The five-song EP exhibit A, released in digital form on Vanguard, provides a bracing introduction to the rapidly evolving music of Chicago-based Daphne Willis. The 21-year-old front woman makes supple, soulful music possessing a sophistication that belies her age. Because of the silky, disarming ease of her songs, Willis has been described as a female Jack Johnson, but below the surface this introspective young artist brings a cutting-edge liveliness to the confessional singer/songwriter tradition that recalls the music of Rickie Lee Jones at the same age.
In only two years, Willis has already made deep inroads on the Midwest club circuit and is now performing at top-echelon venues like Schuba’s in Chicago, The Annex in Madison, First Avenue in Minneapolis and the River Roots Live Festival in Davenport—and pulling off this feat without the help of a booking agent. She’s deepened the impression with the self-made 2007 EP Matter of Time, which she has been selling, along with T-shirts and other gear, at her merch table.
Willis was well into recording her first full-length album, planning to release it herself, when Vanguard and Welk Music Group head Kevin Welk plugged in his earbuds during a flight on American Airlines and heard several Matter of Time tracks on one of the in-flight music programs. Immediately hooked by Willis’ vocal emotiveness, the depth of her writing and the tasty performances of the band, he wasted no time tracking her down.
Willis was knocked out by the enthusiasm of Welk and Nashville-based Vanguard A&R rep Gary Paczosa, who’d been dispatched to Chicago to check out the band in live performance. Paczosa wound up lending his expertise to the project, mixing exhibit A’s three studio tracks and mastering the EP. “Gary’s an extremely talented guy who’s worked with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss,” says Willis. “So, from a vocal standpoint, his involvement was an extra bonus and an excellent opportunity for me to grow.” Paczosa is also helping with additional recording for Willis’ debut album, which Vanguard will release early in 2010. Producing and engineering both EP and full-length is Chicagoan Stephen Shirk, who also mixed the EP’s two live tracks.
The buoyant musical settings of exhibit A are juxtaposed with Willis’ thought-provoking lyrics, which delve with withering candor and remarkable insight into the psychological complexities of coming of age and navigating relationships in the first decade of the 21st century. Further evidence of the explosive growth of this scintillating unit and its preternaturally gifted young leader will be forthcoming, but we can say this much: You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.