+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Gregg Patrick Boersma
Davonne D’Neil sings her hello. When it’s pointed out, she laughs and says that people always tell her that.
D’Neil is an R & B/soul artist whose musical journey began in Annapolis. She started out as a pianist in church, but the only instrument with which she performs at this time is her voice. “I haven’t merged those two worlds just yet,” she says.
Her band performs under her name and travels with her to shows when they can align their schedules. The longest-lasting member, Erica Waters, plays drums. She and D’Neil met while attending Wesley College in Delaware. Kam Ralls plays the keyboards, Joshua Stone plays the saxophone, and Jamicka Hector, the newest band member, plays bass.
“I was always involved in the music programs in school, but I was super, super shy,” says D’Neil. Her twin brother, Damon, was not. Also a singer, he focuses mainly on gospel. D’Neil recalls him as always being the cute kid at the front of the adult choir, whereas she was only comfortable playing piano at church so she didn’t have to sing out loud or perform solo. “I was a late bloomer,” she says.
In high school, she sang alto in both the chorus and the gospel choir. She auditioned for and performed in All County and in small ensembles on local trips, including to Heritage Harbour and before the Board of Education. School musicals always beckoned to her, but because she played basketball, she couldn’t participate due to scheduling conflicts.
At college, D’Neil performed in a jazz ensemble, and one of her work-study programs included working with a choir director. She also joined the choir and gospel choir. Her studies were not in music, however; she earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science. Looking back, she says, “I do wish I went to a performing arts school, maybe high school or college—somewhere that had a more prominent program and where the main focus of the curriculum is the arts.” But she made the most of her time at Wesley, with her first solo performance at a benefit concert during her sophomore year, singing “A Song for You” by Donny Hathaway. “People were crying and carrying on,” she recalls. “I was so nervous! So nervous. I wore heels—I had the nerve to wear heels, and to this day I don’t wear them on stage. It felt like my knees were buckling. I don’t get as nervous, now, just natural nerves. I try to stay close to the ground, now.”
After her first performance, people began requesting that she perform at other on-campus events. It boosted her confidence and she thought, “I must not be that bad.” From that point on, she began performing at all the talent and variety shows. She found college freeing. “No one knows who you are, and no one has preconceived notions of what you should or shouldn’t do or what lane you should or shouldn’t be in,” she says.
Her first time in a recording studio was for an artist rapper on campus who wanted her to sing a hook on a song. Shortly after, she recorded her first solo song, and she has been recording and releasing her work on streaming platforms ever since.
Starting out, she wrote songs in collaboration with poet friends. D’Neil would get an idea, provide the poets with the scenario, and they’d write the words. She admits to once being too terrified of writing her own songs. “I don’t know if I was afraid of being vulnerable. I wasn’t but 18 or 19, in college—it wasn’t like I’d lived this hard life. I didn’t want to be raw, I guess,” she says.
But she reached a point where it felt like double duty. While the initial idea for each song was hers, she still had to learn and connect with new words and then match them with the instrumentals and beats. “It wasn’t feeling natural, the more I did it,” says D’Neil. She started writing her own songs. After the first one—she believes it was a remake of another song—she continued writing and began calling herself a songwriter. Now, she has written so many that she’s unable to recall just how many.
D’Neil loves R & B, neo-soul, and gospel, and jazz music from the 1930s and 1940s, listening to musical icons such as Billie Holiday and Etta James. She also likes 1990s R & B, understanding and appreciating it more, now that she’s older. She’s a huge fan of Erykah Badu—catching her live shows—and Brandy. “I took so many notes from those shows,” she says. “People would say to me, ‘Do you get nervous, you look so comfortable on stage.’ You can be nervous, but once you’re up there, no turning back except to embarrass yourself, so you may as well look like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t.”
While writing, she’s inspired by her senses. “I have an approach, everyone has their own specific way of approaching words and songs,” she says. An idea comes, and she begins imagining—What’s the place like? What does it smell like? She expands on these, painting a picture in the words she composes. D’Neil likes people to see what she’s saying, even if it’s not a music video, and for the audience to see where she is and feel what she’s feeling. She works through writer’s block by asking herself where she is in the story whether it flows. If a sentence feels too broad, she figures out how she can break it down so that the person hearing the song can take it in. “I always think about how people will receive it,” she says. “You know, we’re our own worst critics. ‘Will people get this? Does it make sense?’ Then I think, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ It’s my song, and everything is open to interpretation.” She enjoys releasing music and hearing what people thought when they heard it, even if it’s different from the intent.
When a song doesn’t flow right away, she leaves it and returns to it later, revisiting songs until they’re complete. If she doesn’t like the song, then she’ll move on and write a new one, never rewriting a piece she considers finished. “Once I’m empty of something, I can’t revisit it,” she says. “Once it’s out, this whole, complete thought, emotion, angle, I feel like I approached it for a reason. Or I may not like it right now, but possibly will later, so I’ll move on.”
One of her biggest shows to date was opening for musician Babyface in 2019. D’Neil’s friend Kojo had a connection to the head of entertainment at Live! Casino and Hotel Maryland®. This led to a 2019 residency at The Prime Rib®, a restaurant located at the casino, to perform a few times a month. The next thing she knew, a booking agency emailed her to ask if she was available to open for Babyface. “What? Am I available?” she recalls thinking. “Anything else I have to do is canceled!”
D’Neil has scheduled some upcoming performances at Annapolis music festivals, and then will release new music and see what happens from there. “I just roll with the punches.” █
For more information,
visit or follow at @Davonnedneil.