Daphne Willis: All In The Family

Originally published on May 28, 2011 10:02 am

Daphne Willis seems to be on the verge of something big. Her debut album, What to Say, helped her build critical and commercial momentum last year. She moved from Chicago to Nashville. She surrounded herself with new talent. She began to write more of her own music. And, this spring, Willis put out her second album, Because I Can.

Willis tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that she was discovered in a moment of serendipity. The head of her current label, Vanguard Records, was on an airplane when his iPod died, prompting him to plug his headphones in to the nearest armrest.

"One of my songs was playing," Willis says. "He went into the pamphlet and saw I was unsigned, and that's how it started. From there, it kind of all happened really quick."

Willis grew up steeped in both the art and the business of music: Her mother studied vocal performance at the University of Texas, while her father was an engineering major who went on to work at Sony BMG for more than 30 years. Her older brother is also musically inclined.

"My parents would rock us out to Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder and Ella Fitzgerald and all the great, classic songwriters and vocalists," Willis says. "I kind of grew up surrounded in that world."

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Daphne Willis seems to be on the verge of something big. Her debut CD, "What To Say," attracted notice last year. She moved from Chicago to Nashville. She surrounded herself with new talent. She began to write more of her own music. And this spring, she has brought out her second album, "Because I Can".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO WHAT YOU WANT")

DAPHNE WILLIS: (Singing) Scratching the surface, searching for a purpose, who do you wanna be? A Dick, a Jane, a king...

SIMON: That's "Do What You Want" from Daphne Willis's new album. And Daphne Willis joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIS: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

SIMON: Well, great to talk to you. And please tell us the story of your discovery. 'Cause I gather we're talking to you now 'cause somebody's iPod ran out of juice.

WILLIS: Oh man. I love the serendipitous nature of the story is great. Kevin Welk, who runs Vanguard Records and owns Welk Music - actually, Lawrence Welk's grandson - was on a flight and his iPod did indeed die. And, you know, you can plug your headphones into the armrest or whatever and one of my songs was playing. And he went into the pamphlet and saw I was unsigned and that's kind of how it initially started.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO WHAT YOU WANT")

WILLIS: (Singing) And just do what you wanna do what you wanna do. What do you want? Do what you wanna do what you wanna do. Do what you want. What is it you want?

SIMON: So, you've been singing since you were a little girl?

WILLIS: Yeah, both my parents had their roots in music. So, they both went to the University of Texas. My mom was a vocal performance major and my dad was an engineering major who also minored in music business and worked at Sony/BMG for 30-plus years. So, I have an older brother, too, who is also musically inclined. And my parents would rock us out to, you know, Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder and Ella Fitzgerald and, you know, all the great classic songwriters and vocalists. So, I kind of grew up surrounded in that world.

SIMON: Now, at some point though did you mother say if you want to get serious about this though it can't just be singing for fun? You got to put some technique in it?

WILLIS: I mean, certainly there was always this passion for music driving me. But I think as I grew older I certainly saw through my dad working in the business that it was very competitive and very difficult. So, I actually always kind of planned on it being more or less a hobby. I actually went to DePaul University in Chicago for secondary education English. And was...

SIMON: You were going to be a teacher?

WILLIS: Yeah, I was going to be a teacher. And then it all kind of came about, you know, that Kevin Welk had heard this recording of mine on a flight and then I got just kind of presented with this huge opportunity. And, you know, my parents, of course, were like, do it, go for it, you know, very supportive. And so here I am.

SIMON: Of course, we heard a little bit of "Do What You Want." You have songs on this albums that are unmistakably pop. But other songs too, like - but let's listen to this one, "Slow Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW DOWN")

WILLIS: (Singing) We put in our time, and it seems a shame, to people walking these lines, when it just stays the same...

SIMON: That's a beautiful number.

WILLIS: Thank you.

SIMON: Showing another side to yourself there?

WILLIS: I think it definitely does. I'm a very extreme person. I'm either like, when I'm doing something, I'm really in it and really doing it. So, I think that being able to have a song like "Slow Down" on the record helps me as well as I think it also really helps the record to kind of pull it back for a second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW DOWN")

WILLIS: (Singing) We gotta slow down, slow down.

SIMON: You got a favorite song on this album?

WILLIS: I really don't. It kind of goes back and forth.

SIMON: Or are they all your favorites?

WILLIS: They're definitely...

SIMON: Excuse me, you're new to this business. I've interviewed a lot of musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Your answer, Daphne, well, this is to say, you know, Scott, I love all of these songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: I do. I do love all of the songs. They all represent a different kind of emotion. So, it's kind of difficult to kind of just, like, pick out one, you know, one thing or one emotion when they're all just, you know, part of life.

SIMON: You push your voice a bit on a couple of numbers, which is a nice thing to hear. Let's listen to a little of the track "Spit It Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIT IT OUT")

WILLIS: (Singing) There's so much to say and it's too hard to swallow. So, I'm spitting it out this time. Now it's time, now this time, oh, oh, 'cause it's not all right.

SIMON: That's quite a range.

WILLIS: Thank you.

SIMON: How do you do that?

WILLIS: You know, I really think that just, I think it's half genetics and half the fact that I pretty much practice singing every day. And anybody can tell you getting good at any craft, whether it's music or anything, math, whatever, it just takes a lot of practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE IT OFF")

WILLIS: (Singing) Well, I don't know why you're leaving, no. No, I don't know why you're leaving, no. You try to get up all nice and slow, but I don't know why you're leaving, no. Say you got somewhere to be but I really don't want to see you go. And it's raining outside anyway. Weatherman says raining all the day. Now, it's raining outside anyway. Weatherman says raining all the day. Say you got somewhere to be, but I really don't wanna see you go. Oh...

SIMON: I enjoyed doing a little research of you and coming across a video of you singing. You're wearing - they're not over your eyes - but you've got goggles on your forehead.

WILLIS: I kind of started collecting them and kind of collecting different styles and, like, so if I'm feeling really dark I'll put on a really dark pair. You know, or if I'm feeling, like, really fun, I've got this pair with, like, fuzzy, they're like fuzzy goggles, so I'll put those on. And I just think the whole thing has probably gotten out of control, which is a good thing, definitely a good thing.

SIMON: Well, it's good shtick.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Daphne Willis, it was so nice to talk to you.

WILLIS: Thank you so much.

SIMON: Daphne Willis. Her new CD, "Because I Can." You can hear more cuts from the CD on our website, NPR.org. Daphne Willis joined us from California.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE IT OFF")

WILLIS: (Singing) You can't ignore me. Now, I know, I know, that you're dying to hold me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.