Michelle Willis talks to folking.com

Michelle Willis
Photograph by Jen Squires

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Michelle Willis has established herself as one of the most effective utility players on the modern scene, having toured and recorded extensively with the likes of Snarky Puppy, Becca Stevens, and the late, great David Crosby to name a few. In April 2022, Willis made a definitive statement with regard to her capacity as a solo performer with the release of her album, Just One Voice.

A highly stylized affair, the album features an array of unique sonic soundscapes which utilize contributions from a host of abundantly talented frequent collaborators in Willis’ inner circle. But make no mistake, the prevalent voice throughout – as the title would suggest – is undoubtedly Willis’ own. The emergence of Just One Voice just over a year ago would unequivocally bring the songwriter’s creative vision front and centre.

Michelle WillisIn the days leading up to the project’s highly anticipated release, Michelle Willis spoke with folking.com about the process of writing, recording, and developing the music heard within. This exchange was documented in an interview which has remained unseen by the public until now.

We’re just a few days out from the release of Just One Voice. How are you feeling?

“The nerves are there, for sure. There’s such an endless mountain of things to make and promote, and a lot of interviews like this. So it’s just been a lot of running around. It’s been a lot more intense than it ever has before that way, for me. When I wrote this album that was the entire state of my life. I was constantly touring in other people’s bands and never really home for longer than 24 hours. It was pretty crazy, so I guess that sort of state of chaos is where a lot of this music came from.”

You stay so busy with so many projects as a supporting player. It’s incredible you were able to find time for the writing, recording, and production of a full record. Did you sit down at some point with intentions of starting a project, or did the songs accumulate over time?

“I find that it was more a process of tension and explosion. I find that looking back now at the periods in my life where I was writing a lot more, it was usually because I had deadlines, while the periods when I was doing other things meant that I was writing a lot slower, sometimes taking months to a year to finish something.

Basically I had been very upset, sort of subconsciously, at myself that I wasn’t doing anything with my own music. Because I had released this record in 2016 and I really wanted to start on that path. Though I was having a wonderful time and learning so much performing with other people like David Crosby and Becca Stevens – David had two different bands that toured and made records, and Becca also had a band that made records – touring alone means that you barely are decent at keeping a schedule or relationship with your friends at home, let alone having that inner focus that involves so much belief and discipline and details and attention.  It’s not just writing the music, it’s saying ‘yeah, this music is worth doing a million times a day’. Because there are so many reasons to not pursue your own art project.

So eventually I was on the road with Crosby and I had played him these two live recordings. One was ‘How Come’, which will come out with the album, and the other was  ‘Just One Voice’. We had these two live versions, and I knew that they were good. Every time I heard it I was like ‘I know this is good and therefore I know I should do something and I just haven’t.’ It’d been four years at that point. It was like 2 in the morning and we were driving on a bus somewhere when I played it for Croz, and he just gave me so much confidence in it. He was like ‘you’ve got to do this’. So I gave myself a deadline.”

How did the sonic aesthetic or the record come about? There are some very rich textures to be heard throughout.

“You’ll notice there’s a lot of outros; these big sort of climax outros. As far as the band goes, this group really was inspired by my friend Justin Stanton, who’s also on the record, and he’s a member of Snarky Puppy. He put together a band with three keyboard players, and each of us would alternate on Minimoog, Rhodes, and Prophet – but I’m not really a Prophet player, so I just alternated between Minimoog and the Rhodes.

We played songs that everyone brought in, and the sound of three keyboard players on top of each other, I loved it so much. So I ended up hiring Christian Almiron, and I’ve been playing with Todd Caldwell just to get together and play – the three of us in a room. It was so magical and everyone just found their place. That, alongside David Cutler on bass – I don’t know anyone who plays bass like him, he’s got the fattest quarter note I’ve ever heard – and Louis Cato – who was like a heartbeat times a thousand – it has this really rich and elastic, living, mistiness that I love. Everyone really loves each other. It’s kind of a bizarre, wonderful thing, and there’s just so much love in that sound, that’s really why this album sounds the way it does. I wanted a lot of that”.

I got the sense of a real push and pull dynamic throughout the album. A track like ‘Liberty’, for example, utilizes those thick vocal stacks which sound almost like a brass section, whereas a tune like ‘Trigger’ is much more minimal. The latter sounds as though it could have been easy to revert to a standard double-time swing which may have cluttered the arrangement. It’s not dissimilar in that way to something like [The Band’s] ‘Up On Cripple Creek’. Despite the overall richness, the songs feel as though they’re really given sufficient room to breathe throughout the album.

“That’s great, I love that you noticed that! We tried to record “Trigger” two times before this and it always ended up sounding like what you just said. I was trying so hard to nail it and I could never figure out how to make it fit right – the element that was off. Actually the version that became the final version of ‘Trigger’ was from a rehearsal recording; really a pre-production recording. We got together to really muscle out the arrangements and it was kind of an intense day.

One of our guys was really having a rough time and it took us a while because of the timing. There’s all these weird, shortened bars. It’s not complicated, it’s more just like, you have to think about it. When we finally got the take, it was like everyone was in. Everyone in the room was just there. The next week we were coming in to lay the actual track down and every take that we did of it was nowhere near the power of that immersion. [Producer] Fab [Dupont] had to fight so much with the drum sound because he recorded the drums, but not nearly with as much detail and specificity with regard to the mics as he would have if he was recording an actual session.”

The world has been in a sort of collectively precarious place over the past couple of years with lockdown and the implementing of various regulations. Were you all able to collaborate for these sessions in the traditional sense or was it more a matter of tracks being sent remotely?

“Most of the instrumental tracks were recorded together. Once 2020 hit, we really only had the final vocals to do. So I tracked a lot of those, actually, here at home.”

You got Michael McDonald on the record. How did that come about and what was that process like?

“Michael was so gracious because he’s just a beautiful, gracious human being. I had written Croz an email and said, ‘would you mind introducing us?’ I have never done that. He is who he is, I have no interest in meeting his famous friends or asking him those kinds of favours.This was a shot in the dark, I just thought Michael would sound so good on this. He was into the idea and it all kind of came together really quickly. The whole day was really magical, and at the end of the day, Fab and I drove back down to LAX. He dropped me off at an airport hotel and we stopped for pizza along the way at some crappy place. I took a video of myself in the hotel and was just thinking, ‘it’s never gonna get better than today.’”

Just One Voice is available for purchase and streaming now.

Cameron Gunnoe

Artist’s website: https://www.michellewillis.ca

‘Trigger’ – live with David Crosby:

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