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INTERVIEW: Emily Dolan Davies

Daniel Gumble
INTERVIEW: Emily Dolan Davies

Since turning professional in 2008, North London drummer Emily Dolan Davies has become one of the UK’s most sought after session players, plying her trade with some of the biggest acts from the world of rock and pop. Bono, Bryan Ferry, The Darkness, The Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey and Tricky are just a few of the notable names that jump off the page when perusing her CV.

She’s also toured with X Factor stars Cher Lloyd and Janet Devlin and is currently on the road with new artist, Rosie Lowe, who is touring her debut album Control across the UK and Europe.

Incredibly, she’s also found time to produce her very own stage show Cogs and Feathers, which debuted at the end of 2015, and is now in the process of launching her very own remote recording platform.

MI Pro editor Daniel Gumble sat down with Dolan Davies in a south London coffee shop to discuss how she cut her teeth in a host of heavy metal and covers bands, tackling sexism in the music industry and the various routes available to young musicians looking to turn pro…
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Daniel Gumble: Tell us a bit about your background. When did you first know you wanted to play drums and how did you go about pursuing a career as a professional musician?

Emily Dolan Davies: “My dad used to play the guitar so when I was a kid he was always trying to force the guitar on me. I tried but it didn’t really make any sense to me. I also tried a bunch of other instruments and got forced into playing piano at a young age, as most young children do, but for some reason I just didn’t get it. Then, when I was 11, there was a drum club at my school. I was so painfully shy, but I thought I’d give it a try. I went along and sat down at the kit and it just made sense to me and I thought ‘maybe I can do this’.

“From there I started going to blues jams when I was about 11 or 12 – my parents used to take me and protect me from some of the slightly strange people that hang around those sorts of places! I then got into bands - heavy metal bands - inside and outside of school and started having lessons with Mike Dolbear. Then, when I got to the age of about 13, I just knew that this was what I wanted to do for my career. I’d just seen a King Crimson live in Japan video and saw Bill Bruford play and I was like ‘this is amazing, this is exactly what I want to do with my life’. I made the decision walking home from school that I’m going to do this. It’s done!

“Straight out of school I then joined a covers band. While I was at school I had this strange notion about covers bands, like ‘I won’t be in a covers band, it’s got to be rock ‘n’ roll’, but being in one was one of the best things I could have done for my playing, because you’re playing these incredible songs with great musicians on them and you’re emulating that. I played with pretty much anyone who would have me. Then, someone who I played with about a year before rang and said they had a gig for me and it really spiralled from there.”


DG: In what is a heavily male-dominated industry, have you ever encountered sexism or prejudice on account of your being a female drummer, particularly when you were first starting out?

EDD: “Yeah, quite often, especially when I was young. When I was about 15 in my first band outside of school – a heavy metal band – I remember playing at The Standard in Walthamstow and waiting to soundcheck, and there were all these men with greasy, long hair staring at me and the sound engineer was just stood back with his arms folded thinking ‘alright, what’s going on here’? I wasn’t going to say anything; I was just going to play and hopefully they would then think ‘oh, OK, she can play’.

“But I remember my dad telling me that if I wanted to be a drummer I’d have to learn to hit hard, because if I couldn’t produce some proper volume no one would take me seriously. So I learned to do this and I did a really loud, solid beat and you could see these guys just going ‘what?!’ 

“Even as recently as a couple of years ago, I was playing in a George Michael tribute band and I was loading in my gear and the owner of the venue came over and said “oh, you play drums do you? Do you need to have a break in the middle of the set, because you must get so tired?” I said, yeah, it’s really difficult; we have to take a break just because of me! I quite like playing into it because I find it so funny. Luckily I’m not horribly offended by it and with that kind of attitude I almost find it kind of sweet. Well, sometimes it’s actually just horrible, but I let my playing do the talking and hopefully that says enough. I also know that a lot of the time, even if what they are saying is quite offensive, they really don’t mean it that way. You just have to show them you can play!

“I did encounter a really horrible bloke once. It was a covers gig and the DJ, everytime we went on, would shout out to everyone ‘this is Lucas and they have A FEMALE DRUMMER!’ I really wanted to punch him, but I just had to calm myself! It’s not worth it; if they have a problem, they are the ones that have to live with it.”


DG: Have you ever experienced these kinds of attitudes in musical instrument shops?

