Singer-songwriter and keyboardist Michelle Willis released her debut album See Us Through in 2016 to much acclaim. Since then, she has toured and recorded with a diverse array of artists including David Crosby, Becca Stevens, the Zac Brown Band, Iggy Pop and Snarky Puppy.
Willis now has a new album called Just One Voice that invites us into a world of doubt, anxiety, hope, balance and letting go.
Willis joined us to talk about her latest work.
You were just touring with Snarky Puppy. How was that?
It was fun. It was very fun. The shows themselves were thrilling. They are now playing for really huge audiences. The last gig we played in Amsterdam was 4,000 people. To have 4,000 people singing along to one of my tunes was great. I love those guys. We’ve been working together for years now. We mapped it out at 14 years ago that we met at The Rex. It feels like old home.
Were you performing songs from your latest album?
Yes. There’s a song called Trigger, and at the end of it I get the crowd to sing, “I hope you wake up real soon.” It’s the best having a roomful of people scream that, and then I yell at them and say they’re not being angry enough, and then they get louder.
Tell me a little bit about Just One Voice. How did it come to be?
It came together not in any sort of succinct package or delivery. It was years of just being alive and writing songs. Two years into me living in New York, I hadn’t recorded any of my songs for a while. I was actually sitting on the bus with [David Crosby] and I played him a couple of demos, and it was just a quick moment like that where I played him these songs and he really encouraged me about them. He was like, “What the hell are you waiting for? Record these songs.” That lit a spark under me. I decided to record 11 songs in studio with my band that I had grown with over the last few years in New York, and then I did the same songs but with my original Toronto band and Croz in front of a live audience. [I decided to] see the difference that came out with each one, to see what felt the most true to the songs. It’s always a battle as a performer to figure out what feels the most real, what feels like the most true version of a song.
It seems like David Crosby has been a mentor to you. When did you meet him?
Definitely. We met in 2015. Snarky Puppy made a record called Family Dinner – Volume 2 and it brought together all of these different artists from all over the world. We were asked to do duets together, and I got to do a duet with Laura Mvula. Croz was there and Becca [Stevens] was there, and that’s how we all met for the first time. It was like music camp, but the best kind of music camp. No one was a jerk, no one was ego tripping. We literally all just sat and watched or took part in rehearsals for 12 to 16 hours a day and ate food. From there, we started the Lighthouse Band, and then Croz started a second band that I got to join. I spent so much time with Croz for four years. I feel like I hung out with him more than most of my friends or family — and he is my friend and family now.
You’ve talked about growing up in the ’90s and catching on to songwriters like Jann Arden, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan, and also your love of the ’70s and ’60s artists like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. What did you glean from all of them as songwriters that you wanted to bring in to your music?
I used to have this piece of paper on my wall where I wrote different names like Joni Mitchell, and I wrote literally that — what I wish to embody, what to take away from what I love about Joni, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway. Aside from her music, Joni was a road warrior. She was also a woman in production at a time where she absolutely knew what she wanted to do, and it seems like she really had to fight to make records sound the way that she did, and also to have ownership of the production. Carole, man, her songs… I don’t even know what it is that I take from Carole King. There were a few years where I basically tried to cover everything from Tapestry. And Joni, too, tons of her records. I lifted so much from those albums. All of those people, the song structure, the harmony, the way that they release in different ways. It’s hard to really say, but everyone has their own voice. And I don’t just mean technically singing. In a spiritual sense, they all have a distinct voice, and that’s probably the number-one thing that I look for and that I try to get close to.
This interview has been edited and condensed.