Daphne Willis
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Daphne Willis


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The best kept secret in music


Daphne Willis looking to stand on its own
By Lisa Balde | Beep
Published: 12/21/2007 12:17 AM
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Buzz up!

It doesn't seem fair to write off Daphne Willis as a female Jack Johnson, even if that's what mainstream-radio comparisons might push us to do. For one, I'm pretty sure "bubble toes" isn't in her lyrically introspect 21-year-old vocabulary. Secondly, she sounds way more like early Norah Jones.

It's not that Willis, who hails from Palatine but lives in Chicago when she's not battling the Midwestern tour scene, doesn't appreciate big-name comparisons such as these -- especially when those similarities hit on her own personal idols. It's just that in a business as saturated as the singer/songwriter/acoustic-guitarist market happens to be, she aims to stand out on her own. Luckily, less than a year into the fold and with a near-firm SXSW date already scheduled in March, she and her band -- formally known as Daphne Willis & Co. -- have done a bang-up job.

Since beginning their first several-month tour near the end of summer, the quartet has gone from a gang of disassociated musicians courtesy of Chicago's open-mic scene to an anticipated college act that's garnered enough accolades to regionally put them on the map. College towns love them, bar flies welcome them and age-diverse crowds stop what they're doing to pay attention to this inconspicuously airy folk rock led by effortlessly beautiful vocals that frankly sound a lot like a female Jack Johnson if you're hearing them for the first time.

"After the EP came out, the support was really coming in from other people and people I didn't know, Willis tells me over the phone just before heading into the studio for the first day of recording. "I feel very lucky and fortunate that people want to hear what I have to sing."

She's talking about "Matter of Time," the EP that made Willis drop out of school. Well, it didn't make her do anything. But once the floodgates of opportunity unleashed a bevy of shows thanks to this album, which was recorded only back in April, it was hard to ignore the knock of a job well done. She plans to return to DePaul someday and resume the bachelor's degree in secondary education that she still feels excited about (though not as passionately as she does about her music), but for now, she's giving it some time. She's giving it a year, to be exact. One year to give it all to the band -- uninterrupted touring, songwriting and as of last week, another major recording session.

"I can always go back to school; that's always an option that's on the table," she says. In talking about it to her parents -- with whom she's very close -- even they thought it was a logical choice. Not that it's a surprise, coming from parents with a musical background, who gigged around the University of Texas together back in the day as a singer/songwriter duo, one of which (her dad) is still involved in the business as an employee of Sony BMG. Willis freely acknowledges, by the way, that while her dad's high-profile music job has gotten her EP passed into a few big-wig hands, he's been all hands-off with SXSW applications and show promotions that have been handled by the band's affable band manager.

It also should be noted that her year off could have a flexible deadline, depending on what happens with the band. After all, a lot can happen in 12 months, or even in an academic school term. As such, Willis' goals are pretty loose. No expectations; just work as hard as possible and hope that money from shows pays the bills. Ditto from her band mates, who comprise an equally dedicated trio of jazz, rock and blues artists and are far more proactive than the Co. portion of the brand implies. Guitarist John Cicora and drummer Josh Fox have decided to leave Columbia College in Chicago for the band as well, Willis tells me, with mere months left of school. And bassist Ryan Kolberg, who graduated from Berkley College of Music in Boston, is here to stay. She met most of these guys and her manager on the open-mic circuit, which she still plays now and again with a few friends. And while they've only played as a cohesive unit for several months, they're as close as a band can be.

"None of us are trying to make ridiculous amounts of money; we just want to play," Willis says. "Right now, it's not about making money; it's about gaining support."

With four SXSW dates secured (final venue locations and co-acts are still being scheduled), the support they want could be awaiting them via the yellow-brick road to rock buzz in Austin this spring. Willis is beyond excited for the chance and notes that even if the dream falls through (March is still several months away, after all), Daphne Willis & Co. shall be paving their way no matter what.

"It's so far in advance," she says. "If nothing else, we're going to go down there and play on a street corner."

