To classify Daphne Willis as one type of musical artist is a difficult feat. She’s been immersed in the music scene for over ten years, having released several records, her most recent being 'Freaks Like Me.' On it you’ll find gorgeous ballads like “Somebody’s Someone” mixed with pop dance tunes like “Out of the Black” and “Just a Little Bit.” Her music gives listeners a glimpse into Willis’ personal experiences which she’s honest and open about.
Her latest single, “Do It Like This” (which includes a sweet music video shot on the Queensboro Bridge in NYC featuring dancer Shereen Jenkins), is the perfect upbeat track to blast and sing to in your car with your windows rolled down this summer. Not only that, but she’ll be in Boulder Friday, May 18th bring her vibrant spunk and rich voice to e-Town Hall. We spoke with Willis to hear more about the evolution of her multifaceted musical career and what to expect at her upcoming show.
When did you start playing music and how has your career evolved?
Sure. Well I grew up in a musical family. Both my parents went to UT Austin; my mom was a vocal major and my dad was an engineering major so I grew up singing in a musical family. We always used to listen to music and sing. My parents had me taking piano lessons when I was little. I did that for a while. Played a little bit of saxophone. And then I ended up getting really into poetry when I was in sixth grade. I learned how to play the guitar when I was in high school. I originally started playing cover songs, and once I kind of got more comfortable with the guitar I started writing my own songs.
And then did you study music in college?
No, I’m completely self-taught. I started writing songs in school, and then I went to DePaul University -I’m from Chicago originally- and I started playing out at open mics in the blues clubs and stuff like that. I had written a handful of songs and got a band together and we would play the bars in Chicago, and then we started touring around in the Midwest.
I had this little acoustic EP I had made, and I submitted it to some sub-licensing companies, like you know when you’re in P.F. Changs and you hear music playing? I had my song playing in a catalogue like that. And it was playing on American Airlines flights. The president of this record label was on the flight, and his iPod died, so he plugged his headphones into the armrest and my song was playing. It was crazy. I was eighteen/nineteen at the time and they flew me out to L.A. and the whole thing. The A&R guy that actually signed me, he’s based in Nashville so he was having me go to Nashville for co-writing and to work on the record that I was going to do with them.
So basically I signed a deal and dropped out of school. I took the opportunity and started doing co-writing in Nashville. I did a couple of records with Vanguard Records and then left the label. Now I’m independent as an artist, but I’ve signed a publishing deal with Sony ATV so I’m now a song writer. I write pop music for Sony ATV, and I’ve been with them for three years.
Cool. Speaking of songwriting, what does your process look like?
Well, I write all the time. I write four to five songs a week, and I co-write a lot which is pretty standard in the music industry. A lot of my writing is done in New York, L.A., and Nashville. And I collaborate.
Sometimes we start with the melody. Sometimes with lyrics. Sometimes someone already has like a track made so we write to a track. I often kind of categorize the writing sessions. So if I’m writing for somebody else, it’ll go a little differently than if I’m writing for me. Or, you know I do a lot of film and T.V. writing so the film and T.V. writing is always a little different too.
It all kind of just depends. For me I try and draw inspiration from things I know. I like to write what I know, things from my friends and family’s experiences, kind of just what I see in the world and experience in the world.
That’s awesome. You have kind of a range of different sounds. You’ve got some dancey pop songs and more mellow ballads, like “Somebody’s Someone.” I’m curious, what are some of your musical influences?
I grew up with The Beatles and Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. And I grew up with a lot of jazz and blues influence being in Chicago. I also grew up with a lot of you know the R&B of the nineties- Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. And with all the hip-hop so I have kind of like a hip-hop influence too. I don’t know. It’s kind of all over the place, but it’s fun to be able to blend the genres by just weaving a message and theme throughout the music.
Nice. With your upcoming show at e-Town together, I have to ask. Have you and Dave Tamkin ever played together before, or how are you two connected?
Oh my gosh, it’s so fun because we go so far back! I’ve known Dave for ten years. He’s from Chicago too and we used to play the same clubs and were in the same circles in Chicago. Then we finally played a show and hung out and really hit it off. We stayed in touch though both of us moving away, and he’s just the best. He’s my homie.
That’s great. What should audiences expect at your Boulder show?
I like to talk about the song and give people a little bit of insight into my world and how I wrote it. I’m super open about my personal experiences, and the show is going to be heavily revolving around mental health. That’s the theme of the show. I’ve been in recovery for two years and have a lot of experiences, like pretty much everyone else on the planet with the mental health stuff. So I think it’s just gonna be a nice, open atmosphere. It’s going to be really fun.
Get your tickets to Daphne Willis and Dave Tamkin’s e-Town show here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.