In the Internet wasteland of YouTube covers, it takes a brave voice to cover the music of Stevie Nicks and remain in the spotlight long enough to tell the tale. But big-name acts never scared singer-songwriter Dana Williams. When she wasn’t attending class at the Tisbury School, she practically grew up in concert venues, while her father, the late David Williams, toured with the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Ms. Williams took the stage herself in the fourth grade, performing behind Jay-Z in the chorus of “Hard Knock Life” (sampled from the score of “Annie”). “I always wanted to be on Broadway, and I loved ‘Annie,’ so I was really excited because I already knew all the words,” Ms. Williams said.
It wasn’t long before Ms. Williams took up the guitar, inspired by the songs she wrote with her father. “He would play a guitar part, and I’d write little melodies and lyrics over it,” Ms. Williams said. “He taught me a lot about musical structure.”
Now 25, Ms. Williams has come into her own as a musician, writing music, playing venues around her base city of Los Angeles, and lighting up the Internet with viral videos like her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” Her first EP, “The Lonely One,” dropped in March 2014, and her second is planned for September.
Most recently she performed at last weekend’s Martha’s Vineyard Sound Festival, and on Friday she’ll grace the stage at Alex’s Place at the YMCA as part of its summer music series.
With a voice that is at once bright and sultry, Ms. Williams emulates her childhood heroes Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Her songwriting, however, leans more in the direction of folk idols like Carole King. The result is a fusion of classic genres that Ms. Williams describes as “kind of a soulful, jazzy folk music.”
All these years Ms. Williams has been singing, the world has been listening. Last August, Ms. Williams was a finalist on the ABC television show “Rising Star.” “It was really intense,” Ms. Williams said. “But a great learning experience, and a lot of fun spending the summer performing for the whole country.” Was it stressful having a panel of superstars judge every performance? Sure, Ms. Williams said, but not as stressful as knowing any mistakes you made in a live performance would live forever online. “As an artist, you’re always going to be judged for anything you do,” she said. “The important part is to keep working hard and not give up.”
Ms. Williams may not have walked away with the “Rising Star” title, but she certainly made her voice heard. Last holiday season, she worked with legendary producer T Bone Burnett on an Apple commercial called “The Song,” which would have melted the Grinch’s heart if the Whos had failed. “He [Mr. Burnett] is so encouraging, it makes you feel confident about the work, because he’s been doing it for so long,” Ms. Williams said. “It reminds you that there’s no one way to do something.”
It’s clear from Ms. Williams’ career that she hasn’t taken one definite path with her musical style. She’s sung the hooks on hip-hop tracks with Freddie Gibbs, and penned heartfelt ballads like “Keep Me Waiting,” which was featured in the 2014 Oscar-winning film “Whiplash.”
A quick visit to Ms. Williams’ YouTube channel unearths a goldmine of cover songs, many of which feature her old schoolmate, singer-actress Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl” fame. After graduating from college, Ms. Williams said the friends “realized we had similar musical sensibilities, and [Ms. Meester] took me under her wing on tour.” It was Ms. Meester who suggested the cover of “Dreams” over dinner one evening; the video has since received over 3 million YouTube views.
That kind of social media notoriety is something Ms. Williams is learning to embrace. “Sometimes it’s scary,” Ms. Williams said about the permanence of a video on the web. “But at the end of the day, you can’t please everyone. As long as it’s something I’m proud of, I’m OK.
“More and more, I’m starting to use the Internet as a sharing vessel. I’m finally tapping into it and appreciating it,” Ms. Williams said.
The YouTube community seems to appreciate Ms. Williams right back. Commenters have called for a Williams-Meester joint album, and are beginning to connect the dots between Ms. Williams’ work with Ms. Meester, Mr. Gibbs, on “Rising Star,” and on “Whiplash.” Those dots draw a line toward a very promising future.
Right now, Ms. Williams says her greatest success is just “continuing to believe in myself. It can be really discouraging to be any kind of artist, and a lot of people quit and give up their dream. My biggest feat as an artist is just being an artist.”
Dana Williams performs at the Base at Alex’s Place, YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard, in Oak Bluffs on Friday, July 17, at 8 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance from dana.brownpapertickets.com, or $20 at the door the day of the show. For more information, contact Tony Lombardi at firstname.lastname@example.org.