Falling in Love with Dana Williams

Interview by Paulina Wroblewska

Photography & Video by Mary Kang


Singer-songwriter Dana Williams is a gentle afternoon breeze. Her soft voice and warm laughter are the perfect complements to her personality; reminiscent of an elegant rose. She is, in a word, poetic.

Dana finds much of her inspiration in the classics such as jazz-great Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as well as and up-and-comers like Leon Bridges. Thanks to her musical upbringing (her father, played guitar for Michael Jackson), Dana grew up surrounded by her passion but studied poetry in college, a twist that makes undeniable sense once you see it. It suits her.

In a Los Angeles cafe, Dana shared some of her story with us. A natural storyteller, we got to lean in and dive into her beautiful world. 


POND: How did you get your start in music? What’s your whole story there?
I’ve just been making music and playing music since I can remember because my dad was a musician, so it was always around. He was a guitar player so he always taught me, like he would give me little guitar lessons at home. But, I didn’t want to play guitar initially because, you know, you don’t want to do exactly what your parents do. Then I just wound up playing guitar because it was always around so i just picked it up a lot more quickly than any of the other instruments that I tried to learn.

POND: Did your family listen to a lot of jazz?
Actually, my dad was a pop musician; he played for Madonna and Michael Jackson so we listened to a lot of pop and R&B and soul music. And my mom’s mom was a jazz singer so she sang jazz to me a lot — that’s probably where I get my jazz from.

POND: So who are some of your major Influences? What do you draw from?
Ella Fitzgerald is my favorite, and Billie Holiday. Those are my major influences. I sort of explore new artists occasionally and I listen to them nonstop for like a month then I find someone else.

POND: Do you have anyone like that right now?
 Right now I just started listening to Mac DeMarco a little bit. I think he's really cool. Before that, I was listening to Leon Bridges nonstop. There are some good new artists coming out so it’s exciting. 

POND: What does your writing process look like?
 I normally come up with chords first and then a melody over that, and then lyrics come last. I write with a lot of people, but a lot of the time I come up with stuff on my own, in my room, in my own space. I find that to be most comforting.

POND: Do you usually write from inspiration or like…
It really depends. Sometimes I think about something that’s happened to me and I think, “I should make that into a song” or like last night I was practicing and then I thought of a little riff, so I just recorded it quickly because I didn’t have time to finish writing it. I’ll go back to it, probably later tonight. Usually a riff will come along with an idea, and then I’ll just make it into a song.

POND: Are you inspired by non-music things? Any other random interests?
 I mean sometimes I paint. I really like animals, I spend a lot of time with my dogs. I like being outside and I like trying to find places I’ve never gone before since I’ve been in LA for so long.

POND: How long have you been in LA? What made you decide to move back [from New York]?
 I moved back four years ago. I graduated from school and my immediate family is here now; we all decided to move back.

POND: Are you really close with your family?
Yeah yeah. My dad passed away and at one point we were all in different states so after we graduated my mom was like, “Let’s all be in the same state!” I didn't live in the same state as my [older] sister for like 10 years. She was in LA and I was in New York. It’s great to have a sister. We spent so much time apart and it’s weird because when we got back, hanging out together, we realized how similar we are. In a lot of ways, we listen to a lot of the same music and yeah, a lot of stuff, haha. She’s actually a really talented songwriter but she loves acting so she never wanted to pursue a career in music, but she’s really talented!

POND: What do you usually write about?
 Up until now, most of my topics have been about relationships and loss. I think my first EP was a lot more about loss and heartbreak, because that was written around the time when I was going through a breakup and my dad had died. Then my second EP, which I just put out, is a lot more uplifting. It’s still about relationships but it’s more romantic, it’s called “Let’s Fall.” The first one was “The Lonely One” and the next one’s “Let’s Fall” so it’s a little bit more inviting but still about love.

POND: Do you draw from your own experiences in your writing?
 A lot of the time, yeah. It’s easier, except the title track. I wrote “Let’s Fall” with my friend, Martin [Craft], in Joshua Tree. We actually decided to write song, an anti-love song, so it was called “Don’t Fall,” and we spent the whole night writing it and it was finished, and we went to sleep for a while and had breakfast, and we woke up and listened to it and were like, “This is so depressing.” So we changed all the negatives to positives. So it sort of happened as an accident, but then my whole EP ended up being more positive which is nice.

POND: What’s been challenging for you in terms of being an artist and in terms of being a musician?
One of the main challenges I find is that people sort of look at you and tell you who you are and what you should be doing, and that’s been the most frustrating part about it I think, because I have to constantly show people who I am. It’s sort of unavoidable to not have people look at you and pass judgment because that’s what life is. But yeah, as an artist you have to present yourself in the way you would like to be perceived. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned this year. Making music, you know, I can write songs all the time and whatever but the most important part is for people not only to listen to it but to imagine something in their head that they can identify with.

POND: Was there anything in particular that helped you figure that out?
I think it happened just gradually. I think I’ve had dozens of conversations with friends and people and they’ll say, “This is who you are and this is who you are” and I think about everything everyone says about who I am and then I pick and choose what I actually am.

