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Cover photo: Vishal Malhotra Cover design: Louis Dixon

At the Armoury D&E in Dallas recently, the folk-pop duo Danni & Kris had set up just outside the bar, on a small corner stage facing the audience. Christmas lights curled their way up trees and shone yellow and blue hues on the faces of the singers and their drummer. Kris Williams sported an electric guitar next to Danni Nordan’s acoustic. Listeners settled at picnic tables with their drinks and camera-phones ready.

When I felt the first pelt of rain hit my camera bag, I immediately turned to look at Nordan and Williams. They had stowed their instruments under a tarp and were waiting. People had left the picnic tables and huddled under a little patch of roof over raked seating at the back of the patio. The rain stopped about half an hour later, and I watched as Danni & Kris’ singing and playing pulled audience members back out of the bar to the patio again. You couldn’t find a dry seat, but people were braving wetting their jeans or crowding in standing room to watch.

The guy sitting next to me pointed to Williams onstage and said, “Her guitar is tight.” He started tapping the rhythm of the music with his hands on the table. I scanned the crowd, counting at least 50 people in a tight space, five cell phones recording videos, and two dancing couples. As Nordan and Williams tuned their guitars and introduced their next song, a guy in the back yelled, “Yeah! You guys are great!”

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The band played covers and originals. The guy whose hand had been pounding the table turned to me before the night was over. “They’re good,” he said. “You better tell them that they’re good.”

One of the other members of our table fished cash out of his wallet and walked up to the stage, draping the bill over the amp in front of the performers, who thanked him and pulled out a little tip bucket to place it in.

“I think Kris and Danni harmonize really well together,” said Doug Bardoff, a Danni & Kris fan who’d come specifically to see them that night. He kept pulling out his cellphone to show me their videos on YouTube. “And they have an electric vibe that is contagious, and the whole audience feels it.”

The band’s booking agent, Ken Welker, agrees. 

“They know how to own a stage more so than a lot of folks do,” said Welker, founder of the booking agency 13th Floor Music.

Welker said Nordan and Williams stand out among the usual acts he books in North Texas: “They have contemporary influences as well, which is much more so than the majority of folks I work with. They appreciate and are into current pop, and that’s reflected in their song selections, how they’ve crafted their original tunes, and then even some of the covers that they do.”

The rock-influenced sound at their concerts diverges from the coffeehouse singer-songwriter vibes of Mountain Sounds, Danni & Kris’ first and only album. Yet, for Nordan and Williams, evolution in their music was gradual. They just didn’t have anything to show for it, they said. It wasn’t until 2018 that their newest single, “Into You,” gave fans a taste of their evolved sound, which features the production work of Geoff Rockwell out of Wavelight Studios.

A new sound for Danni & Kris wasn’t the only product of Nordan and Williams’ collaboration with Rockwell. On January 11, Nordan and Williams surprised their fans with the Instagram announcement of PRIZM, a project they’ve been recording with Rockwell for the past eight months, Williams said. 

As PRIZM, Nordan, Williams, and Rockwell have written and released three new songs, obtained music licenses for those songs from Musicbed in Fort Worth, and explored a genre change from indie-pop to electro-pop. PRIZM songs involve heavier production than Danni & Kris songs and echo the ’80s nostalgia of synthesizers and pulsing drum beats. They play their first PRIZM show on April 13 at Three Links in Dallas.

Listeners won’t hear PRIZM songs teased at their Danni & Kris concerts because they want to keep the bands separate, Williams said. 

“You don’t have to be in just one band,” she said, adding that they laid rough tracks for new Danni & Kris material in December. On March 8, they’ll play as Danni & Kris at a South by Southwest event hosted by the mayor of Fort Worth and Hear Fort Worth, a city-supported campaign to showcase the musical talent in our backyard.

Releasing songs as a separate band from their namesake indie-pop duo was a gamble, their booking agent said. Originally, PRIZM was a vehicle for them to license new songs and for Rockwell to record his own album of mixed music that would feature their vocals, Rockwell said. But after their release of PRIZM songs on all music platforms, they couldn’t ignore the response from fans. Williams said after they announced PRIZM on Instagram, her phone was “blowing up” with notifications. They received requests to play PRIZM shows, and they knew they had to record more songs. 

Welker heard some demos that Williams had brought him. 

“I tried to go into it with an open mind, not expecting too much, and it just totally blew me away,” he said. “It’s incredibly catchy, and I just love it.”

