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April 17, 2022

Interview with Michelle Willis

We had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Willis over Zoom video!

Singer, songwriter and keyboard player Michelle Willis’ sophomore record Just One Voice is out now on GroundUP Music. Featuring performances by David Crosby, Michael McDonald,...


We had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Willis over Zoom video!

Singer, songwriter and keyboard player Michelle Willis’ sophomore record Just One Voice is out now on GroundUP Music. Featuring performances by David Crosby, Michael McDonald, Taylor Ashton, Grégoire Maret and Becca Stevens, the album is produced with Fab Dupont (Andre 3000, Gregory Porter).

In celebration of the new release, Willis is debuting a new video for the single “How Come,” featuring vocals by Michael McDonald..

“How Come” comes on the heels of the album’s previous singles, “Trigger,” “Green Grey” and “Liberty,” the latter featuring vocals from both David Crosby and McDonald.

Just One Voice was written during the intensity of non-stop travel, penned from the cramped seats of buses, planes and countless green rooms. One night, out on the open road, Willis played the title track for Crosby, her mentor and bandmate, who urged, “No one else sounds like this. This is you. You have to make this record.” Shortly thereafter she was able to secure a prestigious grant from the Canada Council for the Arts which set the recording process in motion.

Michelle Willis is a Canadian singer-songwriter and keyboard player based in Brooklyn. A Toronto native, she moved to New York in 2016 with few prospects, save for a monthly residency at Rockwood Music Hall. Within months she was touring in two bands led by David Crosby (David Crosby & Sky Trails and David Crosby & Lighthouse) and another by pop/jazz composer Becca Stevens and opening for jazz/funk collective Snarky Puppy across the globe. Willis has cemented her place as an in-demand keyboard player and singer, touring and recording with a diverse array of artists such as the aforementioned Crosby and Stevens as well as the Zac Brown Band, Iggy Pop, Laura Mvula and Michael McDonald. Just Once Voice follows her debut record, 2016’s See Us Through.

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Transcript

Hello! It is Adam and welcome back to bring in a backwards, a podcast where both legendary and rising artists tell their own personal stories of how they achieve stardom. On this episode, we had a chance to hang out with Michelle Willis over zoom video. Michelle was born in the UK, but raised in Canada. She moved to Toronto before she was even one years old. So she pretty much grew up in Canada, started off on the piano at a very early age. Attended college for the jazz program, played jazz piano. After college started working in different piano bars. She was also in a band. She talked to us about putting out her first record, which was called, see us through. 6 (1m 55s): We hear about how she met and began to work with David Crosby and Becca Stevens who are both on her new record. And she tells us all about her new record as well, which is called just one voice. You can watch our interview with Michelle on her Facebook page and YouTube channel app, bringing it backwards. It would be awesome if you subscribe to our channel like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Tik TOK at bringing back pod. And if you're listening to this on Spotify, apple music, Google podcasts, it would be amazing if you follow us there as well and hook us up with a five-star review. 7 (2m 29s): We'd appreciate your support. If you follow and subscribe to our podcasts, wherever you listen to podcasts, 6 (2m 35s): We're bringing it backwards with Michelle Willis. I'm Adam, by the way. And this is about you, your journey in music. And we'll talk about the new record as well. 8 (2m 44s): Cool. 6 (2m 45s): Sweet. So first off, talk to me about where you were. Were you born in UK? 8 (2m 52s): I was born in north Yorkshire and my dad was born there and from there and we moved back to Canada. My mom is from Canada and we moved back there when I was still a baby. I think I was a year old or something like that, so. 6 (3m 10s): Okay. So no real memory of, of the UK. I would imagine 8 (3m 15s): Some vacation air, no. 6 (3m 17s): Okay. And then you moved to Canada and what part of Canada? 8 (3m 21s): Toronto, 6 (3m 21s): Toronto. Talk to me about growing up in Toronto. 8 (3m 26s): I don't know. I mean, I, as far as music goes, I was just, I mean, there's four kids in my family and we all did different things. None of us were particularly sporting other than my sister. Anyway, I don't need to go into all that, but we all were involved and my mom was primarily a single mom. So a lot of driving, a lot of, a lot of driving and a lot of rehearsals and weekend things. And so I grew up, I just realized I've got this reverb on my voice, 6 (4m 6s): Which sounds pretty cool though. 8 (4m 9s): Although it doesn't sound cool like later, let me promise you. And when you start to edit it, you're like that is annoying. Toronto is a wonderful city and, and certainly musically there's so much going on. There's so many different communities and musicians and they overlap in really interesting ways. And I feel very lucky that I was part of that world and, and got to feel like such a part of it. And across so many webs, you know, overlapping webs before I moved here because it gave me a strong idea of how that, how community works in music and how vital it is for some horrible. 6 (4m 55s): You said you're one of four, four kids. Where, where do you fall in line second. 