Finding your way often involves figuring out a niche. Emmett Davenport, who you’ve probably bought a cup of coffee from if you frequent Pittsboro, has a particularly unusual one: “steampunk,” a science-fiction mashup of modern-day technology with a fashion aesthetic steeped in the 19th-century Victorian era.
Steampunk is less a specific kind of music or art than an overriding catchall sense of style. It’s the framework for “The Clockwork Cabaret,” a quirky radio show/podcast Davenport has co-hosted since 2008, as well as the video series “Lushington’s Lounge.”
Davenport also spins records in clubs as well as on the air. Otherwise, most days you’ll find her pouring coffee behind the counter of Cafe Diem, the coffeehouse she owns in Pittsboro.
Davenport grew up in the Northeast in somewhat sheltered circumstances, home-schooled through the eighth grade. The good part of that was she didn’t have to endure middle school, but the bad part is it left her ill-equipped for the psychological rigors of public high school.
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Still, she weathered it and went to college at Goddard in Vermont. Looking to escape the Northeast after graduation, she moved in 1996 to the North Carolina burg of Washington, where her mother and sister were living.
“I was tired of the cold, so this seemed like a good place to come,” she says. “I do like it here. It’s like New England without the winters.”
Davenport has done barista work at restaurants, coffeehouses and bookstores since age 17, so opening her own coffeehouse was a natural. Cafe Diem has been in two locations in Pittsboro since opening in 2010, and it’s a comfortably funky space with cool art from local artists on the walls and a soundtrack of vintage tunes playing.
What feeds the soul
Davenport began her deejay career with goth-night shifts at various Triangle clubs, most notably Ringside in Durham, where she was a regular starting in 2005. Steampunk was something she stumbled across in Portland, Ore., while deejaying at the science-fiction convention CONvergence.
The theme of that year’s convention was Victorian, and Davenport was struck by all the garish, ragamuffin vintage clothes on display – like a Victorian take on “Blade Runner.” Told that the look was steampunk, she did some research.
“I personally think of steampunk as being like Victorians going to the moon,” Davenport says. “This very Jules Verne kind of thing. It’s a mostly literary movement, not defined by anything but books and short stories. Some movies and TV shows have had aspects of it, too, just not necessarily called that.”
No matter what any show’s theme is, it seems like Tom Waits has done a song about it.
Davenport wanted to play along and decided there should be a steampunk-themed show on local radio. So she and some friends started “The Clockwork Cabaret,” debuting on a late-night slot on Carrboro low-power station WCOM (103.5-FM) in January 2008. Shows have themes, everything from “Hitting the Road” to “Revenge of the Orphans,” with appropriate playlists and between-song banter.
“We play a lot of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, mostly because I like them but also because no matter what any show’s theme is, it seems like Tom Waits has done a song about it,” Davenport says. “Also Rasputina, Gogol Bordello, Decemberists. I like the idea of using the show as soundtrack for our adventures rather than trying to precisely define anything as a musical genre.”
After two years, logistics dictated that they give up the radio part and make “The Clockwork Cabaret” online-only in podcast form. Since then, they’ve also gone multimedia with the “Lushington’s Lounge” video series.
“We’ll take classic cocktails and talk about the history, and also make modern updated versions because a lot of the Victorian cocktails were absolutely horrible,” Davenport says. “We don’t do any pre-emptive test drinking before filming, either. So what you see are our actual reactions.”
As with the radio show, steampunk isn’t a style that’s explained so much as an aesthetic that’s presented.
“The nice thing about steampunk is you can pick and choose the stuff from the Victorian era that you like,” Davenport says. “The clothes are very nice, and a lot of the people from back then were fascinating. But the oppression and racial inequality, no thank you. I like being able to wear lady pants. I do like the aesthetic of it, though. Everything now has become as tiny and plastic as possible, but if you had a radio back then it was a grandiose piece of art on its own.”
Want to listen?
“The Clockwork Cabaret” can be found at clockworkcabaret.com.