They should have plenty of material by then. Their studio sessions with Chicago pr - Daily Herald

Eclectricity: Daphne Willis & Co., May 29 at RIBCO
It's a busy day for Daphne Willis.
On the afternoon of our recent phone interview, the lead singer of the Chicago-based Daphne Willis & Co. was in the midst of a two-day shoot for promotional photos, an experience that Willis describes as "crazy. You know, we're all over the city doing shots - about 500 shots yesterday, and we're lookin' to do the same today."
And the day was about to become even more eventful, as the acoustic rockers - playing the Rock Island Brewing Company on May 29 - were also set to sign with Vanguard Records. "Actually, I'm signing the documents today," says Willis. "It's been a long process to get everything set up, and you know, I'm a musician and don't really have much of a sense of the business side of things, but I'm really excited about it."
A professional photo shoot, a contract-signing, a debut EP with last May's Matter of Time, and a hundred-plus gigs over the past year, including one at last summer's River Roots Live festival. Not bad for a 21-year-old, let alone one who first picked up a guitar a mere five years ago.
Raised in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, Willis says that music was always part of her upbringing, as her parents "have always been really musical, and play instruments [including piano and pedal-steel guitar], and both of my parents actually started gigging when they were in college. So it's just been, like, since day one."
She grew up listening to her folks' copies of Beatles and Bob Dylan classics, played saxophone in grade school and piano in middle school, and says her fascination with the guitar, at age 16, started purely by accident. "I used to play a lot of sports," she says, "and I started playing guitar because I tore my ACL, and I was laid up for a long period of time with really nothing else to do. So I would just practice guitar all day.
"You know," she adds with a laugh, "after, like, four or five months, you get used to it."
While in high school, says Willis, "I listened to a lot of Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Norah Jones. And I also listened to a lot of older stuff, like Elvis Costello, the Steve Miller Band," and other artists that would eventually influence her group's sound. "We really are eclectic in the sense that we all do different kinds of music, but I would say that it's kind of like a mix between pop and indie."
Willis attended DePaul University to pursue a secondary-education/English degree, yet found herself taken with Chicago's club scene. "I was doing all these open-mic nights all over the city," she says, "which are great, 'cause they're just a big network for different musicians to meet each other and connect."
The idea to pursue music full-time came through one such connection in late 2006. "I met Ryan Kolberg, our bass player," she says, "and we were, you know, just kind of jammin' out one night. And he had just graduated from Berklee's school of music, and he kind of said, ‘You know, maybe we should consider getting other people in on this and really pushin' for it.'"
Thanks to Chicago's networks of clubs, finding others wasn't difficult. "I met Ryan through an open-mic," says Willis with a laugh, "and John Cicora, our lead guitarist, was playin' at this other open mic that I was doin', and Josh Fox [Daphne Willis & Co.'s percussionist] we got through a friend of mine who actually was bartending at this other open-mic."
From their first rehearsal, Willis states that "it was really only a few months" before the musicians started landing regular gigs. ("I already had a couple of home-recorded demos that I had done," she says, "and I had an EP, so ... .") The band's initial, Chicago-area success convinced the singer to take a year off from DePaul, and by the fall of 2007, the group was averaging three to four bookings a week.
"He really does work his ass off," says Willis of band manager Zach Davis, who first introduced the singer to Kolberg. "And, you know, we're still trying to add to that. We're trying to do between 15 and 20 gigs a month if we can."
Following their RIBCO gig, Daphne Willis & Co. is currently scheduled for more than two dozen bookings through August, and Willis says that "we're hoping to get back into [River Roots Live] for this summer." Yet more than anything, states the singer, "I'm really anxious to get some new material out there," although, because of the contract with Vanguard, Willis admits that "the process has somewhat slowed.
"But it's also sped up," she adds, "in the sense that we're going to be releasing an EP prior to the first album. So it's cool, because even though it may take a little bit longer, there's essentially gonna be more material than there would've been if we'd just released an album."
Perhaps needless to say, Willis has consequently decided to extend her university sabbatical. But did the 21-year-old expect to be so busy so soon?
"Oh, absolutely not!" she laughs. "You know, it wo - River Cities Reader

Daphne Willis performs at the Den Thursday
By: Andrew Maddocks

Issue date: 9/7/07 Section: Features
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During her sophomore year in high school, Daphne Willis picked up a guitar and unknowingly started out on a path towards a musical career - a career which brought her to perform at DePauw Thursday night.

When she first started playing music, Daphne focused on the basics like learning cover songs and reading music with friends. She also began three years of song writing that eventually led her to performing at open-mike nights around Chicago.

During this time, Willis' current band came together. First she met Zach Davis, who currently manages the group. Through Davis, she met bass player Ryan Kolberg. The two shared musical tastes and immediately hit it off. Finally, guitarist John Cicora and drummer Josh Fox, two open-mike regulars, completed the band.

