The process of reconnecting with oneself can alchemize from reading your childhood journal or slipping your hand into a tiny tap shoe you wore prancing at a dance recital or across the kitchen floor. These keepsakes, this stuff – are integral parts of ourselves and the imaginary spaces we inhabit when we’re still learning how to exist. We evolve into adults but the ages that exist within us – and the keepsakes we hold onto – live forever. We find creativity through our ability to access these years, and the self confidence that comes with the empire of childhood.
Dana William’s visual for her latest single “Stuff” gives us a peek into these sacred childhood spaces. A younger version of the singer-songwriter introduces herself, proudly announcing that her name is Dana Williams, and she is five years old. Her tiny hands are poised sophisticatedly behind her back, embodying the exuberance and charisma of a ’90s game show contestant; the emotive eyes of a Precious Moments doll, both vulnerable and full of wonder, light up her face. The visual intersperses home videos like these through introspective imagery of modern-day Williams poised gracefully in a brightly lit breakfast nook, writing lyrics with a mug of black coffee, an overflowing bowl of fresh lemons on the table, and her lush California garden right outside.
“Selecting imagery of myself as a child serves as a reminder to be kinder to myself,” Williams explains. “It reminds me of the passion I felt that drove me to become an artist and it also serves as a reminder of where I came from.”
Later, as she sprawls beneath her bookshelves, Williams sets the tone for an existential, hip-moving lullaby: “I can’t find myself/I placed it on the highest shelf/With the rest of the stuff.” She invites her listeners into a deeply personal inner monologue, expressing universal emotions of self doubt, and a declaration of uncertainty. “Stuff” surveys a deeply personal journey inward, and creates a safe space to wash away the shame associated with losing ourselves in periods of distraction. It sheds the gift of honesty, a song to have on repeat for anyone in the process of inner spiritual work, of gaining access to one’s higher self, often so hard to reach amidst the clutter of our daily lives. With her warm vocal, Williams urges herself (and by extension, the listener) to keep going: “Maybe I’ll keep trying/maybe I’ll keep wrestling the wind/maybe I’ll keep lying to myself/in this life of sin.”
In an era where we’re quick to associate streaming numbers to relevance and equity in our long term career goals, it’s easy to lose track of our talents and abilities as our passion and joy. “I think that the song is really about what I’ve went through over the last year. I just feel like I had to really find myself again creatively. I feel like my identity was put on the back burner for other people’s expectations,” Willaims says. “I disregarded my well-being and creative sensibilities for an outlet as if it were an object. And then it just made me feel like I lost myself with the rest of the stuff. That’s why the word came into play. I felt like I was just so separate from who I was that I had to sort of refine it and rediscover who I was.” Through the creation and release of “Stuff,” Williams was able to override this uncertainty, and share the wisdom, resiliency, and defiance involved in reclaiming her inner artist as she continues her musical journey.
It’s no wonder Williams felt inhibited by external expectations. Within a year of booking her first show, Williams released her debut EP The Lonely One, whose opening track, “Keep Me Waiting,” earned the distinction of being the only original vocal composition featured in Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning film Whiplash. After delivering her sophomore EP Let’s Fall in 2015, she switched her focus to consistently releasing stand-alone singles; these include “Silly Words,” “Holiday,” “Do No Harm,” and “Hard,” many of them released alongside the acoustic demos, giving listeners a peak into her songwriting process. She’s gained accolades from various publications, including Idolator, who named her one of 40 Artists To Watch In 2020. She appeared as a featured artist alongside Aminé on Rejjie Snow’s “Egyptian Luvr” — a January 2018 single that’s garnered over 40 million streams to date – and was recently a guest performer on H.E.R.’s Girls With Guitars IG Live show (other guests have included Lianne La Havas, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Chloe x Halle, Willow Smith, Allesia Cara and more).
She also participated in the short-lived reality series Rising Star in 2014, getting a taste of the pressures that come with being in the public eye. The show, similar to American Idol or The Voice, approached Williams based on covers she’d uploaded to YouTube, and Williams embraced the mass exposure, coming in fourth place on series. “It did feel surreal,” she says. But rather than hole up in a cramped hotel room with the other contestants, Williams talked producers into letting her stay in her own L.A. home during filming, which she says was grounding. “I reasoned with them, and said, ‘I live in L.A., I’m not going to go AWOL, I promise you I will always be on time, I will always be where I need to be,’ and they said sure. I think that was what really kept me from being too stressed out and anxious. I would just go home, hang out with my dogs, and practice my songs.”
The ease of her tonality and the naturalness of her musical abilities likely stem from growing up in a musical family. Through direct mentorship of her father, the late touring and session guitarist Dave Williams (who worked on iconic songs like Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back,” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) Dana had the privilege of naturally evolving into the musician she is today. “People always ask me, ‘At what point did you realize you wanted to make music?’ And it’s like, well, I just always have and it’s something that’s just a part of me.” Williams says. “One thing I would say that frustrates me, is when people say things like ‘Oh, you’re going to be so famous.’ The point of making music isn’t to be famous. I literally just love making music, and if people like it, then that’s awesome. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t making music – it’s such an important outlet for me.”
Given her father’s success as a guitarist, writer, and producer, picking up the guitar came more naturally to Williams than other instruments she’d played. Her father propelled her into the studio by guiding her through his own songwriting approach. “He would write a track, bring it home, and sort of taught me how to top line,” Williams recalls. She loved writing poetry and had been introduced to big book standards early on by her maternal grandmother, who was a jazz singer. With her father mapping out song structure, Williams became enamored of the songwriting process. “I was just like, spending my free time top-lining his tracks and sometimes if they were good, he would record them. So that’s how I started writing. And then when I got a little bit older, 12 or 13, I thought it would be so cool to create a song entirely on my own without his track.”
Williams went on to attend Sarah Lawrence, where she studied both classical guitar and poetry. “I would say that my biggest creative takeaway from college would be just being able to have those years to read and write a lot of poetry. I participated in a lot of the poetry festivals, reading my poems, and just honing my craft,” she says. Williams’ interdisciplinary approach and strong familial music background resonate in her grounded, modest, and gracious demeanor as an artist.
And yet, despite Williams’ strong foundation, she was almost swept away by influencer expectations that put artists at the risk of objectifying their own talents and compartmentalizing themselves as content creators. Writing “Stuff” helped her avoid that, and emerge with some sage advice for young women in the music industry: believe in your craft, be persistent, and stay true to yourself. “Social media is a double-edged sword,” she warns. “I think it’s important for self promotion. I also think it’s important to be yourself on it, stay active, and create a dialogue. It’s an interesting way to let people in to see who you are outside of your music. But it’s important to step back and realize that Instagram is not reality.”