It played out like an emerging musician’s dream.
Daphne Willis was playing a showcase called “Music City Roots.” She made her set count, then retired from the stage. Then a friend of Willis’ who was working her merchandise table tracked her down with a message.
“They told me, ‘By the way, John Oates just stopped by the merch table and bought all your stuff,’” Willis remembered.
That would be John Oates, best known as the mustachioed half of the R&B-soul supergroup Hall & Oates (who recently regrouped to make a hilarious ad for Google — see “man gobbler”).
“When she said that, I was really in disbelief,” Willis said. “I asked her if she was sure and she was like, ‘I think it was John Oates, but he didn’t have a mustache.’”
Willis needed to verify the close encounter of the music-history kind. And it was indeed John Oates, who has been known to leave home without the mustache, and he was interested.
“He wrote his number on a napkin and said, ‘Call me. Let’s write together.’ I called him the next day,” Willis said.
Well, Willis wasn’t exactly a struggling artist at the time. She was signed to Vanguard Records in 2010. She released her debut, What I Say, that year and followed it up with Because I Can in 2011.
Willis was born in San Antonio to a pair of University of Texas graduates, her mother with a vocal performance degree and her father with a degree in music engineering. She spent some of her childhood in Agoura Hills outside of Los Angeles. But Willis grew up in Chicago, studying the songs of Natalie Maines and Ella Fitzgerald.
Willis cops to an obsessive bent when it comes to music, even from the age of 10.
“I’d listen to those records over and over, and I’d sing the songs and just try to get every single inflection exactly,” she recalled.
She started writing poetry as a tween, and sang in the school choir when she wasn’t singing around the house. She got into songwriting in high school.
“I got to the point where I was wondering, ‘How cool would it be to turn these poems and short stories into songs,’” Willis said.
She kept at it, working the open-mic circuit diligently while at DePaul University in Chicago. There, she was signed to Vanguard. She hustled like a player and followed up on sound engineer and producer Gary Paczosa (who’s worked with Alison Krauss and Sarah Jarosz) when he said she should check out Nashville, Tenn.
“He came up to Chicago, and he kind of suggested I do some co-writing,” Willis said. “It really started kind of with the trips getting longer. Instead of a week, it was two weeks. Then I’d be there for a month. It’s just such a great town for music, and for tours it’s right in the middle of the country.”
Willis moved to Nashville, a city she said still bends a knee to country music but offers enthusiastic support for singer-songwriting types and indie artists. Plus, she said, a hip-hop scene is starting to gather some steam.
Co-writing was fruitful for Willis, resulting in Live to Try, her third record and a collaboration with Oates. The record parses Willis’ adventurous taste with some “throwbacks” with more modern, synth-based music.
“Your Girl” and “People That Matter” are groovy nods to the blues-tinged rock of Motown. “Backyard,” a ditty about someone who suspects their significant other is plotting to murder them, is a vintage Philly-style pop piece with an unexpected flute solo. Willis gets synth-y with “Live to Try,” “Golden Boy” and “Inside Outright.”
Oates, who co-wrote the whole album, shows his influence on “Mr. Money.” Listen close and you can hear the chronically underrated baritones that leavened Daryl Hall’s blued-eyed soul tenor. Oates plays on the record, too. His influence bubbles up in the infectious, ’80s-inspired “You Make Me Wanna.” (The “ooh-oohs” are a blast from the past, specifically from Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True.”)
Willis said her voice intuitively changes to mesh with the styles.
“On the throwbacks, I tend to embellish more, hold notes, soften up the tone,” she said.
She said she’s come a ways from What I Say and Because I Can.
“I kind of wanted to kind of explore a few different genres on this record,” she said. “I wanted to create some continuity and also have some variety, experiment with some synth and woodwinds and old school [sounds] like that. Some songs lean toward the more mod, synth-y pop sort of stuff.
“I also felt I had developed a stronger personality and a stronger message. I honed in on this message of self-empowerment, positive energy — the music that I work out to and listen to when I’m cleaning. I wanted to make that kind of record.”
Everything gets a different treatment when she plays live. She’ll play Denton with drummer Cam Brousseau and keyboard and bassist Andrew Toombs.
“It’s really fun to take it out of the content of the record and get into the content of the live shows,” Willis said. “The records are more bare-bones. ‘Live to Try’ is one I have a really good time on live. Doing the Oates stuff without Oates is always a little rough. I’m so excited to be taking these songs out on the road. The slower songs, I’m trying to give more dynamics.”