Ethan Davidson has been all over the map. The son of former Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson, Ethan for years traded affluence for a drifter’s life, playing leftist folk music around the world. Winters were spent in a remote cabin in Wiseman, Alaska, with no electricity or running water. He says he’s not into organized religion, but has studied both Jewish philosophy and Islamic law. Yes, Davidson is something of an anomaly.
He’s easier to pin down these days, though. Davidson now has a wife — a fellow musician — and children. He’s also got a permanent address — a 1920s-era home in Oakland County — and something akin to a day job as treasurer of the William Davidson Foundation, which recently made significant gifts to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Opera Theatre, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He’s also just released Silvertooth, his first solo album in seven years.
What took so long between records?
The last tour ran for six years and 900-something shows. I was getting pretty burned out by the last year or two of that. I was thinking about taking some time off, anyway. It was about that time that my dad called and said he wanted to start up this private foundation and asked if I would come back home to work on that for a little while. I thought I’d take a year off, do the foundation, think about what the next steps are with the music. In the meantime, he passed away.
Did your father’s death influence the music?
I don’t know if I really know how to write about that yet. It’s strange. I’m not really an organized-religion guy, but I found myself going to say Kaddish for him for the 11 months after he died, and I practically never set foot in a synagogue before that and never set foot in one after that. I don’t even really know how to talk about it.
What is the foundation all about?
We’re primarily interested in Jewish education and Jewish cultural identity worldwide. Those were my dad’s core interests, and this is really his vision. He was always — probably to his detriment — quiet about the things he did in Detroit. I think that maybe he had a reputation that he wasn’t really interested in the city at all, especially moving the Pistons out in the ’70s and that sort of thing. But he was very clear with us that he wanted to have a Detroit focus, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Do you have a favorite tour memory?
I loved the freedom of it. I lived in my little cabin in Alaska with no running water and no electricity. I still have that place. I lived in my van for six years. Whether I’m totally delusional or not, I think I’m a guy that’s pretty comfortable with whatever.
photograph by esme mcclear