Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?
Published Thursday, 07-Aug-2008 in issue 1076
Rejoice! Chris Willis – gospel singer-turned-dancehall hitmaker – finally has something to celebrate.
After years of lending his effervescent vocals to some of the world’s most successful acts – including Kelly Clarkson, CeCe Winans, Kenny Rogers and Quincy Jones – the powerhouse, along with his internationally known producing partner French DJ David Guetta, at last has earned a spot among the Billboard elite. In fact, just several weeks after its release, “Love is Gone,” the club banger that’s lifted Willis on high, has peaked on the perennial (and nearly impossible to penetrate) Hot 100, Pop 100 and Top 40 Mainstream charts in addition to becoming YouTube’s most popular video of all time in the electronic music category.
But – divine intervention aside – how did it get there?
In a recent interview, the wide-eyed Willis spills the milk on his storied past, including his pursuit of all things musical, raising God’s roof and how being gay ultimately turned him away, meeting his match in DJ Guetta, why he’ll never be considered a one-hit wonder, processing his success, and the most important lesson he’s learned so far – like how it’s never too late for that one big break.
Gay & Lesbian Times: Although the mainstream public is just learning your name, you’ve been performing professionally for the better part of 20 years. What influenced you to pursue music?
Chris Willis: A couple things. My parents were very musical – my mom played piano and my dad was a musician – so there was always music in our house. But it probably wasn’t until MTV happened that I was like, “Ah, that’s what I want to do.” That was probably my biggest influence.
GLT: As an aspiring artist growing up in Dayton, Ohio, what experiences helped shape who you are today?
CW: I started out in gospel, so we were always in church. I just kind of got involved – the local scene, singing in groups – and my brothers and sisters and I used to sing as a quartet, so we were constantly involved in music. In high school, it was show choir. When I went to college in Alabama I was involved in choirs and groups there; I just kept being involved in music, never really thinking about it as a career until after I finished school. My first job as a singer was out in California with a group that sang in churches, and we did, like, 300 concerts a year for two years. That was the point where I was like, you know what, I can do this for a living.
GLT: So from the beginning, until about 2003 when you came to New York, you were primarily performing gospel music?
CW: Up until about 1998 I was doing mostly gospel. It wasn’t until after ’98 that I signed a deal with a small label. There was this big corporate takeover and they were buying all the small companies and letting go of all the artists that weren’t doing as much. I thought, ya know, I’m gonna embrace this as freedom and pursue a mainstream thing.
GLT: How did your sexuality affect your gospel career?
CW: Very hard. I was very much in the closet and I had all this angst inside. I always felt like God really understood – but that wasn’t the message I was receiving in the church. So, when I moved out on my own I really internalized that message that God makes us who we are and that it’s up to us to embrace that or not. I chose to embrace all those things as freedom, and that freedom begat the freedom I experience now.
GLT: Did being gay have anything to do with you transitioning from gospel to more mainstream music?
CW: Absolutely. I think there’s this unspoken denial that you go through in gospel – maybe so in other musical art forms too – but I just felt for me it just wasn’t easy to keep perpetuating that.
GLT: Would you be able to make it as an out gospel artist today?
CW: I don’t really think about it that much. I just chose to go in another direction – and I’m really grateful that I did.
GLT: All right, so you met DJ David Guetta (pronounced Get-ta) – with whom you share credit on your latest hit “Love is Gone” – in Paris. How did that happen, and when did you start collaborating?
CW: It’s part destiny, accident, serendipity. I was working with a band from France in Miami, just after ’98 when I finished with gospel, and as a consolation prize I got to go to Paris to do some publicity for them for their album that we had finished. One of the guys just happened to know David, and we were in David’s restaurant – David and his wife were running a few restaurants in Paris at the time – and we had a mild introduction. David, at the time, was working on an album and he was looking to do a compilation album with some instrumental tracks and some vocal. I’d been really used to meeting producers, so I sort of brushed it off like, ‘Oh, yeah, another producer.’ But, he invited me to the studio, and said, ‘Hey, let’s just vibe and see what happens.’ Believe it or not, the very next day we wrote “Just a Little More Love.”
GLT: It must be nice then, after 10 years or so, to see things come to fruition.
CW: It’s always been my ambition to have some noise here in America. I’m so glad to see that happen!
GLT: That song – “Love is Gone” – has really taken off here. Can you explain it?
CW: I want more! (Laughs) No, it’s great! I’m so happy that it’s happening, because it’s the culmination of a lot of dreams and hopes after being in Europe for a long time. It’s nice to have some love at home.
GLT: I don’t want to jinx you, but how do you plan to avoid being a one-hit wonder?
CW: Strangely enough, this is the only song that’s a big hit in America, but we’ve actually had four or five songs that were huge hits in Europe already. I don’t really think about it too much. I’m such a “live in the moment” kind of person – the pressure obviously is on to recreate what you’ve done – but I pretend like it didn’t happen and just try to write the best song I can come up with. You know, I do what I love to do. If people love it, great; if they don’t – and it’s a great piece of work that I love and it’s gonna have legs – then it’s gonna do what it’s gonna do anyway.
GLT: What’s been the best part of your journey so far?
CW: The journey is an education. I always want to be in a position to learn something new. I love the travel.
GLT: What have you learned?
CW: Not to take yourself too seriously. Because, you know, it’s music, and I think when you read Billboard – and we were just at Billboard today, and it’s very serious business, a lot of money involved – but if you focus on that, it’s very easy to get frustrated. I really just try to dwindle things down to a matter of fun. If I’m not having fun, I don’t want to be involved. But as long as I’m having a good time and people respond to that – and it’s reflected in my work and my songs – that, I think, is the biggest lesson: Make it fun – have fun!