8 (5m 1s): Yeah, but my sister is about four years older then there's me. I'm 35 and my younger brother and sister are 29 and 28. So 6 (5m 13s): We were really close to each other. And then a couple of gaps. 8 (5m 16s): We call them the kids, 6 (5m 17s): The kids. Okay. 8 (5m 19s): If they're coming home, they're 23, almost 30. Okay. 6 (5m 24s): Are you the only musician or music in your family? 8 (5m 29s): Music is very much in my family. Yeah. My Nana loved singing. Great, great singer, great harmony singer, all my aunts and uncles, all her kids love singing harmony and playing music. My uncle had one too, a lot of holidays we would get together and play and they loved all those songs from the sixties and the seventies, that whole singer songwriter era, especially. And I remember the story of my uncle ed. Like we always knew, could play guitar and my brother was learning how to play drums at this time. And my uncle sits down at the drum set and he starts playing and we all turn around and like, Hey, that sounds, sounds pretty good. 8 (6m 11s): He's like, maybe they're all just kind of absolutely 6 (6m 18s): Super naturally good 8 (6m 21s): Sounded genuinely pretty good. And it was just shocking, but yeah. And my siblings too, my sister has a rock band that she's she's, it's like this metal slash like, like kind of proggy, she's amazing. She's way cooler than I'll ever be. And now she's also playing piano in that band and singing and writing all the vocal arrangements. She's really well. 6 (6m 45s): Wow. So she's doing this professionally as well. 8 (6m 48s): Yeah. 6 (6m 49s): That's incredible. Have you guys ever collaborated together? 8 (6m 52s): Not at any, you know, PR like particular strong sense, but yeah. I mean, we, she, when I go home, sometimes if I'm working on something or if I do a live stream concert or something, she'll, she'll jump on. And, and my mum, her, you know, one of her five goals in life is that Olivia and my sister and I have a band together. I just, the harmony is so cool. 6 (7m 18s): Yeah. You guys should put a record out or at least a song. That'd be awesome. What was the first instrument you learned? 8 (7m 29s): I mean singing, but I, but I guess Jenna, I can remember like my head being at the keys of our family piano and just this kind of stuff. And my mom was the first person to teach me things on it. And she also did this, like Did, Because you did this thing. It was basically that the whole time And we would, she would get us to play all the black keys on top. 8 (8m 14s): Basically we would play with sound great. And she'd be like, oh yeah, you're really good. And we felt like we were just like playing some cool, like Dixie Lin stuff and, and yeah, it really fostered fun and, and like excitement on the piano. And I think she taught me for a lease and just a few little things that kept me running back to the piano. And I 6 (8m 41s): Remember eventually take lessons then like, yeah, 8 (8m 44s): I was off and on. I'm really glad that I did. And at the same time, I'm really glad my mom pulled me out when she did. And there was this Push and pull. I took piano for, I think four years. I had a wonderful teacher and I was a terrible student. I didn't want to, I didn't know what was on the page. I was like, my sister played this song. I think I remember how it goes. And she'd be like, it's right in front of you. I think I want to remember. And, and my mom took me out at a certain point because she realized that I stopped practicing when it was my homework. And as soon as she took me out, I would play all the time. 6 (9m 25s): Interesting. 8 (9m 26s): Kind of a thing that's followed me in my life. I think I, I don't think it's very uncommon as musicians, but, or even maybe anybody, but once something becomes the thing to do, 6 (9m 38s): Yeah. Like a chore, you're like, eh, I'm not doing this 8 (9m 41s): Something else that's fun to do. Right. 6 (9m 43s): Right. 8 (9m 45s): So it's always finding that balance of, of like making, making the time really sacred and which is next to impossible mentally these days. Because I find whenever you sit down at your instrument and you're like, okay, I'm just going to practice and get in the zone. There's a moment at some point, maybe not at the beginning, maybe at the end where you're like, oh, I should take a video of this and posting on social media and say that I'm practicing this song. So everyone knows that I'm good at doing this thing on. It's like, you know, the, the creation of quote unquote content becomes this rat chase that really invades that sacred space in playing music. 8 (10m 26s): I have to constantly remind myself to, to fight against that. 6 (10m 30s): It is interesting though, because it's kind of a double-edged sword where maybe you don't want to do it, but then it's like your fans and you've got to kind of stay in relevant or whatever in the algorithm of social media to continue to kind of post things. And 8 (10m 45s): Yeah, I mean, it also helps Instagram and social media stay afloat if they tell everyone that the only way they're famous is if we keep using their platform. I mean, it's all, it's all a rat chase. And, and I really, when I teach now, I, one thing I try to say to younger students, I mean, I, I just taught a masterclass and the question I was asked three or four times it to varying in like different variations was how do you, can you tell us about promoting yourself? That's the most in a song writing class? How do you promote? 