POND: Are there any common misconceptions that you get?
 I wouldn’t say it’s a misconception, but one of the common things that people say is that I’m very retro, which is cool because I really like retro sound and I guess I do write some retro music but that’s one thing I’ve embraced. One of the biggest hurdles in that same vein is living in the 21st century and having access to so much imagery and having to choose one. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into one thing and I just think it’s silly what people are told to do when they make music.

POND: Have you ever been in a situation where you were working with someone and they just completely have the wrong impression of you and you realize you can’t work with them for that reason?
Yeah, that’s happened before. I was doing a song with someone recently and he was like, “Why do you sound so jazzy?” and I was like “Because, I’m a jazz singer. I sing a lot of jazz.” But yeah, those things happen. You just have to clearly show people who you are so as not to be told who you are.

POND: Do you have any surprising influences? Like things about you that people would be surprised to hear?
 I really like listening to pop music even though I have a very jazzy sound. I listen to a lot of hip hop. I really like Rihanna. I’ve liked her for a long time, I think she’s a great artist. I really listen to all sorts of music, like I listen to country, jazz, folk, hip hop, rap.

POND: What’s the last album you bought? Or listened to?
 Well I got the Leon Bridges vinyl and I bought a couple of songs off the Adele album which is great. I really like the song that Max Martin produced [Send My Love {To  Your New Lover)], his music is really fun.

POND: Do you remember the first album you bought?
 It was an Ella Fitzgerald album. I remember I was little, I used to sing along to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” all the time. I remember it was Black History Month in elementary school and we had to pull a name out of a hat and then proceed to do like a book report or write a biography on the person and I chose Ella Fitzgerald and that’s how I discovered her. So I made my mom take me to the CD store and we bought a bunch of Ella Fitzgerald CD’s. I feel like I had TLC albums and Christina Aguilera, like her first album.


POND: Do you have any random talents? Something that you’re randomly really good at?
D: I’m really good at whistling, like melodically. I was thinking about whistling in some of my music like Lou Reed who did a lot of whistling.

POND: What’s the first concert you went to?
D: Michael Jackson. I used to go to those concerts a lot when I was little. And Janet Jackson, because [my father] toured with her as well.

POND: How was it like growing up being exposed to that world through your dad?
D: It was pretty normal for me just because it was something I was used to. When I’d go to school and say like, “I was with Michael Jackson last night” and the kids would go, “You’re lying!” so I learned quickly not to share what I was doing, but it was fun. I was really little so a lot of the times I would go to the concerts with my earplugs and fall asleep. But, it was really nice to be a part of that and see such talented people and how they affected everyone. What I was really interested in as a kid was looking at the audience because Michael Jackson’s audience was so like “cultish” because they would go and they would be fainting all over the place and sobbing and laughing and it was just like, “WHOA! Music can do this to people and make them feel all these extreme emotions”, which sort of inspired me to be a musician.

POND: Do you find that when you’re performing, you pay a lot of attention to the audience
D: A lot of the time I do. I try to keep the audience engaged.

POND: Growing up, did you ever think that it wasn’t possible to be a musician or were you always sold on that?
D: I always knew I would be a musician. There was a little while where I wanted to be a marine biologist or a vet, but I always wanted to be a musician. I was really shy so I avoided performing; I wanted to be more of a songwriter and then it wasn’t until the end of college where I realized that I could be a performer as well.

POND: Was there anything that happened that made you realize that?
D: I sort of had to have a performance since I was in the jazz program and they were like, “Before you graduate, you have to have a concert”, and I was like, “What?!” so I had one and it was great and it was really interesting and then I just started performing when I got to LA. My sister started booking me shows.

POND: When did you start writing songs? How did that happen?
D: When I was younger, I used to write songs with my dad and he made a lot of pop music so he would send me a pop track and say, “Ok, now this is a verse, this is the chorus, this is the second verse, and a bridge, and then another chorus,” so he would give them to me and then I’d go in my room and write little love songs; so that’s how I started writing. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager where I became proficient enough on the guitar to write my own songs so I started writing more in high school.

POND: Do you feel like you are able to express more as a writer or as a singer or are they tied together for you? Which medium is more communicative for you?
I would say both, but singing is more emotive and euphoric. For most of college I majored in writing. I actually thought, in the beginning of college, that I could just write books and that would be enough but then I realized I couldn’t just be a writer; I wanted to write and perform so then I started writing songs more often. I was writing a lot of poetry. I majored in poetry and then I just picked up, my sophomore year, a double major in music and poetry.

POND: Do you still write [poetry] for yourself?
D: Not as much. They’re so tied in together now because I write so much music nowadays that I don’t have time to write poetry but sometimes do think of things in my head and I write them down and it’s really nice. But also my approach to writing poetry is a lot different than my approach to writing songs.

POND: How so?
D: Well for songs, I really worry about timing and phrasing and rhythm and sound. But with poetry, it’s all out the window. I never rhyme and I never write in meter, so it’s really different.

POND: How did you get into writing poetry? Was it just a natural thing for you?
D: Yeah, I always wrote poems. The school I went to [Sarah Lawrence College] was sort of like a writing school too.

