Dana Williams is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen is featuring 52 outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks.
The first thing you need to know about Dana Williams is that she has the voice of an angel. You could say that music is in her blood. Her father, David Williams, who died six years ago, was Michael Jackson’s lifetime guitarist, and Dana has wanted to be a musician for as long as she can remember. But the path to being a professional in the music industry today is far different than it was in her father’s time. While Dana, 26, has released two EPs, has a hefty social following (30K on YouTube alone), starred in an epic Apple commercial, competed on an ABC television singing competition, had a song featured in the movie “Whiplash,” and happens to look like a model (not an insignificant thing in the music industry—let’s be honest), the singer and songwriter has yet to sign a contract with a label. Like many young musicians, Dana is writing her own rules. She’s forging a new path.
Dana moved from New York to Los Angeles after studying music at Sarah Lawrence College and began working on what would be the first of two EPs, 2014’s The Lonely One. A standout on the EP is the dreamy single “Keep Me Waiting,” in which Dana’s mesmerizing vibrato soars over wistful instrumentation. “I wasn’t trying to write an EP,” Dana explains. “I was just trying to figure out my sound.” Considering the tune was featured in last year’s Oscar-nominated jazz flick “Whiplash,” it seems Dana killed it right out of the gate.
As for her sound, it’s modern pop with a heavy dose of vintage jazz, soul and folk; and it’s been a long time in the making, partially because music was the fabric of her childhood. Having hung out at Michael Jackson concerts from the time she was a baby (“I would fall asleep under chairs,” she says), Dana grew up witnessing the power of music. "When you're raised around it, it doesn't seem like such a big deal,” says Dana. "But I was also able to see how music affects people. I would see people crying and fainting and screaming and it made me wonder—how is this one person doing this to so many people? It's a really moving experience to see that."
When Dana was in middle school, she and her father began to collaborate on music as a bonding experience. “He would start writing a pop track and bring it home and say ‘here’s a song, write a verse, a chorus, a second verse, and then a bridge,’”said Dana. “I began to write melody and lyrics.” But Dana’s taste in music was always her own. Her father was the man who laid down ferocious layers of funk for M.J. while she discovered Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday—the two artists who remain her biggest influences—around the time she was 7 years old. “My parents always laughed at me, they’d say ‘where did you get this’?” she recalls. “It was probably my mom’s mom. She was a jazz singer. She used to sing me to sleep when I was a baby.”
While Dana describes working on The Lonely One as a therapeutic experience after her father died (“that’s why the music is so sad,” she says), the EP helped raise her visibility after it was released in early 2014. That summer, she landed a spot on ABC’s primetime singing competition Rising Star, where Kesha, who was among the show’s panel of experts, became a huge supporter; and later in 2014, Apple chose her to star in an epic-length holiday commercial. “I didn’t realize what a big deal it was at the time,” says Dana. “But people started calling me the ‘Apple Girl.’”
While a string of high-profile accomplishments doesn’t necessarily translate into major label interest for artists today, a large following on social media sure doesn’t hurt. Enter Leighton Meester, the actress and musician who Dana has serendipitously been close friends with since middle school. “One day we were hanging out and she said why don’t we do a duet, and she suggested ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac,” recalls Dana.
Four million streams later, and YouTube has become an important discovery platform for Dana. “Nowadays as artists and musicians you have to get creative. You have to supplement. We’re in the social age,” explains Dana. “It’s not only talent that’s being judged. It’s your social numbers. You have to stay relevant. That’s why I make videos.”
Since Fleetwood Mac, Dana has covered more than 30 songs on YouTube, growing her followers to 30,000. Part of what gives these covers their appeal is Dana’s ability to translate artists across disparate genres into her own distinct sound without losing their essence— from hip-hop (Fetty Wap) to indie (Band of Horses) to old-school rock and soul (The Velvet Underground, Smokey Robinson) to pop and R&B (Rihanna, Justin Bieber). There’s something captivating about watching this folksy singer cover Post Malone’s baller anthem “White Iverson” in her own heartfelt, shoegazer-y style, singing lines like: “I got me some braids and I got me some hoes/Started rocking’ the sleeve, I can’t ball with no Jordans/You know how I do it Concords on my toes.”
While Dana continues to use social media to build a following, she also continues to write original music. Her sophomore EP, “Let’s Fall,” was released in December, and Dana says it was an inadvertent response to the sad vibe of her first. She describes writing the title track, initially titled “Don’t Fall,” with a friend in Joshua Tree. “We had written the whole thing and recorded it and we realized in the middle of the night that it was a beautiful song but it was too depressing,” Dana explains. “And so we made the decision to change all of the negatives to positives. The sound and content of this EP is more romantic than my first.”
We are looking forward to her third—and we hope it’s a full-length studio album. Labels, ya hear?