8 (11m 25s): So that is like a really clear to me, sign of where we're at. You know, I wasn't in university. I wasn't asking how to promote myself to like, I don't know I'm blanking now, but all these like heavyweights that were coming into my jazz school playing, I wasn't like, how do you, Vermont, Dave Holland, you know, he didn't know. 6 (11m 55s): Right. It's so weird now. I mean, I always think of I'm a little bit older than you are. And it's, to me growing up, it was like one, you can only like, like one genre music. If you liked punk music, you weren't allowed to listen to, you know, anything else in your group of friends. And then 8 (12m 12s): We did where the coolest, 6 (12m 14s): Right. And then it was like, if you, and then it was like the idea of like selling out or like all those things. I don't feel like the goal now for, for younger generation is like, I want that viral video. I want to have, you know, X, million subscribers. Like, it's just, it's totally different than at least when I was growing up. It's funny to think about, 8 (12m 37s): Yeah, I don't have any problems with people who, you know, for whatever reason, just want to be famous. I think being famous sucks. My view of it looks like it sucks. It looks like you don't have a private life, 6 (12m 51s): But you don't really. 8 (12m 56s): And there's plenty of things that's like, but there's plenty of things that seem great about it. Maybe you get special treatment and things like that maybe and whatever, but 0 (13m 9s): Hey kiddo, how was the health to learn anything? 1 (13m 11s): Yeah. 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A criminal could be applying for loans in your name or even selling your personal info on the dark web. Protecting your identity can be easy with LifeLock by Norton, LifeLock, monitors, your info and alerts you to potential identity threats. No one can prevent all identity theft or monitor all transactions at all businesses. But with LifeLock, it's easy to help protect yourself. Save up to 25% off your first year at lifelock.com/aware, 8 (14m 25s): But being famous just for the sake of being famous or having a viral video. It's like, cool. Then what are you like? Who are you just someone who wants another viral video? 6 (14m 38s): Yeah. You're just chasing that. Right. And it's like, now what? 8 (14m 42s): And I know people have all sorts of answers for those kinds of things, but, and, and I'm not, I'm not, not entrenched in it. I'm so entrenched in, I spend a couple hours maybe every day, like dealing with some form of social media, either creating either like gathering the, the photos and the videos and editing them or sending them to an end, like making notes and saying cut from here to here and then sending them to an editor or writing the copy, which is, I know, you know this, but for anyone listening, it's just like the actual language that is used. All of that is me sitting at home in Lincoln, you know, and every day there's something coming out every day and you know, and we're releasing an album on Friday, so it's more intense than, than normal. 8 (15m 38s): But promotion is a part of any business if it's the music business or anything. But I find as a musician, it's so personal and, and they kind of, there's, there's sort of this demand for it to be personal. Otherwise it's not popular, whatever. And, and I really I'm really fighting with it these days and how I relate to it. And, and how much, like, what's the balance of it? It's like, how much do you give away giving away so much? And again, it's like, yeah, this, this company, Facebook and Instagram is saying, if you post more, if you give us more than we'll push you more, but There's only so far that that goes and ultimately it keeps them in business. 8 (16m 29s): I just I'm struggling, but we can talk about so many more other interesting things 6 (16m 36s): Talking 8 (16m 36s): About it for our, 6 (16m 37s): Yeah. Yeah. It's all good. I have a quick question on your, your teaching. You see, you have a master class on songwriting and you also teach what piano at all, or just the song writing class. 8 (16m 51s): But I taught, I made a five week program during COVID on a songwriting thing, just based on things that I found that when I taught one-on-one and it's mostly just songwriting, I don't really know our voice, certainly not on zoom, but it's doable. But I was getting asked a lot of the same questions. So I created this course and I haven't done it since last year, but recently I spoke at the new school. They had a songwriting course that my friend Jean Rowe, who's another great songwriter. She teaches that program and asked me to come in and talk. 6 (17m 27s): That's cool. That is really cool. Well, going back to you and growing up and piano, and did you continue, you said you went to college for, you went to jazz school. Did you play piano through elementary school, middle school, high school. Was that your instrument and is that where you in the school band orchestra Or jazz band? I mean, 8 (17m 49s): Never saying that. Well, actually I was saying in the jazz vocal, we were called jam with two M's and an E. Yeah, I know. And I went to, I sang in a lot of different choirs that sang in an Anglican choir. That really was the foundation of, of so much of my musical language. And that's something like the song think, well, Like the harmony in that piece is so much Something that I would have Sung in, in a, in a choir, like in that choir, a lot of hymns and, and things like that. 8 (18m 37s): And then, and yeah, growing up, basically in high school, I went to a music theater high school And it was like an arts high school in tobacco. And in Toronto and college, I played jazz piano there. And that really informed my harmonic information and also just like the rhythm and the sexy ballsiness of the piano too. I, I remember the first time I heard can't remember his name right now, but he's a Brazilian piano player really influenced by blues in, in, in piano. 8 (19m 18s): And it just, it turn my head on, on its side. And all of a sudden I wrote this And I had never written anything like that before. And it really inspired me to play more rhythmically and play with time in a more interesting way and the piano and, and that has, I think you see more evidence of that in this record, unlike my first record, which was really after I graduated from college, I joined a roots like this modern roots band, which was really more based on improvisation and folk songwriting structures, but in a more open context. 