EDD: “I’ve never really had any intimidating experiences like that in music shops, apart from when I first started out, but everyone has that, male or female. You find yourself surrounded by all these people shredding away and it can be a bit intimidating.”


DG: Do you think there is anything that music shops or manufacturers can do to help diversify the market?

EDD: “I think thngs are changing in that respct. I go to schools occasionally to do masterclasses and generally about half of the classes tend to be female, which is phenomenal. For me growing up, the females I looked up to were Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sheila E. That was about it. There weren’t really any girls and, in advertising, it was just some hot girl holding some sticks. She’s not a drummer, she’s just some hot model that you’re trying to sell to blokes.

“Just having more women being seen to be drumming makes it more normal and I think to a lot of kids these days it’s not that much of a ‘thing’, which is great. When I was growing up you used to get so much rubbish from people. Not just from musicians, but also in school. You’d get people saying “what are you doing? Why are you playing drums? Do you think you’re a bloke?” Luckily my best mate [session drummer Cherisse Ofosu-Osei] was also a drummer, so we had each other to protect ourselves. But if I didn't have her I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to get through that battle. Basically, the more women drummers the better. But not just any female – they have to be there because they’ve worked their arses off, just like anyone else.”


DG: What tips and advice could you give to young people in general looking to make a career as a professional musician?

EDD: “Play with as many people as possible. I mean, it depends what route you want to go down – there are so many these days. You can do the band thing, for which you must know what your instrument’s job is. So, for drums, it’s timing. That’s your number one priority. Secondly, feel. You’ve got to support however many musicians you’re working with and you’ve got to make it feel great; make everyone feel comfortable.

“Play with tons of people and record yourself and listen back. That was a piece of advice given to me when I was about 18 but didn’t put into practice until I was about 21, and it’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given. I thought in my head I sounded one way, then I recorded myself on a little dictaphone and I couldn't believe how it sounded. It was terrible! It wasn’t what I thought I sounded like at all. Doing that helped me come on in leaps and bounds. I still do that to this day. Any audition I do, and most gigs I do, I will record and listen back to. 

“Be nice, as well. Be a nice person, because nobody wants to work with a dickhead! Although they do still exist. Be flexible as well, kids especially. Some people can be focusing too much on getting endorsements or whatever, and you should be learning to be good at what you do. Then all that other stuff will come. The focus is slightly strange sometimes. If you want to be a high-level endorser then look into doing clinics or demos or something like that.”


DG: Tell us about your gear and set-up. 

EDD: “My main set-up for my acoustic drums is a Yamaha 9000. I like it because I can have it however I need it, whether it’s high-pitched or really low. I like a low sounding kit, so the toms sound big but they’re quite small – I like that. And also the 9000 is such a classic kit. It’s known as the recording custom session kit, so it’s very , very versatile and I really like that.

“With cymbals, it’s just hats, two crashes and a ride, which are all Zildjian. Basically, I like quite a compact set-up. I feel like if you can do a lot with a few drums then you’re on to a winner. I’m not a big fan of having tons of drums and you barely hit one eeach gig.

“Also, with some of the touring stuff I do, I use electroncis. So, I use a DTX Multi 12 with a couple of external pads for any samples or whatever’s on the record that they want to emulate.

“For some recordings I use a Hayman, which is a late ‘60s early ‘70s kit that has a vintage sound – I’m a big fan of that.”


DG: Who were your key influeces growing up?

EDD: “Thre were two instances of things that made me go ‘right, I want to do that’. Ironically, neither of them I would aim towards now, but they got me at the time.

“I came home one day and told my dad I wanted to play drums, so he showed me Rush’s Exit Stage Left and YYZ albums. That was amazing. Then, as I said before, I watched this video of King Crimson live in Japan and watched Bill Bruford playing these Octopads and shaking his little bum and I thought ‘that’s really cool’ and he completely commanded the stage. Then, when he got on the kit, I thought ‘that’s it’! I’m not a massive fan of Rush or King Crimson anymore, but that was it for me.”


DG: Who since then do you think has been particularly influential?

EDD: “A massive influence for me is Levon Helm, the drummer from The Band. His whole sound; his feel is pretty awesome. He plays completely for the song. There’s also James Gadson, whose feel is ridiculous. Brian Blade is another one. Someone described him as being more like a painter; he’s very textural in his playing and I really like that. I love his playing.

