Daphne Willis is a singer-songwriter from Chicago. Now based in Nashville, her music is an eclectic pop-goes-acoustic with a side of the blues. And it’s really catchy.
Not only is Daphne Willis known for her music, but also for her compassionate openness about mental health, addiction, homelessness, and a variety of other “let’s leave these for someone else” topics. Her next album, “Freaks Like Me,” will be available in the fall.
Her track, “Somebody’s Someone” reached thousands of listeners earlier this year. The song, touching on homelessness (“just a cardboard sign and a can in between some dirty bare feet/eyes that I cannot bring myself to meet”) and that everybody has belonged somewhere, gained rave reviews and people actually coming her to thank her for such a beautiful tune.
Daphne Willis has produced an array of great tunes and I suspect there’s more to come. I got the chance to throw her some questions about the stigma of mental health, music, “Dopamine”, and why we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.
I want to talk to you about a couple of things. You’re very open about mental health — the struggles you’ve had yourself and those you’ve seen — both in and out of your music, did you always set out for that to be the case? Or did it just happen, kind of the way life does?
I’ve definitely been lucky to have been raised in an environment in which mental health was a topic of discussion and not something that was tiptoed around, or just plain avoided. It’s like any other aspect of my health and well-being, so it luckily has come pretty naturally.
I’m not really sure why, in this day and age, there’s still such a stigma to speaking openly about mental illness. There is though, why do you think that is?
I think there’s something very personal about the way we view mental illness. We seem to pile a lot of responsibility onto like it’s a choice or something that can be controlled. Then we talk about cancer and diabetes with an empathy and compassion that is open and totally non-judgmental and it’s very confusing to me. Obviously, there are differences in these diseases, but are they all not categorized by the medical community as an illness? Should we not be showering the mentally afflicted with empathy and compassion instead of judgment?
Your track “Somebody’s Someone” gained a lot of traction earlier this year — understandably so — for its no-holds-barred approach to confronting things like homelessness. How did the song come about?
I wrote the song with my buddy Jenn Bostic. We have both been touched by all of these issues at some point in our lives and wanted to write a reminder to ourselves and others that we all matter and that we are all somebody to someone. I think it’s almost impossible to remember that on your own sometimes when you are dealing with these kinds of things, it can be very isolating, so we wanted to write a song that extended that sentiment of unconditional love.
[on songwriting] “It’s like any other muscle; if you use it, it gets stronger.”
And you’ve been open about your struggles with your mental health, as well. How do you think we can go about removing the stigma?
I think it’s’ just going to take a bit of time and educating ourselves. All we can do is keep talking to each other and supporting each other. Stigma is all fear based, so we just literally just need to put as much information and content out there as we can. Documentaries, songs, films and other forms of art and media can play a big role in creating social norms, so I see it as a big communal effort.
Did creating music come before those struggles, or did it come in or come in more to help when you had those dark times?
I definitely write on both sides of the “mood” spectrum. Writing is very cathartic for me, and also something I do for fun and with friends, so I can be in almost any mood and write something. I think historically, though, I used to tend to write when I was in a dark mood so that I could wrap my brain around something, or feel some kind of release by singing it out loud. I definitely have a ton of songs that were written for my ears only… But I think exercises like that are super important. It’s like journaling; very therapeutic. As I have been living in Nashville and co-writing like crazy, I have learned to write whenever, but it’s like any other muscle; if you use it, it gets stronger.
I feel like Sinead O’Connor’s brave admission on Facebook last week divided the world into two camps: Those who had empathy, and then those who had empathy but had also been there themselves. Do you feel something similar when you’re writing songs or speaking about mental health and addiction?
There’s definitely a difference between supporting mental health issues and talking about your own issues. But both have tremendous value and really just depend on your own personal comfort level. I have always been open about supporting mental health, however, I haven’t always been open about my own issues and struggles. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of it that I was able to look back and really start to talk about it.
Did coming out as a lesbian contribute to your struggles with your mental health?
I have had a relatively easy time with my sexuality compared to some people I know. I definitely think that being gay, regardless of how open your home environment is, still presents certain struggles and issues because of the way society has isolated those issues, but overall I have been lucky.
As a massive supporter for NAMI (the National Alliance of Mental Illness) you have done quite a bit of volunteering for them. How have you helped and what would you say to somebody who might want to get involved in helping or giving a little of their time?
NAMI is amazing! There are so many organizations out there to get involved in. Honestly just showing up at mental health awareness events is the best thing you can do if you’re just getting started. You can dip your toes in the water and see if you want to be more hands on.
Is it true you set up a private Facebook page where people could go to talk about their struggles and get the support they might not have? That’s pretty cool. Can you tell us more about it?
Thank you. Yes, there were a lot of people sending messages and writing comments and talking to each other and I wanted all of us to have a place where we can communicate with each other, or just share our stories or daily inspirations. I also benefit from having the support and having the discussions in my life. The comments and discussions inspire me in ways I’ll never be able to describe. So, it’s for them, but it’s also for me!
“I was heavy into self-medication. I didn’t love myself, but I wanted to.”
Growing up in Chicago, what led you to Nashville?
I got a record deal when I was in college and just straight up dropped out! Music has always been my passion so I just went for it. I have very supportive parents and they have been with me all the way.
The tone of your voice is definitely what I picture when I think “Nashville.” You smash out of the box with a radio-friendly pop vibe that feels warm. Did you decide how you wanted your music to sound, or is that how it came out?
I’ve always written pop-ish-soul music. I think Nashville is often labeled as a country town, which it predominantly is, however, there is a TON of pop, alternative, and rock and roll.
Your latest track, “Dopamine,” was released this month. What inspired this track? Is there a story to it?
I met the love of my life two years ago and it changed everything for me. I think that when you find the right person you can overcome a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. I was heavy into self-medication and some pretty hard stuff for a while there; I didn’t love myself, but I wanted to. It’s still a struggle sometimes and I am still learning a lot about love and self-love. It took a long time to get here, and a long time to be able to write that song, so I’m kind of proud of that one in particular.
[on other people’s stories] “They inspire me in ways I’ll never be able to describe.
Will ‘Freaks Like Me.’ coming out soon? When can we get our hands on it?
It’s coming this fall!
With “Dopamine” now in the public domain and the album on the verge of coming out, what’s the next step for Daphne Willis? Are you going to ride the wind for a bit and see where it takes you?
Thank you! Hell yes! I am loving the road right now and will be playing a ton of shows this fall. We’ll see where it takes me!