8 (20m 1s): And I learned so much from that and that became like the basis for my songwriting was getting a crash course in folk music and, and different song writing structures. And then I think by the time I was writing the music in the period of my life for this next record, it was far more, all of that older. It was like all of that kind of stuff that I had learned through college that had kind of padded down after I graduated was like, I do folk. Now it all started to come back out. But now with this foundation, with this sort of this more songwriting foundation and, you know, 10 Joni Mitchell records glued into my brain. 8 (20m 52s): Yeah. I think that's where a lot of that vocabulary starts to grow from. 6 (20m 55s): Okay. And we'll right out of college, you did where you playing the piano bars and stuff in Toronto, is that where it kind of started From there? Was that when you joined the band was red was out of that or the folk band that you're talking about or was that, 8 (21m 14s): Oh no, I was out of college. Yeah. I, I got a call asking if I would do a gig with this band called the Henrys, which just happened to be like this super cool modern roots band that had featured Mary Margaret O'Hara and actually Becca Stevens had sang on a couple of tracks of their most recent record at the time. My Tina's Orbera and excuse me. Yeah. So I that's, that's sort of where I took and I started playing a pump organ in that band. And that's why I got into the pump organ, which you can't see, but it's behind a bunch of plants right now. 8 (21m 57s): And, and I, and then simultaneously was doing piano bars to just pay the rent, which is a tough scene to get into in any city because you have that gig. You're not letting it go. It's like three hours of paid practice and you get to dress up and go home and call it a night. 6 (22m 16s): Yeah. Take requests and yeah, piano bars are fun. There was a, I grew up in San Diego and there's one like a dueling piano barn. I'm totally blanking on the name right now, but it was cool. Like they made it a lot of fun. It was awesome. 8 (22m 32s): Yeah. That's probably less my scene. I'm not like a dueling. Anybody 6 (22m 36s): Where you just like, was it like a hit like a piano hit piano bar? Or is it more like you just sit there and kind of be the backing track to 8 (22m 46s): Totally fine with, I mean, people would always come up and say hi and say they enjoyed it and all this stuff, but it was, it was a few different places, but I ended up being the most at a place called Jacob's steakhouse in Toronto. And it was just a place where you could pay like $30 for broccoli and you know, more like $400 for steak. And I would stay at a nice piano. They had an PA system and I would just play. I once had a guy I had finished my set. It was three hours set. I walked up to the bar to get a drink and he comes up to me and he's like, are you done playing in this the entire time? 8 (23m 28s): Like loudly. He was 6 (23m 31s): While you're playing 8 (23m 33s): While 6 (23m 33s): I was playing 8 (23m 34s): Just obnoxious. And you could tell it was like a big performance. And there was a lot of people like that that were going in a place like that. It's a great as a songwriter again, it's like a great observational place to be. You really see how people deal with money and all this stuff. And this guy comes up and I'm already just like, get away from me, dude. He's annoying. And he has like a wad of twenties. He was like, can you just play some more Billy Joel on Elton John? And I was like, yeah, 6 (24m 5s): Of course. 8 (24m 10s): So I did that for another 45 minutes. And then I went home At night. I was just the most bizarre thing, but that was the scene. People weren't paying attention and they were paying attention, you know, which is always, that's the best line. It's like, it gives me freedom to just, I would just play whatever I wanted. They never, they never asked me to play certain things or not other things. So 6 (24m 37s): We had the freedom to kind of do what you wanted. Yeah. That's cool. And from there, what was, were you writing songs for people? I know you wrote with a lot of people and was that the kind of the next step in your journey? 8 (24m 50s): I was writing with that band, with the Henrys that turned into a band called three meter day. And that was, I released a little EPE in 2010 and three meter day made a record together and released it in 2011. And that was my first time co-writing with other people. And then I had a band with a few girlfriends of mine in the city. Yeah. Again, just more collaborative stuff. And then as it kept going, I realized that I wasn't playing with very many, I don't know. At some point I realized I wasn't expanding very much and I was kind of in, I, in my playing, I was, if anything, I'm simplifying to a degree that I didn't think I was growing. 