He’s a bit of an enigma. Light-hearted, yet intense. Youthful, yet old school. Although David Oliver Willis is the first to recognize he needs to be more disciplined in some areas of his life, the charismatic singer-songwriter is rock-steady when it comes to his faith and speaking up on social issues.
The two-time American Idol contestant was born in Eustis and attended Mount Dora public schools before aggressively pursuing his career in music. He met his wife, Olivia, a talented singer-songwriter in her own right, while the two were in science class at Mount Dora High. Olivia wasn’t immediately impressed, but after their first cup of tea at her home, she realized the class clown was actually a deep-thinking old soul. Willis graduated in 2009 and Olivia the following year. The couple have been married six years and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Selah Mae, their first child, in March.
Selah’s childhood will starkly contrast her father’s. Willis was put in foster care as an infant along with his two siblings. Before he was nine months of age, the kids were placed in their third foster home with Hattie and Oliver Willis. Listening to the older couple’s extensive collection of soul, gospel and country music records became young Willis’ favorite thing. The hardships written in the music’s lyrics paralleled his own life experiences and resonated with him. It is that deep place where much of Willis’ soulful artistry comes from. Years later, Hattie and Oliver were able to legally adopt David.
While Willis was in high school, Ruth King and Richard Lawrence, more experienced local musicians, helped to guide his early career with advice he still values today.
These days, Willis, who turns 27 this month, plays gigs in Orlando and in his tight community of Mount Dora, Tavares and Eustis. Besides getting booked as a solo artist or with his trio, Willis organizes a weekly open mic night and regularly sings at his church.
Above: Singer-songwriter Olivia Willis
Mount Dora Buzz sat with with David and Olivia and put him in the hot seat to dig a little deeper into this enterprising musician.
MDB: You bring intense soul to your music; where does that come from? DOW: I was raised by older wolves and I always had a stronger liking to songs with a story. (His mother, Hattie, is now 73)
MDB: What genre would you put your music in and what other artists are in there with you? DOW: Alternative folk soul. Amos Lee, Ben Harper.
MDB: What song do you wish you had the vocal ability to sing? DOW:(Quickly responding) Bohemian Rhapsody.
MDB: How do you pick your cover songs? DOW: Relativity and tone that match and whether there is space for creativity in the song. Songs I can re-imagine.
MDB: What artists are your biggest musical inspiration? DOW: Nina Simone & Ray Charles.
MDB: If you could go backstage at any concert, which would it be? DOW: Aretha Franklin at her 1968 Amsterdam concert; well actually I’d rather be backstage with Nina Simone in 1976.
MDB: What did your experience on American Idol teach you about yourself? DOW: It taught me to stay true to myself and also to always put my best performance forward.
MBD: What can we expect from you musically in the next couple of years? DOW: Olivia and I are planning on a stripped down duo album with very little production and I have a new project I’m working on called “The Backsliders” which is a fusion of blues, gospel and soul.
MDB: What do you like in a venue? DOW: I like a venue that has a really cool character and warmth. I like intimate venues more than anything. Technically, it’s lighting, sound and acoustics. Eustis’ State Theatre is still my all-time favorite venue. Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan is another.
MDB: What’s the biggest professional difference between you now and age 20? DOW: I’m full-time music, baby. That’s big. (flashing a relieved smile). I don’t have to clock in. Lord, I thank you. That’s huge.
MDB: What’s the biggest personal difference between you now and age 20? DOW: When I was 20, most things I did were for appeasing someone else. 26-year old Dave does what resonates with Dave.
MDB: What’s your best childhood memory? DOW:(Immediately responding) I was standing at Lake County Courthouse at nine years old and the judge told me, “These are now your forever parents.” Second best was getting a “Woody” toy from Toy Story.
MDB: What’s your favorite city? DOW: That a hard question, there are so many. I like Santa Monica and Savannah; the food and the people.
MDB: Where’s your happy place? DOW: Hmmm. My happy place is home. Well, actually forget that. Put me on a dock. If I have a fishing reel and a little bit of bait, I’m happy.
MDB: What are three words that describe you? DOW: I’m outgoing, giving, a procrastinator.
MDB: Olivia, what are three words to describe David? Olivia: Deep, there’s a lot of different caves. Unpredictable and big-hearted.
MDB: How do you want to be described in five years? DOW:(Excitedly) Prompt, organized, (they both laugh) and consistent. Those are my three biggest pushes to be.
MDB: There is always a calming force. What’s yours? DOW: Music, prayer and prayer.
MDB: Favorite guilty pleasure? DOW: (Laughing) I don’t have a lot of guilt.
MDB: Greatest personal strength? DOW: My thumbs are triple-jointed. (After much thought) Resilience.
Next David was put through the frivolous speed round of “Would you Rather…”
Above: Singer-songwriter Jeff Whitfield (left) with David Oliver Willis (right)
Be the smartest person or funniest? DOW: Funniest. Sing like Freddie Mercury or play guitar like Hendrix? DOW: Mercury. Chef or server? DOW: Chef.
Shout or whisper? DOW: Shout (Olivia laughs). Whiskey or wine? DOW: Whiskey. Fried catfish or Sushi? DOW: Catfish with mustard. Shot out of cannon or head in lion’s mouth? DOW: Lion’s mouth.
Steak or veggies? DOW: Steak. Submarine or space ship ? DOW: Submarine. Pinot or pilsner? DOW: Grigio or noir? Pinot Noir, I’ll take it. Indoors or outdoors? DOW: Outdoors. Live 100 years in past or future? DOW: Past. Sprint or stroll? DOW: Stroll. Diet or exercise? DOW: Diet (laughs). Read or write? DOW: Write. Dinsosaur or unicorn DOW: Dinosaur. But, unicorns can fly though. Olivia: But, dinosaurs are dead. “Ring of Fire” or “This Girl Is on Fire”? DOW: “Ring of Fire.”