Much of the band's music is influenced by their favorite artists, such as The Beatles, Norah Jones and Jack Johnson.

Freshman Emily Terrell said she enjoys listening to Willis' music.

"It mimics some of my favorite artists, like Jack Johnson, but it's still new and fresh," she said.

Willis said her songs are usually inspired by something that happened to her or a loved one, taking things that have affected her and tries to encapsulate them in a broader context so that her songs can appeal to anyone.

Willis said she usually writes lyrics by herself, then integrates them into the chorus and verses. Then she'll start humming a melody over a chord progression to form the beginnings of a song. Once she feels relatively secure about the new structure, she'll play it for the rest of the band. As a group, Willis said they re-work the song until the whole group is satisfied.

Willis and her band released a five-track extended play album titled "Matter of Time" this past May and soon after went on tour.

She described the band's touring as tiring, yet rewarding. Hanging out with friends at the universities at which they play is always an incentive to keep moving, Willis said. Performing also provides a constant thrill and rush, especially when the crowd is enthusiastic.

"The best is being on stage when you can actually hear other people singing along with what you have written," Willis said.

The band is already considering to go back into the studio and recording a full album, but for now, Willis said is focusing on the tour and enjoying it every step of the way. The tour brought them to the Den in Longden Hall Thursday night, where they performed in front of a considerable crowd. While the crowd was relaxed and sat through most of the concert, the floor space in front of the band filled for the last song.

"I knew [Willis] previously to seeing her here, and I really enjoyed it," said junior Abby Rocap. "She's really good."

Willis said she was happy with the performance and the number of people that attended.

"This is what I'm passionate about," Willis said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

- the DePauw


Exhibit A - EP released in 2008 by Vanguard Records.
Matter of Time EP - released in 2007 independently




The five-song EP exhibit A, released in digital form Sept. 30th from Vanguard, provides a bracing introduction to the rapidly evolving music of Chicago-based quartet Daphne Willis & Co. Operating within the deft settings created by her Berklee- and Columbia-trained bandmates— lead guitarist John Cicora, bassist Ryan Kolberg and drummer/percussionist Josh Fox—the 21-year-old frontwoman makes supple, soulful music possessing a sophistication that belies her age. Because of the silky, disarming ease of her songs, Willis has been described as a female Jack Johnson, but below the surface this introspective young artist brings a cutting-edge liveliness to the confessional singer/songwriter tradition that recalls the music of Rickie Lee Jones at the same age.

The proactive band has been together less than two years, but they’ve already made deep inroads on the Midwest club circuit to the point where they’re now performing at top-echelon venues like Schuba’s in Chicago, The Annex in Madison, First Avenue in Minneapolis and the River Roots Live Festival in Davenport—and pulling off this feat without the help of a booking agent. They’ve deepened the impression with the self-made 2007 EP Matter of Time, which they’ve been selling, along with T-shirts and other gear, at their merch table.

They were well into the recording of their first full-length album, planning to release it themselves, when Vanguard and Welk Music Group head Kevin Welk plugged in his earbuds during a flight on American Airlines and heard several Matter of Time tracks on one of the in-flight music programs. Immediately hooked by Willis’ vocal emotiveness, the depth of her writing and the tasty performances of the band, he wasted no time tracking her down.

Willis was knocked out by the enthusiasm of Welk and Nashville-based Vanguard A&R rep Gary Pascoza, who’d been dispatched to Chicago to check out the band in live performance. Pascoza wound up lending his expertise to the project, mixing exhibit A’s three studio tracks and mastering the EP. “Gary’s an extremely talented guy who’s worked with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss,” says Willis. “So, from a vocal standpoint, his involvement was an extra bonus and an excellent opportunity for me to grow.” Pascoza is also helping with additional recording for Willis & Co.’s debut album, which Vanguard will release early in 2009. Producing and engineering both EP and full-length is Chicagoan Stephen Shirk, who also mixed the EP’s two live tracks.

The buoyant musical settings of exhibit A are juxtaposed with Willis’ thought-provoking lyrics, which delve with withering candor and remarkable insight into the psychological complexities of coming of age and navigating relationships in the first decade of the 21st century.

Describing the emotionally turbulent yet lilting opener “Bluff,” she says, “When we’re young, we’re not sure what we want because we haven’t fully experienced everything out there yet. This song is about a rough breakup that went back and forth for quite a while and took a lot of patience on both ends