8 (25m 36s): I thought I was kind of hiding a little bit. And so I started a show that I produced for about six months in Toronto. And then I did it again. Once I moved to New York for another six months here where I would invite other songwriters and I would have a new rhythm section every time. And so it was called songs. We write covers, we love, and I would pull it, we would play together two or three of their songs, two or three of mine. And then I would cover one of their songs and they would cover one of mine. And I would always try to finish something that I've been working on for the show. It was once a month. And that really kickstarted a lot for me. 8 (26m 17s): And I just realized that the album release show, because my friend, Tom, who did a lot of those shows with me, I was like, oh yeah, I finished that. I finished like a bunch of these songs that are now on this record for that show. And it really forced me to expand and, and also be a lot less precious. You know, when you're starting out as a song writer, you're like, no one understands my true art and no, you just need to chill out a little bit and just see where it goes. You know? And so especially hiring a new rhythm section every time, just kind of like allowing things to take on whatever life they were going to take with those musicians and their vocabulary and hearing someone else cover your own song and being able to cover it. 8 (27m 3s): And it introduced me to a lot of songwriters and that was kind of my main focus for a while. And from that, I, it was also terrifying to me to like branch out in that way and, and ask people to be a part of something that was just for me that no one getting money from, I think I only paid people like 50 bucks a show. And, 6 (27m 26s): And then you have to ask them to be kind enough to like learn one of your songs and then, you know, perform it. And yeah. 8 (27m 34s): And everyone was super cool. I think the vibe was really good. I think if it wasn't, some people wouldn't do it, you know, but 6 (27m 40s): I think it's a great idea. And I would love to see that, I mean, go in and watch two song renders that you like and kind of, you know, coverage other songs, not only that, but you're finishing a song on stage for the audience that there'll be essentially the first people to hear it completely done. Like that's a really cool thing to be a part of. 8 (28m 0s): I have a friend Andrew Phillips who I don't, I don't really know Andrew that well, but I've known him for many years now because he attended one of those shows and either he or a guy that he, a friend that he brought recorded, how com on his phone. And it was the first time we had ever performed that song live or something. My friend, Alex Simaris and Felicity Williams. And they were those featured guests that show Mac long prey was playing drums and probably Charles James playing bass. And that was the first time we played that song. And, and these guys have had that song on their phone. 14 (28m 40s): It's time to get your checking account to zero with free checking from PenFed that's zero ATM fees, zero balance requirements. And zero time spent waiting for your paycheck to direct deposit because you can receive it up to one day early, open your account with just $25 and see how big zero can be apply online today at penfed.org/free checking early direct deposit eligibility may vary between pay periods and timing of payers, funding to receive any advertised product. You must become a member of PenFed insured by NCUA Every three seconds. There's a new victim of identity theft. A criminal could be applying for loans in your name or even selling your personal info on the dark web. Protecting your identity can be easy with LifeLock by Norton LifeLock, monitors, your info and alerts you to potential identity threats. 14 (29m 26s): No one can prevent all identity theft or monitor all transactions at all businesses, but with LifeLock, it's easy to help protect yourself. Save up to 25% off your first year at lifelock.com/aware 8 (29m 40s): Where that was probably 2013 or 2014. Wow. And they kept every once in a while, I'll get an email from Andrew or Mac or one of these guys in there. Like I still love that song when that song was that as long on my phone, I still play it like, so it's cool. Yeah. That's 6 (29m 59s): Cool though. 8 (30m 0s): I'm just taking on, 6 (30m 1s): Were you saying some of those songs from those shows are on this new record? That's coming out. Wow. 8 (30m 8s): Yeah. So trigger how come Liberty? I remember. Oh man. The demo that I made for Liberty was like, It was so more like morbid and slow and like, like a scary dream. But that was the first show I did that with my friend Brian McMillan. I had a great songwriter in Toronto. Yeah. Liberty trigger. How come for sure. Janet. I had already, I, I may later can't remember the others, but those those three for sure. 6 (30m 47s): Okay. Well you could you put a record out in 2016 and was that all like, what was the purpose of keeping those songs off of that record? 8 (31m 1s): They're very different. You know, the tonality is really different. See us through that whole album was, I was really trying to get more into the Americana style of things, even though the harmony was still a little bit outside of that. And we certainly weren't like classic Americana and we played it at, I remember we played at folk Alliance or, but whatever the Ontario folk thing is the full conference. I just remember someone being like, let's not really folk, is it great. 8 (31m 41s): Welcome to the 2000 6 (31m 43s): Nice feedback. 8 (31m 47s): Cool, cool opinion. And yeah, and, and I, I think coming out of three meter day and really having a reverence for that style of songwriting, but still writing, you know, I think that someone like Paul Simon does that he it's, it feels like folk music in some ways, because of the instrumentation, but the harmony itself moves and is so inspired by jazz and even classical harmony. You know? I mean, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I mean, that's a him, <inaudible>, it's so sacred head surrounded. 8 (32m 30s): I grew up singing that him. And so it's not like it's a new thing, you know, to combine these influences. But anyway, yeah, I, I think see us through was, was me trying to get a little closer to the, the folk structure of things and the sound particularly of things. Whereas this, I knew that it was going to be bigger. I mean, if you to compare the two records, it's like this one is just bigger. It's just in your face. It's far more focused on groove in a, in a more immediate sense in a more like trio kind of sense. 