He said he urged Williams and Nordan to reveal the music to their fans: “When I heard it, I was like, ‘You can’t keep this quiet. It would be a shame if you kept this hidden.’ ”

Listeners seem to be enjoying the rockier, more pop-infused sound of Danni & Kris concerts post-release of Mountain Sounds, so giving fans more of this sound while dipping into the retro wave synth movement popularized today by shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things, could pay off, Welker said. 

For Nordan and Williams, the pop sound isn’t that different from what they grew up listening to. Before learning to play the guitar, Nordan said she would write to video game theme music. Williams said she and Nordan were both obsessed with Avril Lavigne. “I wanted to play guitar and be like her,” Williams said.  

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Photo by Vishal Malhotra.

Nordan and Williams lived in the same subdivision and played with the same neighborhood friends for years in North Fort Worth before they made their inaugural recording, the EP Daydream (released in 2015), and 2017’s Mountain Sounds. They picked up their first guitars around the same time, Williams at age 15 and Nordan at 13. I interviewed the band as we sipped coffees and hot teas, talking about how they met and how they’ve grown since then. Both played in church bands, where they learned to overcome stage fright, they said. In Williams’ childhood bedroom, she developed stories of heartbreak before she’d ever had a boyfriend. Nordan described playing make-believe and dreaming up songs of relationships. They drew inspiration from classic rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and female pop artists like Lavigne.

“It was Mom that got to hear the first songs, you know,” Danni recalled. “You go downstairs, ‘Hey, Mom. I wrote a new song.’ And you play it for her, and she’s like, ‘Oh, wow. This is so good,’ and she asks you to play for her friends. When you start to think that you’re really good at something and you enjoy it, I think that’s when a passion is born to want to pursue it as more of a career.”

Williams had seen Nordan’s videos of playing and singing on Facebook and reached out. 

“It wasn’t until she was 20, I was 22, that I sent her a message on Facebook,” Williams said. “I, at that time, had never really met another girl who sang and played guitar and was talented, like had a talent that I was drawn to.”

Williams found the screenshot of her original Facebook message to Nordan: “We should get together sometime and jam.”

They rode to a Christmas party in Williams’ car together, singing to pop artists like Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry. 

“Once we were in the car together, it was like instant best friends,” Williams said.

Williams invited Nordan to her house, where they recorded their first YouTube video of Williams’ original song “Dance, Dance, Dance” in 2012.

“It was just so easy for us to harmonize together,” Nordan recalled. “And even now we’re just so in sync with each other with harmonies and just singing together in general.”

The duo sang for two years before recording Daydream, featuring the first song they wrote together, “Brand New Boyfriend.” Imagery of romantic love permeates songs like “Shadow,” with depictions of a “red jacket zipped up to your ears” and “the mold of your face pressed to my pillow.” Similar imagery bleeds through the crooning vocals and subtle guitar picking on Mountain Sounds, which they recorded two years before it was released.

Mountain Sounds incorporates some spur-of-the-moment sounds, from the uncorking of a wine bottle on the song “Stay” to crickets chirping in the background of other tracks — proof that Nordan and Williams recorded their songs in a cabin in the woods. Nestled in California’s Sequoia Forest, Nordan and Williams wrote and recorded songs and lived off veggie grilled cheese sandwiches and spinach-and-pineapple smoothies for nearly a week, they said. At one point, they hiked for five miles and found themselves singing inside a hollow Sequoia tree. They allowed nature to course through their lyrics. Songs like “Yesterday” expose a vulnerability and a longing for childhood, as Nordan starts the song off, “Yesterday, I was a young kid playing / In my backyard, always daydreaming / I miss the house that I grew up in.”

After that cabin trip, Mountain Sounds took two years of mixing and mastering. 

“We had already changed so much in those two years,” Williams said. “So we were really happy to be putting out the project and for people to hear it, but it was almost a little too late for us in our hearts.”

Williams told me the album reflected their early 20s, but now that they’re nearing their 30s, they’re looking to move past the singer-songwriter coffeehouse tone.

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Last year, Danni & Kris released “Into You,” a song with more of an electro-pop influence. Traveling across Texas, they also play with a full band – drummer Mason Grimes, keyboardist Courtlin Murphy, and bassist Chike Okaro – to showcase their Fleetwood Mac tribute, Little Lies. Nordan said she’s encouraged by responsive audiences who appreciate their rockier, more pop-infused sound at Danni & Kris concerts.

