In 2001, he met David Guetta and the pair teamed up for the hit "Just A Little More Love." Chris wrote lyrics and sang it with an urgency that cut through Guetta's beats, distinguishing the song from other club-thumpers with a story and a soul. Willis became a regular on Guetta's albums, a rare male singer in the world of Electronic Dance Music. Their most successful collaboration came in 2009 when Guetta brought in Chris, Fergie and LMFAO for the song "Gettin' Over You," scoring a #1 hit in the UK.
Chris' first dance album is Premium (Songs From The Love Ship) Vol. 1. The first single, "Louder (Put Your Hands Up)" went to #1 on the Dance chart.
Chris gave us an inside look at the songwriting process, both as a solo act and with David Guetta. His gospel roots provide not just a solid foundation for his vocals, but for his lyrics as well.
Chris Willis: Well, my biggest break was the collaboration with David Guetta. This happened in 2000. I just happened to be in France working with a group and one of the guys in the group - it was a boy band from Paris - introduced me to David. David was in the process of recording an album, and he was like, "Yeah, come out to the studio and vibe." We vibed and the next day we wrote "Just A Little More Love," and that changed everything for me.
Songfacts: Can you explain how it changed?
Willis: Prior to that I had been known and been involved in the gospel music industry as a gospel soloist, performing in churches. I had signed a couple of record deals. The second deal ended after a couple of years and about 25,000 sold on my first gospel album, released in 1995. At that same time, I decided I'd like to try getting involved in more mainstream music. I was basically saying, "You know, I don't have to be the lead singer, I just want to be in the background, just kind of learn and be exposed to a more mainstream approach to music." I'd been involved doing gospel, doing backups and doing demos in Nashville, living there for 12 years. Out of that, Desmond Child had heard of me and invited me to come to Miami and do background vocals on everybody from Kelly Clarkson to Ricky Martin, so it was already beginning to change.
A few months later the song became the #1 song in France, and I had the pleasure of writing a few other songs - "Love Don't Let Me Go," "Love is Gone," "Getting Over You," - all of those songs with David that enjoyed incredible airplay around the world really established me as a dance artist, a recording artist, a vocalist, and a songwriter on a more international level. That's how big the change was.
Songfacts: That's pretty amazing. Were you star struck when people like David Guetta, Kelly Clarkson, and Clay Aiken started calling you? Were you nervous about those collaborations at all?
Willis: No. Working with David was very easy and I really had no idea who he was. At the time, he and his wife were the king and queen of the night life in Paris. I guess if I had thought about who he was, I probably would have been a little more nervous. Even before that, working with Clay Aiken, I had worked with Amy Grant and all kinds of really incredible artists. I was already accustomed to working with well known celebrities; I'd backed up CeCe Winans and worked with Dolly Parton on some of her recordings, so I've always been a huge fan of celebrity. I can't say that I was nervous. I probably wasn't as nervous then as I was when I met Fergie and LMFAO.
Songfacts: What was that experience like working with Fergie and LMFAO in the studio on "Gettin' Over You?"
Willis: It was really, really incredible. Again, I was really intimidated because I was familiar with The Black Eyed Peas and had followed their career. There was Fergie right there, in all of her glory, singing and being the diva. I hadn't really had a whole lot of experience with videos, so watching the directors and all the dancers and all of that was just really overwhelming. But it was a really good idea, the concept that David had to invite Fergie and LMFAO on the record. I think that really took it far beyond.
Songfacts: It just pushed it into another level.
Willis: The stratosphere. That's what's beyond my imagination.
Songfacts: You mentioned a number of your songs that talk about love. Why do you think you consistently return to that concept as a songwriter?
Songfacts: Speaking of Christianity, can you give an example of a song where you feel like your religious background really shines through?
Willis: Well, "Just A Little More Love," of course, definitely pays homage to Martin Luther King and the whole concept of walking hand in hand and understanding, which is very much of the biblical or Christian concept. "Gettin' Over You," then again, is a song that mainly deals with relationships. Even "Love Is Gone" is about the partnership that happens between two people. What do you do when the thrill is gone, when you don't have the ignition and passion that you had when you first met. That's more of an interpersonal relationship song whereas "Just A Little More Love" could be very spiritual, could be very much about saving the world, saving the planet, being good to your neighbor, being good to your fellow man, all of which are definitely tied to what spirituality is about.
Songfacts: It sounds like Martin Luther King was a pretty big influence on you growing up. Was he?
