Vaughn Willis Has Been "Sitting In" Since He Was a Toddler

Willis on stage.
Willis on stage. Martez Cornilius
In Pound For The Sound, Phoenix New Times gets technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature style.

Ear Candy's Vaughn Willis, a.k.a. SWIF (Sing What I Feel), is Phoenix rhythm and blues. He's a hard-working musician day in and day out, and his music and performance schedule certainly attest to that.

Willis has been a lifelong musician. At age 4, he started playing harmonica with the encouragement of his father, a blues harmonica player by trade. They would jam around the house and he even "sat in" with his dad's bands as a child. Willis graduated to acoustic guitar at age 19.

The musician arrived in the Valley in 2005 by way of Detroit. He moved here with his family when he was 21, but he didn't plan on calling Phoenix home. Willis loved living in Michigan at the time and after some serious spiritual meditation, he agreed to give this city a shot. And what a great decision it turned out to be for him.

Flash forward to the present, and Willis is a pro. He spent time building his chops here in the Valley. The guitarist was a Mill Avenue street performer, an open mic night regular, a member of Universoul, and a player in cover groups. Now, he's working on more original music as SWIF and Ear Candy, and performing regularly at several local establishments like Casa Blanca Lounge, Kazimierz, and Michael's at Park Central.

Vaughn, and the rest of the Ear Candy crew, have a post-Turkey Day performance this Saturday at GypsyBar in downtown Phoenix. Luckily, New Times was able to squeeze some words in with Willis about premiering his new SWIF track, being "in the band" as kid, and his upcoming performances.

New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?
Vaughn Willis: The “secret weapon” of my sound is my family. I come from a family of singers and musicians, so I hear the influence of both my parents in my tone. I also love to mimic and impersonate different voices. So, depending on the song, my tone and delivery may change.

What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?

I really love my new Valeton Dapper guitar pedal. I have never had a pedal before, so when I get a chance to do a guitar solo now, I can’t wait to add some distortion, overdrive, and delay or reverb to give it a more “epic” sound.

Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
My Ovation Celebrity is the most special to me because it was my first guitar and it was a brand-new anonymous gift. To this day, I don’t know who bought this guitar for me.

My second most special piece of gear is my Ibanez Artcore. It’s not my favorite guitar, but it was my first electric guitar, and it was purchased with gift cards that were given to me at the home of former NFL quarterback, Kurt Warner. Some of the players used to get together to have Bible study, and I was the worship leader for their time of worship. Near the end of the regular season, the guys were exchanging gifts at Mr. Warner’s house. They presented me with gift cards to get new, much-needed gear!

Just listened to your new SWIF track “I Just Wanna.” Great song and pumped to be premiering it here. Really loved the early '90s harmonies, gritty guitar, and the trap-style beats. What was your process in composing the song?
Thank you! I was actually at work on a break when I started humming the melody for the chorus. Sometimes, I just hear melodies, so I hum them and they stick with me. Then, I started singing lyrics that felt like they would go with the melody. I wrote the chorus at my desk once I returned to work and hummed the melody until my lunch break.

I took my guitar to work with me every day, so on my lunch break, I took my guitar to the parking garage on Southern and Priest, and started playing the chords that went with my melody. I was in that garage singing loud and proud! The verses of the song was written over time.

You had said that, when you were little, your father took you to clubs and put you on stage with his bands playing harmonica unplugged, your first musical love. How did those experiences help shape the musician you are today?
Yes, those times with my dad undoubtedly had a major impact on my natural inclination to want to be on stage. We are very different musicians. He loves to practice to get better at his craft and I...I just like playing music! But my dad was and still is my hero; so being a musician has always been about being like him to some extent.

Ear Candy has a show coming up on Saturday, November 25, at GypsyBar Phoenix. Anything you wish to share with fans about your upcoming performance?
Yes! We perform at the Gypsy Bar/Lucky Strike every Sunday from 5 until 8 p.m. It is family-friendly, so bring the kids out and get ready for a great time. We do live R&B! Happy hour is from 3 to 7. There is a game room, dance floor, bowling alley ... and the family vibe is unmatched in the Valley.

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Henri Benard
Contact: Henri Benard