8 (33m 13s): Whereas see us through it has a real feel and has a beautiful group to it, but it's, it floats a lot more. It doesn't dig in as hard and you know, the opening 30 seconds of Liberty is just like meaty. And so I would say those are two main differences. And actually we tried to record Liberty and trigger for see us through because I was feeling quite proud of them and I, and they were most new songs and they just didn't fit. And I never really was settled or really happy with the way they turned out. 8 (33m 54s): They were, they sound beautiful, but they didn't sound right yet. 6 (33m 59s): Now you have, you know, David Crosby on it. 8 (34m 2s): Pretty, pretty good, 6 (34m 4s): Pretty happy with it. I would imagine. Well, I want to get into that, but I'm curious. So you, like when you're writing those songs and doing this show that you had and the song like Liberty and these songs were being finished, what was the, the idea from there to be like, okay, I'm going to put a solo record out and use these songs. And then what changed to going into that first record? 8 (34m 30s): When I wrote 6 (34m 32s): Like, you're, cause you're writing those songs to onstage, like, like you said, Liberty, that was before 2016, wasn't it before that album. So were you just writing these songs and was the idea then to put out a solo album and then when you came to write, like when did you decide to write that first record And like put out a solo album? I guess 8 (34m 53s): Writer, I mean, writing is therapy first and foremost. I don't write a song and I'm like guessing going to make a record. Like it it's always been a way that I just, it was the healthiest way for me to process what I was going through in general. So when it, the moment that I knew I wanted to make an album was kind of, I knew it. I knew I had to make the next album just in general. I just didn't know how I was going to do it. And I wanted to do it in a special way. And I don't know if you have seen a bit of this, but we also made a live record named record. 8 (35m 37s): It's got 10 songs instead of 11 and it features David Crosby. And part of what really inspired me to make the album in general was because I thought, oh, I could make, because I'm a masochist like, oh, I can make two records, one live with a totally different band and a totally different location. My old Toronto like stalwarts that I don't grow, you know, that I've been playing with for however many years, I made two records. So I had the, the, the live thing. And then we recorded a whole other studio album, which was really the sound that I had envisioned like something that had more immediacy, more, you know, I was so enthralled with Blake mills and that Hayhoe record at that time, which had come out in 2016 when I was in the process of making CSU, I was like, I've never heard anything like this. 8 (36m 36s): And I want it to sound like that. And I knew that those songs, that these songs that are on just one voice had the capability of living in a world like that, that we could arrange them. So, and, and that was more interesting to me. I think at the time I was just watching records come out and it was again, like to what we're talking about earlier with social media, it just seems so sad the way these albums were coming out and just kind of like flopping and no one knew what they were doing with, with digital stuff. And it was quite depressing to me to see really beautiful work, just kind of flitting off. 8 (37m 17s): And, and I was inspired by this idea. I thought it seemed interesting to myself. And if it's interesting to me, then it will be someone interesting to other people or there will be other people who feel the same way. So that's, that's why I did that. I don't know if that answers your question, but I think there's no real like moment where I'm like, okay, I'm going to make a record, you know, but, but I think the, I can't remember if this was you and I talking about this or not, but basically I was carrying around these two songs that were alive recording of how com and just one voice. 6 (37m 58s): Okay. 8 (37m 59s): I think it was the gentlemen before you. So I was carrying around these two live recordings of how come and just one voice that we had performed as encores at the CS through album release show, and we recorded it and actually filmed it. And I, at this point had been on the road with cross and as well as Becca and cross a two bands and all three of those bands were touring nonstop. And I had not a second to get in a Headspace of like, I'm going to pour a bunch of money into my own project and, and like finish all these songs and arrange them properly and all this stuff. 8 (38m 46s): But I knew, and I, that was really kind of depressing to me that, that I hadn't been giving myself that chance. I had just been taking the work that I'd been offered, you know, and I played these two songs for CROs and I knew it was good. I just like every time I heard it, I was like, this shit is great. And I know the crowd feels great. We felt amazing. Like, it's good. I know what's good. So, so what, and I played them for him and it was like two in the morning or something, you know, driving to Timbuktu somewhere. 8 (39m 28s): And he just, he listened to it and gave me such confidence. And I was like, you gotta do this, just do it. You have to make this music. This sounds like you do it. And I don't know anyone who believes in music more than him. Maybe, maybe his wife, Jim believes it the most, but there's such firm believers in the power of music. And he inspired me and gave me a lot of confidence to, to go for it. And that night I applied for, I started applying for a grant and I think I sent it in like a day or so later. 