Michelle Willis

by Corey O'Flanagan

Michelle Willis... is so startlingly talented. She's probably one of the best singers I've ever heard in my life.
~David Crosby

When asked how her 2012 self would react if told she would have David Crosby and Michael McDonald play on one of her albums one day, Michelle Willis said she wouldn't have been surprised. That's not arrogance, it's self confidence, and Willis oozes with it. She is a performer who knows what she is capable of with her voice, her instrument (keyboard), and her writing.

Having spent the last few years with a front-row seat to Crosby's resurgence, playing on two of his most recent albums and touring with his band, we are now treated to Willis' new album, Just One Voice, out April 8, 2022.

On this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, Michelle talks about some of the songs on the new album, plays a bit of her amazing song "Janet," and gives us some insight on all things Crosby. Having had a chance to listen to this album top to bottom, I can tell you that it is a must listen.

Building Contrast With Sequencing

Sequencing is always like the final puzzle. Well, I guess it's like the second to last musical decision you get to make before mastering and you kind of do it while mastering sometimes as well. Sequencing is the term that you use to describe that process of the order of tracks. I actually didn't think about the fact that those first two songs are so different, more so than I thought that. I called the first one "10ths" as just an interlude, although it's like a four-minute interlude. So is the song "Think Well." It was also called an interlude, but it's like three or four minutes.

I wanted to start with "10ths" because it's meditative and it does get you into this place of like, oh, okay... it's not just a song, not that songs by themselves aren't enough, but it does set the stage for something that I liked. I wanted that to be the starter so that people don't listen to this record and think, "Great, this is just going to be a bunch of bangers." Then we went from "10ths" straight into "Liberty" and it felt so good - it just worked.

There's a lot of groove focus on this album. Fab Dupont is the guy who co-produced it with me. When we first got together, he was leaning more towards a kind of whirly trio as the nucleus of this. Eventually, we brought it out into more of this sort of palette, and you'll hear the difference between the two sounds on the record because with something like "Liberty," you really feel that rhythm section. Same thing with "Green Grey," and, to a degree, "How Come." "Janet," sometimes. But songs like "On and On" or "Black Knight" towards the end of the record, it's far more like "Injury," and this kind of melting darkness behind my voice. I think those are like Fab and I's two worlds coming together.

What Making Just One Voice Taught Her

Any project I'm ever a part of - if I'm leading it, if I'm co-producing it, if I'm being produced or if I'm working on someone else's record with them - it's like relationships in general. You learn so much and everything is always a little bit different or really, really different. But I think the biggest thing that Fab and I learned was... or maybe we knew, but we just relearned - words mean different things to different people, and I think it took us about six months to be like, "Oh, so when you say this, you mean this sound, and when I say it, I mean that sound." We'd had about six months of, "Why does this sound like this?"

On Writing Vocal Harmonies

The vocal stuff, it's just my love. I love having singers doubling and lots of stacks behind my voice. Sometimes I hear the harmonies as I'm writing the songs, and sometimes within the process of demoing it I just try a million different things and see what works. I'll be working on it in the dawn and then go make breakfast or something and while I'm doing that, I'll hear something else and so I go and track that, and then while I'm tracking, I'm like, "Oh no, but I'll do this," and I get really carried away. And then I walk away and I'm like, "No, that didn't actually work and what I'm hearing in my head is actually different." It's just a lot of that going back and forth, experimenting.

Meeting Her "Trigger" Duet Partner, Taylor Ashton

Taylor's Canadian and he's from B.C., but he's moved all over Canada. I'm Canadian and grew up in Toronto, but I met him just before he moved to Brooklyn. He played a show that's emblazoned in my head - he played this song called "Fortnight," which is off of his debut album called The Romantic. He played banjo and sang with a drummer friend of ours, and I was just mesmerized. The wordplay that he employs, his voice is so present and rich, but also kind of wiry and ragged sometimes in the most pleasing way. And I had never heard of him before then.

From then on, I was an ardent fan, and we ended up meeting up, becoming friends. I met him like a week later for coffee, and then he moved to New York. So when I moved to New York, it was like, "Oh yeah, there's my Canadian friend Taylor, and here's me, and here's my friends and we both live in Brooklyn." Gradually, all of our friend circles started to become enmeshed again.

When I started working on this song, I was also looking for opportunities to invite other people to be on this record and be featured and "Trigger" was a perfect setting for that. When it was originally written, I was thinking of certain people, but I also thought of how it's also a song to myself, and I liked the idea of having another person. It's like two people calling each other out, but for the same things. In the same way that I'm calling someone else out, it's actually my own shit that I need to deal with. He was just perfect for that.

I knew Taylor was going to kill it. I also love his banjo playing. It's very unique, which is an oxymoron, very unique. It's just unique. He played it in a way that no one else I know does. It's just so him and has such a distinct character. So, we ended up only using his banjo towards the end - you really only start to hear it in that outro.

How Would Her Past Self React To A Future Working With David Crosby And Michael McDonald?

