Neo-Soul Artist Dana Williams Is Tired of You Being So “Hard” On Yourself [PREMIERE + Q&A]

We know, life is stressful. Everyone’s got something they’re nervous about. Jobs, school, or relationships, you name it! Neo-soul singer Dana Williams has faced both triumphs and heartaches throughout her time as an up-and-coming artist. 

As a lyricist she’s drawn from her own personal experiences in life and the stories of her favorite classic jazz musicians. Her newest single “Hard,” premiering exclusively here today, showcases an artist who has had enough. The ethereal folk-soul singer is tired of us being so hard on ourselves, and she’s right! We spoke with Williams about “Hard,” her passion for jazz, and spending time in front of the camera.

OTW: Tell me a little bit about where you are from and how you got started?

Dana Williams: I’m from LA. I grew up between NYC and LA and moved around a lot. But I would say LA is my home. I got started in music because my dad was a guitar player and songwriter. I always had music and guitars around. Playing music with dad was always something I loved doing, and it was something I picked up early and did ever since. 

OTW: So, it’s kind of been your lifelong dream to be a musician, would you say?

Williams: Yeah! Definitely! I’ve always felt music was something I should pursue. 

OTW: I read that Jazz has a major influence on you. What about jazz makes you gravitate toward it so much? 

Williams: Well, I would say, my grandma on my mom’s side was a big band jazz singer, and she would always sing to us before bed. She taught me several jazz standards. In elementary school, I did an autobiography on Ella Fitzgerald. It was sort of random! It was Black History Month, and I pulled her name out of a hat. After that, I had my mom take me to the record store, because those still existed (laughs)! We bought a bunch of Ella Fitzgerald CDs, and I absolutely fell in love. I’ve been listening to jazz ever since. 

OTW: I saw you were in this awesome Christmas time Apple commercial back in 2014, and I did wonder if, in it, the woman you sang with was your real grandmother!

Williams: No… It wasn’t!

OTW: Oh no! But it would’ve fit so well.

Williams: I know! I know! People have been asking me that for years too. 

OTW: Okay, well I’m glad I’m not the only one then!

Williams: No! Not at all, it would’ve made perfect sense.

OTW: Well then how did that project with Apple happen?

Williams: I was playing shows around town. Some of the people doing the casting worked at a bar I played in. So they got my number and called me asking if I was able to audition for this. I was like, “Yeah sure!” I didn’t know exactly what it was but- (laughs).

OTW: I read that some of your favorite artists, as you just said, are Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Norah Jones. What’s your favorite song by any one of them?

Williams: Ooh, that’s a good question. One song that I love is “Good Morning Heartache” by Billie Holiday. It’s her talking to her own sorrows, and personifying it. She’s so lonely and mournful but at least her heartache is there for her. That’s a song I love listening to. 

OTW: Wow. That song is so personal. I do wonder how she came up with that?

Williams: I know it is personal, I’m not sure who wrote it. The jazz singers of that time weren’t always writing their songs though. But she did write some of her songs.

OTW: So there’s even more that went into it. We’ve got to do some Googling!

Williams: (laughs) I know! I’m actually looking it up right now. It says Ervin Drake was the lyricist. 

OTW: I know you studied both music and creative writing and poetry in college. When and what made you decide to pursue music instead of being a sort of author?

Williams: That’s something I think about all the time. This is going to be a huge cliché but, I feel like music chooses you, honestly. I’ve always been writing poems and songs. I considered becoming an author, which is still something I think about doing. I could do both. But being an artist and performing my music for people brings me so much joy. It’s such a unique form of expression that I gravitate towards. 

OTW: Is there anything beyond music that contributes to your musicality?

Williams: I definitely think I write a lot about personal experience. Anything I’m going through tends to be the subject of my songs. I think just that contributes to my musicality.

OTW: So living life itself, and having those experiences is where your truth comes from. I saw you were on the show Rising Star. Congrats on that! Seeing that was very cool. What did you take away from that?

Williams: It was a really great experience. It was only for the summer–short and really intense. What I learned was the real work ethic and strength that was required to really professionally pursue a career in music. I was able to cultivate such nice relationships with the judges and to see their passion was really inspiring. 

OTW: Now you’re known for, amongst other things, your fantastic YouTube covers. What did you expect to happen from the Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” duet with Leighton Meester?

Williams: I didn’t really expect anything to come of it! I’ve known her for a long time. We were just hanging out and she asked, “Do you want to do a cover with me?” I said, “Sure!” She loves Fleetwood Mac, so she suggested “Dreams.” We practiced it a few times and then just went for it! My sister shot it. And I actually am still impressed by how big of a splash it made. It was so effortless and fun. The way everything came together was so effortless and beautiful, and those things don’t happen that often. It’s really nice. 

OTW: That effortlessness you mention, I too think really resonated with people. I went through the comments this morning and to this day people write, “Love how they aren’t out-singing each other. And they just complimented each other so well.” I know you’re a long-time collaborator with Rejjie Snow too, how did you two meet?

Williams: We met through my friend Stefan Ponce. He messaged me saying he was in LA working with this artist Rejjie Snow. And that I should come to the studio and meet him. I went and met him that day. We just started collaborating! He’s based in London, so he would send me tracks and ask me to write a chorus over it and send it back. So a lot of the time we wrote and weren’t even in the same room together. Making music in modern times!

OTW: Modern it is! So you’ve got a show soon on Nov 4 at The Moroccan in Los Angeles. When’s the last time you played live?

Williams: I haven’t played with a full band this whole year. I did a solo show at Soho house in New York this summer, but that was really my only show this year. So this is my first and last LA show! 

OTW: You touched on this, but how has your live show changed evolved?

Williams: Well, one thing I’m sort of known for is my acoustic soul show. People see me play with my guitar and maybe a few other band members, but this time I’m in the process of building my show and adding more percussion. Some of the songs I have produced by Alex da Kid have so much more production than my earlier music, so I’ve been incorporating both sounds. Some will be played acoustically while others will be bigger. 

OTW: That will be such a great experience for your fans! So tell me about your new single “Hard” and what went into creating it. 

Williams: I’ve been working with Alex this year. I signed to his label and he has been producing a lot of my music. I love working with him. Basically, I wrote this song on my guitar. It was a co-write, and then I emailed him the song and he sent it back to me after adding percussion. And I’m so excited by the arrangement he put around it. “Hard” is a very introspective song about the pursuit of nonexistent perfection, and being so hard on yourself about being hard on yourself. The main lyrics are “I’m way too hard on myself.” It’s all about self-awareness and learning to be gentler on yourself. 

OTW: Lastly, who are your Ones to Watch? 

Williams: I’ve been listening to Hope Tala. She’s so good. I’ve been listening to Joy Crookes and Diana Gordon too. Those are all great ladies I’ve been listening to.

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