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Daphne Willis

What she said | an interview with Daphne Willis

New kid on the block Daphne Willis blows in on a playful bluesy vibe on the opening track of her debut disc “What To Say” (Vanguard). By the delightful “Bluff” and “Love and Hate,” the versatile, out singer/songwriter has moved on to a warm island breeze. “All I Know” manages to both rock and be brassy, while Willis asserts herself as a modern folkie on “Swirl” and “Jim Thornton.” I spoke with Willis about her music at Winston’s in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.

Gregg Shapiro: You’re performing in Oak Park at the Artrageous Festival in October. Are you maintaining Chicago as your home base?

Daphne Willis: Yes, I want to. But I’m in kind of a transitional phase. Also, I’m going to be based in Nashville December through February to tour during the winter months. Because the Midwest, as we all know, is just plain shitty in the winter. I’ve gotten stuck and slid off the road and been in crazy situations that make me want to go south for the winter. I’ll come back in the spring, because I love Chicago so much.

GS: Do you think it’s necessary for a musician to live on either coast for the sake of their career?

DW: It doesn’t matter where you live, because you travel a lot anyway. Being centrally located is ideal, if you ask me. Nashville has so many perks, even from a touring aspect.

GS: Did having parents who were active in the music world play a part in you becoming a singer and songwriter?

DW: I’d say it was huge, just growing up in that atmosphere. Instead of watching TV, we’d have sing-along time. My mother had us singing when we were little kids. Me and my brother would sing rounds where someone starts a song and someone else starts and then you harmonize. I’d say it was one of, if not the most important thing for what I’m doing now.

GS: Your major-label debut “What To Say” (Vanguard) was released earlier this year. What did that mean to you?

DW: It meant so much. Vanguard has been around forever. They are very careful, as most labels are, with who they choose to support. But Vanguard is very particular.

GS: They have an amazing history in the folk world. Joan Baez was on Vanguard.

DW: Oh my gosh, yeah, yeah. It was great to have the validation. It was tremendous to get that support.

GS: Are you pleased with the response?

DW: Not everybody loves it, but I’ve gotten some great reviews. It seems to be doing really well online and … to be growing. People are really enjoying it. I’m getting more fan mail. It’s pushing me in the right direction as an artist.

GS: Vanguard has a few other queer artists on its roster, including Chely Wright, Indigo Girls and Patty Larkin.

DW: It’s great! I’ve made a couple of friends through the label. Trevor Hall and I are friends. And I’ve done shows with Shawn Mullins, who is a great writer and super-chill guy.

GS: I’m glad you mentioned Trevor, because your sound has a similar loose jam-edge to it. Almost like Jack Johnson on estrogen.

DW: Totally!

GS: Does your next record expand on that sound or are you exploring other sounds?

DW: I’m definitely trying other sounds. I think on this record you can hear a lot of different influences. It’s kind of all over the place.

GS: Right, you rock out on a few tracks.

DW:  And some of it’s really stripped down. But it might be my style to not have a particular style. On the next record, we’re looking at a lot of different things. I wanted to try something a little more like Maroon 5, with drum tracks on it, fast-paced like that. And I really want to stick to a more acoustic vibe, which I love. There will be some piano on this one, and there really wasn’t any on the last one.

GS: As a songwriter, who do you consider to be musical influences?

DW: Stevie Wonder is my number one. I listened to a lot of jazz vocalists growing up, tons of Ella Fitzgerald. When I play with different inflections, you can hear different notes in there that are a little bit more jazz rooted. Definitely the Beatles and Elvis Costello. Even the Dixie Chicks. And more contemporary stuff. I listen to a lot of Jack Johnson and Ray LaMontagne. And Brandi Carlile non-stop.

GS: I can see how you fit into that group. Where do you find inspiration for your songs?

DW: When I get inspired, it’s usually very emotional. Most art comes from emotion. It depends on what’s going on in my life. It’s so funny because I’ll always write more when shit hits the fan. And not necessarily in a bad way. Even when there are really positive changes going on, it stimulates feelings. It’s processing and a release. Sometimes I’ll be really happy and I’ll think, “I want to write a fuck-you song.” Or the other way around. If I’m like, “Oh, this sucks! I want to be happy,” I’ll write a happy song.

GS: Is there an example of one on “What To Say”?

DW: Yeah, “Bluff.” It’s not supposed to be a totally negative song, but it’s about a traumatic relationship. I was young at the time and it was super back-and-forth. I try to stay positive. I think it’s better for people who are listening. They can relate to (the lyrics), but it’s an up-tempo vibe. It’s good and therapeutic. It’s okay to be sad, but always know that there’s a silver lining.

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