Back in 2012, I was in a band called Three Metre Day with two incredible musicians from Toronto - Don Rooke and Hugh Marsh. I feel like 2012 Michelle Willis would freak out like a little kid and maybe dance around and cry a little and then be like, "No, no, really?!" At the same time, I think every year I grew and was continuing to work on music and continuing to work with people that I've found to be totally magical, there's always been this little part of me that was like, "I can do that." Those people that are really good - I know I can do that. I don't say that to say that I'm great or anything. There's just this part of my psyche that the more that I expand and grow and meet people and play with people, the more that voice is there. It's just like, "You can do this!"

But there's a term called imposter syndrome, and I definitely have that all the time. I've been playing with David Crosby since I moved here in 2016 and I 100 percent feel imposter syndrome. I've felt it with his bands for multiple tours now. It's not like it goes away completely or that if you feel a voice in yourself that says, "I can do this," that the imposter syndrome goes away. It just exists simultaneously.

It's like, "I'm here, so just do it." Actually, Cros is a perfect example because he just kept making me improvise, and it is terrifying for me to improvise. I went to jazz school, I studied piano, I've been trained in improvisation, and I find it one of the most beautiful and holistic, human, deeply spiritual things. I think that everyone should learn how to improvise because it is a life skill. However, it terrifies me and I just get all frozen. I used to have one solo in "Deja Vu" and by the end of the last tour we did before COVID hit, I had like four solos and one of them was a keyboard battle with his son James, who's our music director, and he'd be soloing on an organ and I'd be like (making frantic sounds on the keyboard). Actually, if you told me that, I would be more shocked. "You'll be having keyboard battle solos on stage in front of 2000 people." That would surprise me.

What She's Learned From David Crosby

Crosby is living proof that no matter how tired, or in pain, or old, or whatever you want to say that you are, it's all about spirit and seizing the moment. That man works. I mean, I don't know anyone else who has made six records in six years? At 80 years old, he puts all of us to shame. He's always ready to go.

Cros has this childlike - like a puppy - spirit about music and he believes in it so hard. I don't believe in it nearly as much as he does, and I really believe in music. But he puts his life on it, and that alone has been so important to me over the last number of years. When we're writing, it's always like, "You have an idea now, let's do it now! Write it down! Why don't we try this? Hey, did you think of this?"

It's like that same moment with "Ohio." Who knows what the story really was like, but my awareness of it is that someone gave David or Neil the magazine, showing him what had happened, and Neil starts writing a song, and however many minutes or hours later, Crosby calls the studio and was like, "Book the time today." It's that urgency and it's that it is life or death. It's like, "Get this down now, put it out tomorrow." I am so slow. I'm such a slow person in general, in so many ways. But that kind of urgency is very special, and there are so many things that I've learned about him.

I mean, he's such a magnanimous, huge character on stage. It's undeniable why he is who he is when you see him on stage. He just roars - he lives there. He comes out in the light on stage. He's incredible.

Behind The Song "Janet"

I wrote that song years ago before I even moved here, but you write it and you don't record it, so then you have years of like, "Maybe I'll do it this way." So, I finished it and had demoed a version of it around the time we were making the Here If You Listen record. We were close to the end of writing at that point - it was myself, Becca Stevens, Mike League, and Cros. Two songs came out of the end of that session and both of them probably wouldn't have been added if it weren't for Becca speaking up on my behalf. At one point, she was like, "Can you play them that song that you played for me the other day?" And I played them this demo that I had made of "Janet," and they all really loved it. So we worked it out as a quartet and I really liked it in that setting too - in the quartet setting - I think that's a good version of it.

The Biggest Obstacle She Faced On Just One Voice

There are a million things because there were two albums that I made - one was the live version of this, and one was the studio version. There were a million things to learn and unlearn. But the biggest growth I have had in making this record was - and it's kind of corny because it's also related to the title of the record - every question that I have is valid, and that every question that I have, anyone who I'm in the room with that I think is maybe smarter than me, they've also had that question at some point in their life. They also, at some point, didn't know what they were doing. Now they know all these things, but at some point they didn't, and the only way that you get further ahead is just by asking a question. And if someone makes you feel stupid, that's on them, they're a jerk. But you don't have to make yourself feel stupid. You don't have to feel stupid for not knowing something. I just had to continually say, "I don't like this. Can we try this? Hey, why don't we try this?"

It sounds so simple and obvious and kind of stupid for me to say, but when you're constantly surrounded by people, when you're spending a fortune, when you're constantly having to make decisions that are kind of of no consequence - it's like, no one is gonna know this. No one cares. It matters so much to me in that moment. Whether or not we do the thing that I think we should. And it's my project, it's my whole heart, it's the thing that I've been carrying around for years. It's like when someone says, "What do you do?" That's what I do. If I do anything, it's so that I can share that. The whole doubt and the imposter syndrome, all that stuff - all the "I probably sound stupid," or "I'm changing my mind too much," or "I didn't hear this correctly" - all these kinds of things that you think about yourself, that's not helpful. It's just not helpful. There are a few people in my life who have really encouraged me, always, that I know what I'm doing at least with my own music. I'm the person who carried and brought it here and said, "Let's do this." So I, more than anyone, have the right to at least just speak my thoughts about it. That's been a challenge for me in my life. And in this process, it really pushed me to go further with just speaking my mind and not have it be such a big thing - that it's just saying what you think.

March 29, 2022

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