Willis: Absolutely. My parents went through the Civil Rights Movement, and being African-American myself, it was always very important for us to really be sensitive to our history and our family history. It was important not to be racist but to embrace all people and to embrace all struggles, because everybody has a struggle, no matter what country you're from or what nationality you are. But to have a sense of myself and be sensitive to where I've come from has really helped me know where to go and at least map a course as far as what I'd like to say and the kind of person I'd like to be.
Songfacts: Interesting. Which political figures or people in your own life are inspiring you in the same way these days?
Willis: Well, needless to say, it's exciting to watch what's happening with Barack Obama. He's the first African-American president. That was really something when we were growing up that we never, ever dreamed that would happen. I remember watching the inauguration on television and just being moved to tears, because it's such a struggle in America when it comes to race. It was a symbol of progress, most definitely.
Songfacts: It was a pretty historic event.
Willis: Absolutely. John. F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Indira Gandhi, even Lady Diana, I think was a really interesting person; her life was a really interesting story. Evita Perón, too. I kind of knew about her, but it wasn't until I went to Argentina that I actually went on Netflix and saw a documentary about her and what she was doing in her world and how she revolutionized her community in Argentina. I'm always inspired by people that live their lives to the fullest and have an incredible impact on the masses. It's something that has always fascinated me.
Songfacts: Your first solo single is called "Louder (Put Your Hands Up)" and it's centered on a really catchy chorus. Do you normally go straight to the chorus when you're writing a song, or do you structure it by verses first?
Willis: Very good question. I normally try to focus on the chorus first. It doesn't always work, but that's generally what I try to do. I build the chorus and build the hook - the part that I think people are going to remember the most. Then, I do a treatment lyrically on the verses that kind of compliments the chorus. There are times when the verses come first and kind of flow through to the chorus, but that's the way I do it.
Songfacts: After you've got something that you think is catchy, do you play it for other people and seek out feedback?
Willis: Absolutely. The beautiful thing about working with David and Joachim in the studio is that I've been able to get immediate feedback. That's what I love about collaboration is that you have two or three or four or however many people in the room, and they're saying, "I'm not really feeling that," or "This could be cooler," or "This could be a little more interesting." That always makes it fun. To a great degree, I'm writing a lot by myself. I think my input becomes, 'How would this play out in my mind? How would this play out on the dance floor?' Can someone that's singing along with this lyric identify with it? Is it alienating, or is it embracing?
Sometimes the best test is putting the song out and seeing the kind of reaction that comes from the fans and my management. I have a lot of people involved in my career that I can play songs to and get their opinions. I have a few friends that I really trust, and I ask them what they think about a song. If I get a good reaction from them, then it generally inspires me to pursue more in terms of promoting it or releasing it.
Songfacts: In your press release, you've written that your fans "will finally get to see more of me and more of what I can do." What do you think hasn't come across in the work that you've previously done that you're excited about showing people now?
Ever since MTV happened, that's always been a passion of mine, being intrigued and interested in being involved in videos. The other thing is writing a lyric and really telling that story. I'm not trying to brag, but I think a lot of people have loved the music that I've done with David but they maybe weren't aware that I wrote almost all of the songs that we did together in the very beginning. So being able to share more lyrically and explore more lyrically is also something I love to do.
I love performing and being able to do more on stage. I love being able to really use the repertoire that I've acquired from the songs with David, as well as some of the newer works that I've done. Now I've started my own label and that's put me in more of a mogul position, whereas in the beginning, for at least the past 10 to 15 years, I was mostly involved in just creating music and production and writing lyrics. Now I've started my own label, it's an opportunity for me to showcase my own work. I've also started working and collaborating with other artists - writing for them, writing lyrics for them, producing vocals. So that's something I'm really, really excited about.
I also like collaborating with other DJs from different countries and different kinds of electronic music. That's very, very exciting to me now. I just finished a new collaboration with Joachim Garraud, and collaborations with Nicola Fasano, and Juanjo Martin from Spain. Working with all these different DJs is really exciting because it's exploring new styles, new textures, and new colors. Each individual DJ brings their own approach to the marketplace.
I've always been a fan of photography. I love taking pictures and telling my story through pictures, so I'm really exploring Instagram and posting photos there. I'm a huge fan of just being a tastemaker and creating environments and entertaining. That's something I would really love to move more into: entertaining and creating a lifestyle brand that's based around my music and the things that I love to do. I hope to do more of that in the future.
Songfacts: What were the biggest challenges in making a music video?
