers resemble rebellion, with adventurous melodies standing in for real live growth. The album's ending track, "Love Song For My Friends," is a nine-minute song broken into separate sections, each a more distant recording, loaded with laughter and a candid view into Davidson's life during the recording process.
By 2003, she had been living in Portland and San Francisco before departing for a tour of Sweden with Dear Nora. At the end of the year, she returned from her travels with a newfound appreciation for her desert upbringing.
"There's a small town outside of Phoenix, and I grew up outside of that small town," Davidson said. "We had one neighbor like, across the valley. My parents encouraged my sister and I to be really independent, so my mom would be like, 'Have fun!' And we would just leave for hours and wander around the hillside in the desert and go play in the wash."
The influence of a desert expanse hovers over her bandmates' music, too. Burba has been releasing groovy pleasantries as iji since he was 15, with tracks like "Tumbleweed & Company" harnessing his ability to build an imaginative space from nothing, just as he described the desert's dry wash as an "infinite playground" for local kids.
At 26, Davidson's return to Arizona inspired her to document her life—and a fresh set of realizations—in that very moment, struck with creative stimulation and isolation in the quonset hut.
"A lot of those songs came from just getting a little bit older and not being a total dipshit," she said. "Thinking about things other than your tiny little social circle and how heartbroken you are. I also stopped being as self-obsessed—not in a shitty way, just in an 'I'm 21' way."
Many of those realizations were still taking root during the recording process, as was the story behind "Oxygen & The Mellow Stuff." Davidson took a break from housesitting to play a show in Tucson with friends Anna Oxygen, Janet Pants, and Ryen Sugarbush. The three then returned to Catalina with her for a day. She wrote the song about a familiar place, a group of friends and getting high, then recorded it almost immediately.
"It was all very organically happening in the moment and being committed to tape right that second," Davidson said.
Such is the magic of Mountain Rock, and of Dear Nora in general. Davidson's celebrations and admissions may not sound grandiose, but they stay strong in their clarity.
"I don't think it's a complicated record," Steinbrink said of Mountain Rock. "I just love how concise it is, while also being really emotionally upfront. It's earnest and sincere. I think that's why a lot of people are into it right now."
Though it's unclear whether or not Davidson will be releasing new music under Dear Nora anytime soon, her existing releases maintain a kind of timeless beauty in their singable melodies and quotable lyrics, fit for notes passed in class—most memorably, the closing lines of "Hung Up." When Davidson sang it on the first LA leg of her reunion tour, she prefaced by admitting that she was very young when she wrote the song and doesn't feel the same way these days. The last lyrics go, "What am I gonna do? / I'm hung up on leaving you." There's anger, but fierce love as well. Rebellion requires both.
Cory Lomberg is a writer based in LA. Follow her on Twitter .