DANA WILLIAMS IN LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 2015. PHOTOS: CARA ROBBINS. STYLING: LISA MADONNA. HAIR: STEVEN MASON FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING RENE FURTERER. MAKEUP: TASHA BROWN FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING COLOUR POP COSMETICS.
Only 24 years-old, Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Dana Williams has already been deemed a “modern day Ella Fitzgerald” by magazines (Elle, InStyle) and blogs (Pigeons & Planes, the Afropunk blog) alike. Her deep, soulful vocals sing lyrics imbued with classic themes of love and loss and piano, tambourine, and guitar abound. Generally speaking, the music comes first, with lyrics to follow. “The lyrics are inspired by the mood of the song,” she says over the phone.
Williams grew up splitting her time between Los Angeles and New York, where she attended middle school, high school, and college. At times, she would also go on tour with her father, who was Michael Jackson‘s guitarist. More than writing her own songs, Williams also maintains a large following on YouTube for her covers of timeless tracks like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” (performed in collaboration with longtime friend Leighton Meester) and “Still Crazy” by Paul Simon, as well as Top 40 hits, such as Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” Sam Smith‘s “Stay with Me,” and Lorde‘s “Team.” She was previously a contestant on ABC’s Rising Star, and last year she released her debut EP The Lonely One, appeared on the soundtrack of Whiplash, and became the star of Apple’s Christmas commercial with “The Song.” Tomorrow marks the release of her sophomore EP Let’s Fall, so we took a moment to learn more about the undeniably talented modern jazz singer and writer, who has also collaborated with the likes of Freddie Gibbs, Callaway, and more.
NAME: Dana Williams
HOMETOWN: I grew up between New York and L.A., but I’m from L.A. and now I live here again. It was so different, both life styles. Living in New York there’s so much freedom. I was going out, taking the subway. In L.A. you’re so dependent on a car. My mom lived in New York and my dad was on the West Coast.
LET’S FALL: My first EP is called The Lonely One and it was all about heartbreak—sad and melancholic. Let‘s Fall is still very melancholic, but it’s more optimistic and romantic. I think that’s why I chose the title track to be “Let’s Fall,” because it was the first real love song I ever wrote. I wanted that to represent the body of work. It’s warmer and more inviting, perhaps, than The Lonely One. During the time where I was writing The Lonely One I was going through a lot. My father had passed away and I was going through a breakup. I was writing about what was happening in my life. But as I breathed and matured, I embraced the more romantic feeling. That’s what inspired [Let‘s Fall]—growing a bit.
DISCOVERING THE CLASSICS: It was a school project. I was in elementary school, first or second grade, it was black history month, and the teacher put a bunch of names in a hat and said, “Pick out a name and then you’re going to do a book report and write a little bio on the person you’ve chosen.” I picked Ella Fitzgerald’s name out of a hat and my mom took me to the CD store. I brought home a bunch of CDs, I was so enamored by what I heard, and it became a lifelong love of mine. Also, my grandma was a jazz singer, so growing up she always sang songs to us. It’s something I sort of grew up with and also discovered on my own. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I began to really appreciate Billie Holiday. My friend gave me her biography and I read it, then I started listening to her music, and I’ve been loving it ever since. Also, living in New York, I was going to a lot of jazz clubs. My favorite jazz club—I was in New York last winter and wanted to go, I used to sing there when I was in college—is permanently closed now. It’s the Lenox Lounge. Billie Holiday used to perform there, too.
THE BEGINNING: My dad was a musician and songwriter. When I was little I would go to the studio with him and he would make a little pop track. He would say, “Write two verses, a chorus, and a bridge.” Then I’d go home and write a little love song, dreaming about having a boyfriend one day. I did it for fun with my dad. I didn’t really start writing my own music until I was a teen. I finally was proficient enough on guitar to play in a band and write my own music on guitar, so it was probably 14 or 15 when I started writing my own music.
MY DAD WAS A GUITARIST FOR MICHAEL JACKSON AND…I did get to meet him, but when you’re around something so much when you’re younger, you’re not really aware of the gravity of the situation or that you’re being a part of something so legendary. We did go on tour with my dad. You know, when they do “Earth Song,” they need a kid, or kids, on stage, walking around the earth, so I was even able to perform with Michael Jackson when I was really little. You’re five years old, standing in front of thousands and thousands of people. It’s a really crazy experience. But he was a really nice guy, and he and my dad had a great relationship. Honestly, that’s what inspired me a great deal to become a musician: to see how music can effect and touch people. Going to a concert to see my dad and people are crying, fainting, dancing, smiling, and laughing—it’s magical… I remember asking, “Why is she crying,” or “Why,” in general, but it was so normalized to me. It was just my dad’s work. Friends’ dads went to the office and he went to rehearsal or to play a show.
WHIPLASH SOUNDTRACK: A friend who produced my first EP is a longtime friend of mine and called one day and said, “My friends need you to sing on some of their music and in exchange, they’ll play in your band.” So I did a favor for Damien [Chazelle], and for a while, Damien and Max [Drummey] and Justin [Hurwitz], who does all of the music for Damian’s movies, were all in my band for a little while. Damien got really busy casting his movie, but called me one day and said, “Hey I really like that song ‘Keep Me Waiting,’ can I put it in my movie?” I was like, “Yeah, of course.”
COVERING SONGS: I did a cover with my friend Leighton [Meester] a few years ago. I realized after that I had acquired a large YouTube fan base, so I decided I was going to keep it up and keep doing covers. Usually how I choose [the song] is either my sister will call me and tell me she likes a song and wants to hear me sing it, or I just choose a song that I think I can put my own style on and make it my own successfully. I just put out a cover of a Pixies song that I’ve been listening to since high school; some stuff is close to me. I do cover big songs because people gravitate toward that more obviously, but it is intimidating because there are so many people covering these pop songs. Also, sometimes I shy away from songs that have been done by great female vocalists, just because comparisons are always drawn. That helps determine what song I sing: if I think I can make it my own and people won’t say, “Oh, so and so did it better.” It’s not about who’s doing better. It’s not about comparing yourself to someone. It’s doing your own thing and making it special in your own way.
LOVE AND LOSS…Inspires me because it’s a universal theme. Everyone loves and everyone loses, no matter what you’re losing. You could be losing your pet or a family member, or you could be breaking up, but everyone identifies with that. Also, love—everyone loves. I don’t want to say I’ve lost a lot, but I’ve experienced loss, and I’ve experienced love. I feel like those are very natural things for me to write about.
RISING STAR: To be honest, I was really against [doing a television show] for a long time, but I feel like, at this point and this state the music industry is in, to be on TV, showing people who you are and what you can do, is probably one of the most important things you can do. I still think there’s a lot of merit in doing one of those shows. Not everyone can do it, because it’s not that easy. One of the biggest things I took away from that experience is, actually, something my dad always said to me and I never really digested as a kid: to make sure that whatever you’re doing is your own. For a show like [Rising Star], you’re singing other people’s songs. You don’t have the opportunity to say, “I wrote this and this is something I’ve created.” It’s sort of like, “This is who I am through something you’re already familiar with.” So I think one of the biggest lessons I learned is that whatever I do, I have to make it my own.