Willis: Well, the thing that makes it tough for me with videos is that you have to keep doing the same scene over and over and over again. It's nothing like recording. You've got the director, you've got the cameras, you've got light, you've got makeup, you've got wardrobe. You have all these other elements that aren't really involved in recording the song. All of those elements really add a little bit more complication to the process because everybody's got to be happy, the camera angle's got to be right, the lighting's got to be right, and the director's got to be happy. If there's something that I'm wearing that isn't really pulled together in the right place, that makes it challenging.
But the end result is always beyond my imagination, which makes it really, really fun to do. But it's really the hardest part of making music, because once it's done, it's permanent. It's forever. (Laughing).
Songfacts: (Laughing) No doubt. What roadblocks did you run into when you created the new label? What surprised you about the process?
Willis: Well, the biggest surprise was that when we reached out to partners in different territories, that they agreed to join. That was a great surprise. It was really an affirmation, because when I was signed to labels before I was kind of like, Well, I don't know if they're going to be interested, or if they're going to really feel excited about the product. So now I've become more conscious about songs when I write them. I ask myself, Will it work in the Spanish world, or will it work in the French community? Will it work in all of Europe, and does it apply to South America?
Trying to make music that really appeals to all these different countries is really a challenge. But to get that affirmation - I think we have at least eight or ten partners around the world - has been really, really exciting.
I'm using myself as a guinea pig right now. The first two to five years will be used to establish myself and establish my brand. Hopefully, if it's successful, I'll be able to replicate that with other artists. It's a daunting task, but I'm enjoying the trailblazer aspect of it.
Willis: It was. (Laughing) It was very challenging to get cleared.
Songfacts: Is it the nightmare that most artists like to say it is? Should artists just avoid it altogether?
Willis: To be honest with you, it wasn't so much a nightmare, because I have an enormous amount of respect for legendary artists like Lenny Kravitz. In my mind, it was my way of paying homage to the rock and roll sensibility that he brings to the music world. From what I heard, there were several hundred applications to use that sample. So when we finally did get approval to use it, I was incredibly grateful. It's probably one of the most well known samples in music history.
Songfacts: It's one of the most memorable riffs in classic rock, for sure. Everyone recognizes that lick.
Willis: Yeah, absolutely. So consequently, the popularity of the sample warrants the kind of negotiation we went through and eventually we found the compromise. But again, I felt like it was the kind of homage that I wanted to pay, and it was worth the wait. I love the record and people seem to really respond to it. But it was most definitely a challenge. But nothing in this world in this business comes without challenge. I'm sure you can agree with that.
Songfacts: I would certainly agree with that. Do you know if Lenny has heard the song and if so, what he thought of it?
Willis: I don't know if he's heard it, I don't know what he thought of it. I just hope that he has listened and thinks it's a really good idea. My dream with that is to be on stage at the Super Bowl with Lenny Kravitz on the stage with the guitar. That would be really awesome. But I would totally be totally starstruck if that ever happened.
Songfacts: I don't think anything could beat that.
Willis: That would be so awesome; a dream come true.
Songfacts: Why did you decide to separate your Premium: Songs From The Love Ship records into three parts?
Willis: Well, I kind of followed the lead from just about everyone in the business. I mean, Lady Gaga didn't necessarily make a mix tape, but an EP, like a shortened form of collections of songs. Over time I've amassed about 60 or 70 songs that I've written. And they're just sitting, taking space in the drive. It would be hard to put all those songs out in one package. Even 11 songs is a bit much nowadays in terms of the way the marketplace functions online. People are more interested in getting one song at a time or a couple of songs. So this way I thought I could honor the few records that I really believed in, in doses. Put out five songs on Vol. I, five more on Vol. II and five more in Vol. III. It gives people in the marketplace a chance to pick and choose the ones they want. If they want to buy the whole product, the whole collection of three volumes, that could be really exciting. I mean, I'm a music collector. I love when things come in volumes. I buy all the volumes and listen to them and incorporate them into my play list.
So that was the concept behind releasing a few songs at a time and just really seeing if we could create demand for Vol. I, and if there seems to be a demand for Vol. II, then that'll give us a nod to go ahead and put out more music. That was the concept behind it.
Songfacts: What's the one thing you want fans to get out of your music?
Willis: Well, I always say that music is an incredible tool. There's so much incredible power in listening to music. You listen to a song enough and you absorb the message in that music. It can have an incredibly good or sometimes negative impact on your spirit. I always say that my message in all of my songs is no matter who you are, no matter where you're from, no matter what walk of life you profess, you deserve the right to live your best life. The message in my songs is really an expression of love; it's a message of compassion, it's a message of encouragement and power, and that you have a right to do and be your best. That's the message I put out in my music.
October 25, 2012
More Songwriter Interviews