“It’s very edifying,” Nordan said. “It’s a lot of work, you know, and it takes a certain baring of your soul to play music in front of people. And, to me, it’s extremely gratifying to see people enjoying it and actually listening or dancing or just having a good time and vibing with what you’re doing.”

She said they’ve told specific people before: “Your energy kept us going through the show.” 

Nordan and Williams have released only three songs as PRIZM (found on Instagram as WEAREPRIZM), each heavily influenced by the “synth-wave movement” that Rockwell said matches the rockier vibe they’ve developed at their concerts.

“They get up on stage and throw a party now,” he said. “As far as recordings go, they want to capture that.”

Rockwell met Williams around 2008 when she came to record vocals for another artist’s song at the studio. He later met Nordan and had been following their band on social media before dropping his idea in a Facebook message. Williams read off the message at Rockwell’s studio: “When are we going to do a song together? Reach out.”

And then Rockwell sent her a Star Wars stormtrooper dabbing, and “the rest is pretty much history,” Williams said.

They joined forces in Rockwell’s studio, writing songs that matched music Rockwell had originally produced. 

“I was wanting to do something more pop,” he said, “the sort of stuff that is real chilled out, broken down, kind of R&B, and I just wanted to do something more fun.”

Lyrically, the three of them could write songs in a matter of hours, Rockwell said: “And then after the first song we did, it was just like, ‘We should make this a whole separate project,’ because we just worked really well together.”

Releasing songs as a separate band was a gamble, booking agent Welker said, adding that he had heard some demos that Williams had brought him. “I tried to go into it with an open mind, not expecting too much, and it just totally blew me away,” he said. “It’s incredibly catchy and I just love it.”

Several months before, Nordan and Williams had been prepping songs for the project as an opportunity to license their work, he said. He told me he urged Nordan and Williams to reveal the music to their fans: “When I heard it, I was like, ‘You can’t keep this quiet. It would be a shame if you kept this hidden.’ ”

Nordan and Williams are working on producing two other PRIZM songs to accompany the three already on Spotify, so they’ll have a full set at the Dallas concert, Rockwell said.

They were recording the PRIZM track “Neon Road” when I entered the studio, which they introduced to me as The Lab. Rockwell sat behind a massive desk with screens and a keyboard stacked around him. Exposed light bulbs hung down from the ceiling in front of white panels that had been used for a PRIZM photoshoot weeks before.

Williams (left): “You don’t have to be in just one band.” Photo by Vishal Malhotra.

Nordan and Williams couldn’t sit still. “Have you worked on anything?” Williams asked Rockwell, who nodded, earning a squeal of delight from Williams. They settled on the couch as Rockwell clicked to the song and played it through the speakers. Nordan held a bag of potato chips and stared off into the distance. Williams’ fingers traced up and down an imaginary piano. Nordan started describing the track, “It’s dark and then the lights are like––,” but her and Williams’ words jumbled together, as if they were too excited to let each other finish their thoughts. Nordan fist-bumped the air.

In the back room of the studio, Williams started humming, warming up her voice. “It’s going to be like a pulse,” Rockwell told her. “Kind of like this.” Pulsing beats began right on cue. Another set of beats dipped lower in pitch. As soon as I started to sense a pattern, the track adopted three synthesized bell-like sounds, and Williams began singing, “Let’s just go / Even if we don’t know / Even if we can’t see down / The neon road.” Her producer encouraged her to add breathiness: “Let’s see if we can get just a little more emotion on that word ‘go.’ ” The session continued for nearly 20 minutes, with Williams singing each line with precision, before she re-emerged. “Did I nail it or what?” she asked. “You nailed it,” Rockwell replied.

Nordan and Williams have a writing retreat scheduled for the end of the month, where they’ll carve out time to write in Williams’ studio apartment in Deep Ellum, not a cabin this time. They’ve already brought Rockwell more material to produce new Danni & Kris songs, and even those songs will be influenced by their rock tribute to Fleetwood Mac and their emerging album of PRIZM songs, they said.

Williams (left) said that Danni & Kris’ first and only album, Mountain Sounds, reflected their early 20s, but now that they’re nearing their 30s, they’re looking to move past the singer-songwriter coffeehouse tone. Photo by Jeff Prince.

Nordan and Williams said they hope to show fans how their sound has evolved, from a YouTube video recorded in Williams’ bedroom to an album recorded in a cabin in the woods to their new single and new band. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Williams said. “There’s still going to be, like, heartbreak and stuff on this next album, but it’s more like owning your power now instead of letting it take you. We really believe in that. We want to like own our power as women, as girls in the music industry, and as writers.”

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