Over the past few years, music writers have spilled a lot of ink on the resurgence of dance music in mainstream pop music: Flo Rida, Kelis, Black Eyed Peas, Akon and Kid Cudi are just a few of the A-list artists that are whippin’ Top 40 fans into an 808 state with club-ready pop tunes. But before all of those people were household names, Atlanta-based pop vocalist Chris Willis was a big deal in France thanks to his many collaborations with producer David Guetta, which included the dance hits “Love Is Gone”, “Just A Little More Love” and the current hit “Gettin’ Over You”.
Willis is also a seasoned gospel and session singer who’s worked with everyone from Dolly and Dusty to Ricky and RuPaul. This year Willis will try his hand at solo fame with the release of his new single “Louder” (which you can preview below). We caught up with him to chat about the song and what it takes to make it big in the mainstream pop world.
CLICK TO PLAY:
“Louder” by Chris Willis” (snippet)
Read the full interview with Chris Willis after the jump.
You started out as a gospel singer. What’s your favorite gospel song of all time?
It’s probably something from Edwin Hawkins or Tramaine Hawkins. “Goin Up Yonder” is really, really great. This is going back to late ’70s, ‘early 80s.
Are those records nostalgic from your childhood?
I was raised Seventh Day Adventist so the Sabbath is from Friday night o Saturday sunset so it was constant listening to gospel music and a lot of that nostalgia is James Cleveland and Edwin, Walter and Tramaine Hawkins. So listening to those same records every weekend was pretty much my memory of childhood.
To be a gospel singer do you really have to be conscious of the history of the music?
It was important to me, but the irony of it all was the kind of gospel music I was making was not traditional at all. It was very contemporary; infused with a lot of pop and soul, which was also what I was listening to along with gospel. I think in a lot of ways my gospel music wasn’t accepted in the black gospel community. There are two different communities: there’s the Christian community, which mainly caters to non-black people, and then there’s the black gospel community. There are separate radio stations, separate labels and it’s all very separated.
What kind of reactions did you get from the black gospel community?
I got one response from a retailer that said my music was too white, which hurt ⎯ cut me to the core. But you know, at the time most of my audience and most of my support was coming from non-black churches and I worked a lot in the church scene but I never got involved with what is known as the ‘Chitlin’ circuit’ ⎯ all the soul churches, the gospel churches where you’d hear Shirley Caeser and Vanessa Bell Armstrong and the Winans. For some reason my music just didn’t really hit as intensely there as it did in the other markets… I wanted to try something else. I just wasn’t as satisfied with the trajectory that I was or wasn’t experiencing in the gospel marketplace so I left.
When we interviewed Gloria Jones, who sang “Tainted Love”, she told us her advice for aspiring background singers. What do you have to do to be a good background singer?
Part of that craft is developing a bag of tricks as a singer. Over the course of your career, you’re gonna be performing at all kinds of different venues. There are small venues, there are big venues, there’s stages that are really short, there’s stages that are really small. Audiences are really close to you, audiences that area really far away. The best thing a singer can be able to do is develop your technique so that you’re comfortable in any environment, in any situation. If people are shouting at you or screaming at you, you have to be able to focus and perform your song.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve been in that regard?
One of the most unusual experiences that I had was recently in Germany. I’m pretty sure there was a decent number of fans that liked that I was there, but there were several of them that didn’t care that I was there. I was the headliner, I was the invited guest for that night and I clearly heard people shouting ‘white power’ and they were throwing ice at me and it was just really humiliating so I basically just left the stage. That was probably the most difficult thing that’s happened to me. People shout things at me and I just respond. Usually it’s “I love you!” and I say ‘I love you too’ and just find a way to repay that kindness. Being shouted at in a negative and having stuff thrown at me, I don’t really deal with that stuff very well.
What’s it like being a male vocalist in a female diva dance world?
The funny thing about that question is I was born into dance music, birthed into it as accidentally. One day I was a producer for a pop band the next day I had written one of the biggest songs in dance music. I knew nothing about dance music, it wasn’t until two or three years after I’d had success in the marketplace that it was really made known to me that this is normally what female singers do ⎯ that this was a female diva-dominated arena. I didn’t really know that. This was my job, this was the thing I loved doing so I didn’t think about it so much.
When I did start thinking about it I did start noticing there was so few other male singers like me but thankfully the songs have been so successful… I’ve made a really great life for myself as a result of the popularity of the music and the love that has come from the fans. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman or whatever, if you can do the job and do it well and sing great, and love what you do people love it and they will support it.
What influence has David Guetta’s music had on the hip-hop and urban music?
David has always been passionate about merging music styles. When we first started working together, he was merging 80s-esque sonic elements with soul and pop and gospel and R&B, which is what I kind where I’m coming from. It’s the natural progression of things to incorporate hip-hop and I think it’s definitely had an impact in the cross-pollination of those genres and I think we’re only scratching the surface.
Dance uses a lot of the same instruments, a lot of the same sounds and there’s the same idea with sampling and paying homage to borrowed sounds which also happens in the urban world. It’s the same game that’s played in dance music. They’re distant cousins that are having a really nice dance on the charts right now.
What was the vision for your first solo single “Louder” and did you achieve that?
I didn’t want to start off with something so different from the work that I’ve done with David but I did want to bring in some of the newer elements that are happening in music. My favorite thing is playing with lyrics. I like to tell stories and I like to use lyrics to create imagery and this son g I wanted it to be fun. I didn’t want to come out with something so serious and so heavy.
My muse is a good time: when you’re in a club or a party or a concert and people are in the moment and they’re so full of whatever substance they choose that all they can do is jump up and down and scream and shout to escape what’s going on in their life. I definitely wanted to communicate that freedom of expression. All the music I do is an escape from reality. I tend to take myself really seriously but I really want to explore and experiment with not taking myself too seriously.