“Then there’s the usuals, like John Bonham, Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, all the usual ones that drummers are into. Drummers that play for the song is what I’m into; that’s all I do. That’s my aim and, if I can do that, I’m happy.”


DG: Are there any contemporary drummers that you think are likely to influence future generations?

EDD: “For me, all my influences are older generation. Most of my favourite drummers are 50-plus. Even bands like the Foo Fighters are getting on a bit now.

“I think Matt Helders from the Arctic Monkeys is a great drummer. Also, thinking about the young session drummers, Ginger Hamilton, who plays for Jesse J, is a great player. And there’s another young kid called Dexter Hercules who’s playing with Olly Murs and was with Ronnie Wood for a bit. He’s a brilliant drummer. Paul Stanley-McKenzie is another. He’s been playing with Damon Albarn.”


DG: Has playing with so many high-profile and accomplished bands and musicians helped develop the way you play?

EDD: “For me it’s not all just about the playing. Often that is secondary; it’s usually lessons in other areas that help you develop as a professional. For instance, with the Bryan Ferry gig, I got a phone call at 9.00 at night from an old manager that I hadn’t seen in ten years. He asked what I was doing the next day and could I go and do a gig for him. I said yeah, sure, who is it? He goes “Bryan Ferry”. I said OK, that’s cool. Then spent the whole night transcribing thinking ‘oh my God, why did I agree to this?!’ But then we did the gig and I ended up playing with him for the next three years. And the thing I learned from that was that everything can change in a phone call, just like that. You never know where it’s going to come from, and it harks back to that thing about being nice and easy to work with. And that being able to learn songs quickly is a great skill to have!

“Playing with Tricky was also a really good learning curve on how to be flexible because of the way he runs his shows. Basically, you play a verse and a chorus and then he’ll just start pointing at people to start and stop playing. It’s like a live DJ thing but with live musicians and you’ve got to be watching him like a hawk and go with whatever he feels. That’s an extreme lesson in flexibility. But I think I’ve probably learned something from every gig and if I ever stop to think ‘that could be hard’, or ‘that could be challenging’ that’s going to be more likely to make me take it.”


DG: What would you say is the best route to go down if you’re a young musician looking to make it as a session player?

EDD: “There’s not really one way, you just need to try as many different ways as possible. I’m part of three different session agencies; these are generally more for TV things but they can lead to touring work. Also, getting in touch with MDs (musical directors); that’s where I get most of my gigs from. It’s about meeting lots of people, playing in covers bands and playing with as many people as you can. I’ve got loads of gigs out doing covers gigs.

“Also – another thing I didn’t do to start with – is putting stuff up on the Internet. People need to see that you can play. It’s all well and good people saying you can play, but they need to see it with their own eyes and to be able to get a look at how you play and that you’re solid. I put up a video of me covered in fairy lights – for some reason! – playing ‘The Best of You’ by Foo Fighters (see below) and I got loads of really good feedback from it. And, just a couple of years ago, I got a phone call from Dan Hawkins from The Darkness and that was because they had seen that video. Weird stuff can come from doing things like that and, if I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have got the call from The Darkness. It can be awkward, but it’s a good way of showing people that you exist and that you can play.”


DG: Have you ever turned down a gig?

EDD: “I’ve never turned down a gig because I haven’t wanted to play with a particular artist or anything like that, but I have turned down gigs if I’ve thought I’m not the right drummer for the gig. If that happens, I’ll usually say that I’m not the right drummer but I know someone who’d be right for the gig and to call this person.”


DG: What are your plans for the rest of 2016?

EDD: “I’m doing some festivals at the moment with an artist called Rosie Lowe and some stuff with Jo Burt, who used to play bass for Black Sabbath. I’ve been working with him for about eight years now.

“I’m also doing my own show; I’ve got a tour lined up at the end of the year. It’s a theatrical stage show I put together at the end fo last year called Cogs and Feathers. It’s based around drums and rhythms but it also has lots of visuals and lighting and theatrics going on at the same time. It’s a story based on my life and expereinces and how there’s always some insecurity that plagues you in life and how learning to embrace it can make you stronger. We did a show at the end of last year and it went down really well, so we’re going to tour it here and in the States and in Japan.

“I’m also satarting a remote recording service as well, which will keep me busy, like I’m not busy enough already!”

Tags: interview , Interviews , emily dolan davies

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