8 (40m 11s): And because I'm lucky to be Canadian in this regard, we have like 6 (40m 21s): Ranting. 8 (40m 22s): Yeah. Which is not like I've applied many times and not received acceptance period at all. This was one, one of many, but, but it was the one time that I, that I was offered it. And that's how it all got kick-started. 6 (40m 41s): Wow. Yeah. Canada's amazing when it comes to that program and the only other country I've heard that does, that is a New Zealand has a similar program with me, but nowhere else, I mean, will they support the arts like that? 8 (40m 56s): Yeah. It's pretty awesome. Yeah, really, really. I don't. There's no way. I know. There's no way I would have embarked on this project without their support. We wouldn't have wouldn't have been able to happen. It was just too crazy. 6 (41m 12s): Well, when did you meet David Crosby? And how did that relationship start? 8 (41m 16s): I met him on a recording session. Snarky puppy had put together a roster of musicians from all over the world and it was the album was called family dinner volume two. And that's where I met David. He was there. Becca was there. That's where I met her. Laura Moolah, Charlie hunter, a Swedish trio called Besson, Susanna baka from Peru. It was incredible. And we were there for a week and it was like band camp. Like everyone was so happy to be there. 8 (41m 56s): Everyone just stayed and hung around and listened to the music and was like, oh, Hey, nice to meet you. You know, we all literally ate together and hung out in the kitchen and you'd go downstairs and there'd be like jam sessions between Jacob Collier. And 15 (42m 18s): That's so crazy to think 8 (42m 20s): It was really unheard of thrill. And it was during Mardi Gras was like a nightmare for the logistics production team. It was, I don't think they slept for a week. I don't think Mike, the, the bandleader started puppy. I don't think he slept more than a couple hours that whole week. Wow. Yeah, it was wild. And it really began so many friendships that, that are constant regular part of my life. Now, you know, I became a regular member of Becca's band and, and, and then joined his band were recorded with him. 8 (43m 0s): And then he created a band with Becca and Michael league and myself and himself. So that quartet did a tour. And then I went on the road with Becca and then that Christmas cross called me and was like, I'm starting another band. I want you to be in it too. All right, good. Let's do this. And then that started, and then we made a record and then, yeah, and I was just never home for basically until COVID hit. I mean, we started recording just one voice in the beginning of 2019. And it was, it was, I ran my body down to a degree that I don't ever want to do again. 8 (43m 45s): It was just like so much touring and timezone and all this stuff and just rough and then coming home and spending every, every last second that I was home at flux and working on mixes with fab and recording and doing all that, it was just, there was not a moment that it led up. So actually when COVID hit, I was so as, as terrifying and like paralyzing as it was, I cried probably multiple times a day, every day during the beginning, like the first couple months of COVID and I was here by myself, it was also like Losers, nothing matters, nothing matters. 8 (44m 43s): So that lasted for a few weeks. And then I realized I had to find a way to make money, but 6 (44m 52s): Was the record finished in 2019 or, okay. 8 (44m 56s): No, we tracked most of the instruments that by, by then and what was really left was the vocal. So I recorded a lot of the vocals here at home. Most of the background vocals, I think, were tracked here, some of the leads and then some, I went and read it in flux by around the fall or something of 2020. And Becca came in 2021, I think to track some vocals and Greg warmer, Ray was the last person to track on the record. 6 (45m 36s): Okay. You said earlier that your, is it, your mom was a big fan of like sixties and seventies music, 8 (45m 43s): All my aunts and uncles, 6 (45m 44s): Aunts and uncles that like telling them that you were playing with David Crosby. Like how, I mean, you remember that phone call or that conversation? 8 (45m 56s): I don't remember that conversation, but I can imagine it was something like, oh my God. Oh my God. No, that, that was probably something like what my mom said. 6 (46m 11s): Yeah. I mean, just looking back at like growing up and just seeing the people that you've performed with, like telling yourself, you know, in high school that you're, you know, at one point you're going to be playing with David Crosby and Becca Stevens. Like what w your self then probably would just be like, wait, what 8 (46m 32s): I, I answered this question the other day and the way these things come out in interviews it though, there's always like a moment where I'm like, oh, why did I say like that? But I think by the time, like in high school, I was, my teacher said, I think you'll like this song. And I died Minute by minute. And I was such a huge, huge fan. I thought that was the coolest thing that ever existed on piano basically at that point, unless it was Ray Charles. 8 (47m 17s): And so, yeah, I mean, those kinds of people were just such a far away, not even reality. They were like magical part of the ether that doesn't exist. And, and so was being a musician to be quite honest. I mean, at that point I had like a couple of friends, my friend, Charlie and Nathan, we, we played some of my songs together sometimes. And Charles was like a big supporter of means like we gotta do more. You know? And so I was playing, I was playing, I had written and performed one song, but I still, you know, being in musical choirs and being in things, it was normal. 