POND: Do you have a favorite poet?
D: I really like Louise Glück and D. Nurkse, who was actually one of my professors at Sarah Lawrence.

POND: So was that the dream for you for a while? To just be able to write?
D: Yeah. But then partially what happened was that I was taking an independent study with this poet and book editor and we were sitting in her office, like my last year of college, and she was like, “So you’re a poet...” and I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “And that’s what you’re going to do when you graduate...” and I was like, “Yeah!” and she was like, “ Well, that’s a noble endeavor…” like what? And then I was like, “Ok. Well I guess I spent all 4 years studying something that I can’t do professionally.” Well I mean I can do professionally but it’s really hard; even the most successful poets are still teaching and you have to really work at it. Hopefully my music will support my poetry one day. Anyway, it just sort of knocked the wind out of me my last semester, but no, it was really great. So I started making more music, haha!

POND: That’s such a cool thing to be interested in. I feel like poetry isn’t really necessarily appreciated in society and it should be.
D: That’s the thing, I was living in a bubble when I was living in New York and in New York, there’s poetry readings and it’s definitely more of a culture and also my other great professor was like, “You’re moving to LA and you’re a poet, it’s a literary wasteland out there!” and I was like, “Ok, alright! I won’t do poetry.” So that was sort of what happened. I think it’s possible to have some sort of bigger literary scene in LA. You just have to find it.

POND: Do you like New York or LA better?
D: I don’t know. I like both of them. I spend an equal amount of time in both places. I like LA just because I do not like the winter and I like being outside so it’s nice. But I mean, New York is great too.

POND: What’s next for you? What are your goals? What are you doing? What’s coming up?
D: What’s next is I’m releasing a couple more videos on my YouTube channel for my EP. And now, I’ve written a bunch of music. I’m trying to just figure out what I should do with them and how I should release them and who I should collaborate with next, so that’s what I’m doing.

POND: Do you want to change your direction or change what you’re doing in any way?
D: I’m open to a lot of things, I guess. I mean, it’s fun to collaborate with people because then you get to enter their world briefly and do what they do and put your own little spin on it. I’m trying to figure out how I should present my next collection of songs.

POND: Do you have people that are helping you with what you’re doing or are you doing this on your own?
D: I do. I recently just hired publishing so they’re helping me with that but up until now, I’ve been doing a lot of this on my own.

POND: If you weren’t a musician, I assume you’d be a poet right? Would that be your answer?
 Haha yeah! Or a vet. Ooh actually I really would love to work with animals but I could never handle blood or needles or like cuts or surgery. So yeah, poet.

POND: If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you take with you?
D: I would take my guitar, maybe like a blanket so I wouldn’t get cold, and like I would bring a knife right? Hahaha.

POND: What’s your favorite sound? It doesn’t have to be music related.
D: Uh. I don’t know. That’s a hard one. You know what I was thinking about the other day, because I was listening to something and it had a lot of hollow wooden percussion and I liked that.

POND: What’s your favorite color?
D: It changes sometimes. I think right now, it’s lavender.

POND: Is there any particular reason you like it or does it just make you happy?
D: I don’t know there was a while where I started acquiring lavender things and not intentionally, like I got a lavender dress and my phone case was lavender and I was like, “Whoa! I’m surrounded by lavender but I kind of like it.”

POND: How would you describe lavender to someone who can’t see color?
D: It’s sort of cool and soft I guess.

POND: What does your typical day look like?
D: It’s different every day. I wake up and I make coffee because I can’t do anything before I have coffee. And lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing so I try to do...well also I like to do a little bit of yoga if I have time, I don’t always have time. And then I try and write a song and then go to meetings I normally have. I’m all over the place throughout the day.

POND: What’s your perfect day like?
D: My perfect day is just drinking coffee and playing my guitar and going on a hike.

POND: So what is your favorite or go-to coffee drink?
D: Just black coffee. I basically stopped eating sugar. I used to put a ton of sugar in my coffee and I don’t like dairy so yeah now it’s just black.

POND: Any particular reason you stopped eating sugar?
D: I just genetically have high blood sugar so if I just stop putting sugar in my coffee, that would be a lot less sugar.

POND: What is your most recent obsession?
D: I think my most recent obsession is finding things to put in my slow cooker. You just like throw things in and then come back a few hours later and you have a delicious meal. My friend told me about it for a while and I was like, “That sounds so boring. I’m just gonna make regular food,” and I then got one and it tastes so much better!

POND: If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you be?
D: If I could be anywhere in the world, I really enjoy being on the east coast, like Massachusetts or Upstate New York. I like the tall trees and the cool weather. I mean I don’t really like winter but it’s nice to have sort of the traditional environment. And the quiet!

POND: Do you not like big cities?
D: I do. I mean, I was raised in cities, but I don’t know. I like the change of pace occasionally. I guess I did kind of grow up on Martha’s Vineyard. I moved around so much and I spent a lot of time on the Vineyard; that’s really beautiful there.

POND: What does being an artist mean to you?
It just means expressing yourself. There’s all sorts of artist but I think the common denominator is that everyone is just trying to express themselves.