|Eclectricity: Daphne Willis & Co., May 29 at RIBCO|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 28 May 2008 02:23|
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 would be a year ago now that I took off from school to try to pursue this, and I didn't really expect anything, you know? It was like, ‘Maybe a year, maybe I might need more time ... .' I mean, how do you measure success? How would I know when it was time to go back?
"Now," she says, "I'm feelin' very, very blessed, and very lucky to have the people with me that I'm working with, that are so devoted. It's a collaborative effort, and it's lookin' like it's going somewhere."
Daphne Willis & Co. plays RIBCO on Thursday, May 29. For more information on group, visit (http://www.myspace.com/daphnewillismusic).
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