8 (48m 7s): It didn't feel like being like, trying to be some, you know, what we call an artist artists these days. That's not to say I didn't listen to Whitney Houston with a hairbrush and, and sing in front of the mirror, but, you know, it's like fantasy. That's what that, and once I got into college and I did like my final year of college, I perform my music. And then I joined the Henry's and all of it started to feel like, oh, I'm just kind of like, I'm on this path, I'm doing this thing. 8 (48m 48s): And the more I do it, it's, it's working out. I mean, not to say it's easy, not some say it's like successful or like in terms of finance or anything like that. It's not to say it's like, but it just keeps growing. And I keep playing with people that are, that to me are like heroes, you know, the Henrys, the guys in that band were really frigging cool. And it even like, my friends would be like, whoa, you're playing. These guys are like in their sixties, you know? And I'm like this 20 year old, like, Hmm. 8 (49m 28s): And so there is a part of me as I got older that, you know, amidst all of the insecurity and imposter syndrome that I feel or have felt, or certainly felt at that time. And all the green that I was, there was like this little voice in me that kept, it was very small that kept saying like, you can do this. And, and I would see, I got to sing with Josh Groban when I was in high school. 8 (50m 9s): They, they, they had hired a gospel choir to sing with him and the gospel choir couldn't do it for some reason. So they called our high school because we were in arts high school in the last minute call. And I remember there was like 10,000 people in the audience and my knees were shaking the whole time. And I was like, Ooh, cause I'm so nervous. But the best part of that was not the performance. It was the soundcheck. And I remember seeing him, you know, and I'm, I mean, Josh Groban is great, but I wasn't like a huge fan of his 6 (50m 41s): Or 8 (50m 42s): Yeah. But he was sitting at the piano, he was just doing a mic check doing, like taking the piano on the monitors. I don't think I had ever seen that. And it tweaked something in me that was like, I want it, I want that. And all, this is a really long way of saying that the more that I was in this world and meeting other musicians and, and getting to feel the safety and encouragement to do my own thing, the more, and then I would look around and I would see other people and I'd be like, I can do this. 8 (51m 29s): I can do that. So there's a part of me that thinks that as absurd as it is, because there's no promises and music, There's a part of me that thinks like the older that I get, the more I think, yeah, I can meet them. There's a way like music is small. And I know that the way that I, it sounds pompous and it's really not, I, I, it's not about being great. It's about, I know that I can communicate in a certain place and that, that place is a place that we all aspire to get to as musicians. 8 (52m 17s): It's like, it's a place of, of, of like listening and communicating and communicating something real that, that connects with people. And I think that place, when we all like get out of our ego out of ourselves is where we should all live and can all communicate. And so I don't think it's that absurd, 6 (52m 45s): Right? No, it makes total sense. I mean, it's not like you just started, right. I mean, you've been working and working and working at this for your whole life. And once you start kind of working your way up the ladder and working with certain people, like, I love what you said. Like, it's not like, you know, I, I can see myself working with certain people just because you have been there and you're doing it and you have more, probably more confidence and more confidence in your playing and your songwriting that you're like, okay. I feel like I could sit in a room with so-and-so and, and, you know, 8 (53m 20s): We could talk 6 (53m 21s): Right talk and I could contribute in a certain way to what they are. And speaking Makes a lot of sense. So tell me about this. Record's coming out in three days, which is huge. And you said there was a live version of it. And then the recorded version and the recorded one has one extra song. Okay. What's the extra one on the, on the album 8 (53m 48s): It's called on and on. And the vibe is a little tricky on that one. And we only had two and a half days of rehearsal for the live record and granted half the band I played with for years, but I hadn't been in Toronto for the last four years. So on and on, it just didn't come together. And I was like, it's okay. Let's just not do it. Let's not, you know, put on a show where we're playing a song and we don't feel great about, that's just what the live record will be. And so that's why, but it's a beautiful recording on the record. 8 (54m 31s): It's so it's really, it's one of my favorite tracks on the record, I think, 6 (54m 36s): Are you doing a tour to support domino or 8 (54m 40s): A little bit? We've got some dates we're putting together for the fall in Europe, and I'm trying to make a west coast states thing happened. And at the end of April, I'm going to go to France in Germany. We're going to do some promo. 6 (54m 57s): That's exciting. Well, thank you so much for doing this, Michelle. I really appreciate your time. This has been awesome. I have one more question. I want to know if you have advice for aspiring artists, 8 (55m 11s): Turn your phone off, just, or turn your wifi off for hours at a time. My friend calls it the time around time, which is a luxury that not everybody gets to have like hours upon hours, but give yourself a few hours just without your phone and spend music. Spend time in music.

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Michelle Willis

Singer, songwriter and keyboard player

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