Photo: Didier ChevalierDafni's mother tells a story that sounds like something out of a fable. When Dafni's grandmother would sing in the hills around her home in Samos, Greece, her beautiful voice was so compelling that the villagers would stop what they were doing and listen. When the Italians invaded during World War II, Dafni's grandfather went into hiding because he was in the resistance. His wife was also in danger, but an Italian soldier was so taken with her singing that he hid her from the authorities.
This musical talent lives on in Dafni, whom a friend called "the little girl with a big voice." She embodies many contrasts, beyond that first, most obvious one. A writer of heartbreaking songs, she is also a doctor of chemistry. A haunter of late night dive bars, she exercises two hours a day. A polite Midwesterner, her drive rivals that of any other dreamer who strikes out for the West Coast. In Sweet Time, Dafni's most personal album to date, she takes a conscious look at her past, her relationships and various facets of her personality.
Dafni grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and first realized that she wanted to sing as a child while watching The Wizard of Oz. In fact, she cried at the end of the movie because there wasn't any more. Soon, she was picking out tunes on a toy piano and later on her godmother's organ. An involved music teacher taught her the French horn (the school concert band had too many flutes – Dafni's first choice) and encouraged her to write an original composition. He was the first to tell her she had musical talent, which was a great motivation. An even more common motivation – a crush on a boy – led her to take up bass in her high school's jazz band.
As she was gaining a basis in classical music and jazz, Dafni was also pursuing an interest in science, first studying psychology in Chicago, then pre-med at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She switched majors again after falling in love with the bane of most med students' existence: organic chemistry. She found in science an inspiration similar to that which she found in music – a sense of elegant order with the opportunity to be creative in discovering new ways of doing things. As she worked chemistry problems – which she liked to do at the library while listening to live opera from the Met – her heart would beat fast with excitement, the same way it did when writing a song.
While pursuing her doctorate in chemistry at UCLA, Dafni's musical career progressed through a combination of hard work and serendipity. Her first original songs were performed on piano at Madison's student bar, the Rathskeller. When the event moved outside for the summer, she taught herself guitar. In Los Angeles, when her guitar teacher couldn't go with her to an open mike, she hopped in a cab (she's one of the few in L.A. who doesn't drive) and went alone, managing to book a future 45-minute gig – which led to some hustling because, at the time, she only had five songs! Several years later, she met her current bandmates through a chance encounter at a bus stop with the music booker of her local farmers market. (Really, she doesn't drive.) After sharing the market's stage with the Richard Glaser Trio, a jazz ensemble, she eventually convinced the rhythm section – Mark San Filippo on drums and Geoff Rakness on bass – to play in her combo as well. Peter Kavanaugh has since joined them by on lead guitar. "Geoff and Mark have been playing with me for almost five years and Peter now for two," says Dafni. "I feel so blessed to have them in my band; I adore these guys! I've learned so much from them over the years, and we're more cohesive than ever."
Photo: Didier ChevalierDafni quickly became a familiar face in L.A.'s Americana scene, performing her heartfelt songs – combining country, jazz and pop – accompanied by her adept fingerstyle guitar playing, with various friends sitting in on a range of instruments, including Latin-inspired guitar, accordion, fiddle, banjo, piano, and trumpet. She is particularly grateful to the regulars of the Cinema Bar, the heart of the scene, who have been generous with their help and encouragement and inspiring with their music. An avid runner, she says that, as in a race, she looks up to the top performers there as her role models. "The Cinema is like a hidden treasure here in L.A.," says Dafni. "It's amazing how many top-notch musicians play there." Among her wider influences, Dafni cites Anita O'Day, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone, as well as, more surprisingly, artists like The Police, Radiohead, and her hero, Jimmy Page. She also admires local indie darlings like Gwendolyn and Eleni Mandell for their songwriting, drive, and strong self-belief.
In recognition of her own expanding sense of confidence as an artist, Dafni wanted her new album to be more personal than the three that came before it [Red (2004), Drifting in Circles (2005), and Charlie's Lonely Sunday (2007)], drawing mostly from real life as opposed to disguising her experiences in fictional tales. In Sweet Time, she explores moments from her past, her marriage and her family. The catchy and enchanting Anything at All, centered around Dafni's delayed guitar drone and peppered with Kavanaugh's graceful interludes, is inspired by her feelings toward her husband, and describes that wonderful moment of first realizing complete comfort with another person. "We used to joke in the band that it was our 'Conan O'Brien song,' the one that would get us on the Tonight Show; maybe there is still hope, one way or the other!" The title track, Sweet Time, deals with a runaway's torment: whether or not to reconcile with the people she left behind. And Under the Blue Skies deals with a search for a personal heaven.
One new experience for Dafni in the recording of Sweet Time was having someone other than herself or the engineer take over the producer's reins. She chose her friend Dan Janisch because, in addition to admiring his musicianship, she loves the way he thinks about music. "Dan is a free and spontaneous soul. I knew he was the one to ask after he played guitar with us one night at the Cinema; even his wrong notes sounded good! He sings and plays straight from his heart, and he sounds absolutely beautiful. I trust him a great deal and I needed someone like that, external to the band, making the decisions in the studio." Janisch plays the lead guitar parts on Floating, an OK Computer–inspired song about escaping to a meditative state, and Fly Away, a melodic lullaby that contrasts with a bleak lyric about feeling trapped. He also sings backing vocals and harmonies on the record along with Lisa Finnie, a top-notch chanteuse and songwriter in her own right.
Rounding out the contributors to the album are Michael Bolger and Tony Gilkyson. Bolger played piano, trumpet and accordion and can be heard on the title track, the New Orleans–style gospel Save Me, and the sprightly Under the Blue Skies. "Mike's a true musician and he plays just about everything; talk about role models! He can even play piano and trumpet at the same time – I've seen him do it with my own eyes!" Gilkyson, a veteran of the L.A. punk, country, and roots scenes, added his tasty licks to Under the Blue Skies in addition to the bittersweet country waltz, Part of Me, and the rebetika-inspired Oh, How I Wish. "It was an honor to have Tony play on my record; he's my guitar hero. He has a style that's all his own, and it's drop-dead gorgeous. He can play a single note and it stands out. I think if I were blindfolded and put into a room with Tony and 20 other guitar players I would be able to pick out his parts."
Photo: Didier ChevalierIn advance of hitting the studio, the arrangements of almost all of the songs were worked out with her band through a few rehearsals and many live performances. "When I have a new song I usually introduce it at practice; we play it through a few times and then take it apart. Geoff – we call him the 'The Wolfman' – is a true master at arranging and always brings a lot to the table." The eleven tracks on Sweet Time were recorded and mixed by Dennis Moody, a well-respected audio engineer in the L.A. jazz scene, in his Cypress Park studio. "Besides being a great person, there are a lot of perks to working with Dennis: He has a great studio with a beautiful grand piano, he's very efficient at what he does, and his studio is walking distance from El Atacor #11, which has some of the yummiest tacos I've ever eaten!"
The album, Sweet Time, is dedicated to Dafni's grandmother, who died in 2009. In addition to her legendary voice, she raised four children by herself after her husband's death and worked as a tailor up until the end. Her grandmother's strength and aversion to fuss have remained an inspiration to Dafni, who hopes that she has inherited at least some of this work ethic and humility. And perhaps some vocal talent.